Studio Canal and Lionsgate have released director John Irvin's Champions, from 1984, a rather unfortunate bio-pic of jockey Bob Champion starring John Hurt, Edward Woodward and Ben Johnson. Clumsily directed by the usually proficient technician Irvin, the screenplay never delves below the surface of the melodrama, choosing to give a sketchy "Facts on File" recounting of Champion's cancer ordeal, rather than any serious exploration of Champion the man.
In 1979, Bob Champion, one of the top jockeys in England, was diagnosed with cancer. Undergoing a grueling course of chemotherapy, Champion eventually beat the disease, and came back to racing, even though his health had been permanently compromised by the chemo treatment. One of his favorite horses, Aldaniti, a steeplechaser, was seriously injured during Champion's illness, and was almost put down. But he as well came back, and, with Champion as his jockey, went on to win England's grueling Grand National in 1981, that country's most prestigious racing event.
It's not difficult to see that the producers of Champions were hoping to strike an international hit in the same mold as 1981's Chariots of Fire. Both set in England, based on true sports stories, both had the same kind of inspirational message about individuals overcoming obstacles through sport and through personal fortitude that make excellent melodramas. Even surface similarities exist, with Champions inserting every ten minutes or so a slow-mo shot of Aldaniti powerfully sprinting across seas of green English grass to the accompaniment of Carl Davis's swelling, swollen score, not at all unlike Chariots of Fire's celebrated (and much lampooned) beach running scenes. Everything in Champions is calculated to jerk tears, and to create an "important" picture.
Unfortunately, screenwriter Evan Jones (Funeral in Berlin, Modesty Blaise) fails to tell us one single thing about Bob Champion the man; we're never told why Bob's story is important enough to be told on the screen. Of course, his bout with cancer and his determination to beat it, as well as his spectacular comeback to win the Grand National, are worthy subjects for a film, but too often, the film treats those signposts as reason enough for our concern; depth of characterization is not attempted. We're shown the debilitating effects of the chemotherapy; we're shown Champion's battle to get his strength and confidence back; and we're shown Champion racing, but at no time are we shown who Bob Champion is, or why his story is valid as a screen bio. Champions is a clinical examination of the effects of Champion's illness, but it's hardly illuminating, nor is it particularly inspirational, either. We're expected to dutifully tear up when Carl Davis' calculated score wells up on the soundtrack, or when Aldaniti is shown gracefully running around the English countryside, or when John Hurt looks confused or sick or downtrodden, but the film never earns that right of expectation. It's all surface show, with no real complexity.
Hurt in particular is totally wasted here. All director Irvin asks of him is to suffer nobly while various stages of makeup are applied to show the aftereffects of chemotherapy. The mechanics of his illness are manifest, but again, with no interior illumination, all of Hurt's efforts amount to surface show. Champion, as enacted by Hurt, doesn't even come off as particularly likeable. It's not that he's mean to anyone in the film, it's just that he comes off as such a cipher that ultimately, we don't particularly care one way or the other if he succeeds in winning the National. Of course, the film trades in on the fact that this is a true story, so we're expected to feel these things, regardless of whether or not they're presented up on the screen. But so many aspects of Champions are flubbed, that even the most tender-hearted viewer is eventually going to give up and say to hell with the whole mess. Why do the filmmakers make a big deal about Aldaniti tearing his tendon loose, setting up a sense of duality with Champions' plight, only to immediately drop that whole subplot? First he's injured, and the next thing you know, he's okay. What happened? After all, the movie is called Champions, plural. Why is the Kirstie Alley character, an amorous American vet who has a brief, unexplained affair with Champion, included here? She merely serves as the person to first spot Champion's illness, and then she's gone, only to come back for one brief scene where she acts jealous of Bob's new English girlfriend, Jo (Jan Francis). Why is she jealous? We haven't seen her for over half an hour; she never even visited Champion in the hospital. They're still lovers? Friends? Who knows? And what's the purpose of the Ben Johnson character, Burly Cocks? He pops in and out when Champion needs a hand, but the time line seems off for his scenes; we see him offering Champion a race, and then he's gone. Did Champion ride that race, or is the next scene in England his first comeback? Nobody knows.
Worse is the normally talented Irvin's insistence on ruining certainly the best scene in the film: the Grand National finale, where spectacular slow-motion shots of horses crashing into hedgerows are botched in the editing. What looks to be one of the greatest examples of a horse race caught on film, with harrowing shots of horses crashing into water-filled ditches and riders being slammed into the ground, is absolutely ruined by cross-cutting in tedious, anonymous shots of various groups cheering on Bob. Just when Irvin lets the energy of the sequence grow, everything comes to a screeching halt while we watch Bob's family watch the race on a little TV. Then we have to get into the race again, only to have it stop once more as we watch all the cancer patients in the hospital cheer on Bob as they watch the race on a little TV. And on and on it goes, back and forth between the race that we care about and the other people we don't, destroying what could have been a truly astonishing sequence. We know everybody wants to cheer Bob on; how about letting us do that by watching the race in its entirety? It's obvious that action director Irvin (The Dogs of War, Raw Deal) saw this sequence as the highlight of the movie; the individual shots are wonderfully varied, with great depth of focus shots from unusual angles, all beautifully composed. Too bad the overall effect was ruined in the editing room. And too bad for Champions as a whole that surface melodrama was chosen over characterization and exploration.
The widescreen, enhanced for 16x9 TVs, 1.85 video transfer for Champions is at times dark and muddy, with dirt and damage to the print that was used. It's a rather soft image, too.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo track is fine, but the racing scenes could have had so much more impact in 5.1. Spanish subtitles, and English close-captioning are available.
There are no extras for Champions.
All surface melodrama with no insight, the clinical, sterile Champions fails to inspire. John Hurt suffers to little avail, and the one aspect of the film that might have made you forget the high-school dramatics -- the punishing, grueling Grand National race finale -- is ruined in the editing. Get the autobiography that Bob Champion wrote (on which this film is based), and skip Champions.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.