The Best Picture Project – Chariots of Fire (1981)

Directed by Hugh Hudson

Screenplay by Colin Welland

Starring Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Ian Holm, Alice Krige

After I watched Chariots of Fire I didn’t know how to approach it for this project.  Should I trash it?  Should I love it?  Should I go sideways and talk about some aspect of the movie that leads me down another path onto another topic and ignore the movie altogether, which seems to be exactly what I’m doing now?  Even as I’m writing this, I’m still not quite sure how to approach it.

Trashing it won’t work, because Chariots of Fire is not a trashable movie.  It’s pleasant enough and relatively non-offensive.  It’s story of two United Kingdom-ers in the 1920’s – I say they’re from the UK instead of Britain because one is actually from Scotland and I’ve never met a Scot who liked to be lumped with the Brits – who are driven to Olympic glory for religious, albeit different reasons, it’s charming enough.  The performances are low-key and appropriate and the direction is competent, even if vaguely uninspired.

Loving it won’t work either, because it’s far too predictable and staid and not exactly the kind of movie one get’s passionate about.  Unless of course you’re Jewish and tired of anti-semitism and want to use the triumph of Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) as your hero.  Or you’re some sort of super-Christian who thinks there isn’t enough emphasis placed on praising God and respecting the Sabbath in your everyday life, like Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson).

As much as I’d love to rant or rave, I just can’t and too often this is the case with the Best Picture winner: a lack of passion.  Every year it seems that films with a passionate – read: small – following get nominated and wind up losing out to a middle-of-the-road heart-warmer.  Sure, there will be an isolated few years, here and there, where something dark or daring takes off with the top prize – Slumdog Millionaire, American Beauty, etc. – but on the whole those films usually come second best to the likes of The King’s Speech or Chariots of Fire.  Because they fail at being non-offensive, and don’t always work to pluck the heart-strings, they will be overlooked on Oscar night, even if seventy years later people will forget the film that actually won and instead ask, “Can you believe Citizen Kane did not win Best Picture?”

The win for Chariots of Fire seems like it should have been an upset at the time, but in hindsight, it’s less an upset than thought.  The main competition for the big prize was surely between Chariots of Fire and Reds, Warren Beatty’s big, leftist epic about communism and the Russian revolution – it must have been a serious contender, see Beatty’s Best Director Oscar.
Reds was a big, ambitious, film, much in the mold of Lawrence of Arabia before it, or The Last Emperor after it, and given that Beatty was universally loved and his Picture was actually damn good and you’d think it was as likely to win Best Picture as Chariots of Fire.

Except, if the goal was to win Best Picture, Beatty’s film made a huge, tactical error.  The Academy likes its films relatively non-offensive, especially the political ones.  The King’s Speech is at its heart a political film, yet it only addresses issues relating to the great war, and nothing else – in other words, it was political about a righteous cause and therefore, is non-offensive to those on the left and the right.  The same can be said for the previous winner, The Hurt Locker.  By leaving the war in Iraq as basically an addiction story and not as a political one, it ran off with the top prize.  Reds politics, though, were solidly to the left, solidly on display, and completely offensive to any right wing Academy voters.

All of this discussion about the two films, though, is basically moot because I wouldn’t consider either the Best Picture of 1981.  Reds is good, long but good, and Chariots of Fire is good as well, although a bit shallow, with characters reduced to a single motivation, but the film that really lasts from 1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Sure, they killed the franchise with two of
the three sequels being terrible, but I can’t help but wonder if they would have even made sequels to it if it won Best Picture.


The “Don’t Stop Me Now, I’m On A Roll Award,” in this post goes to actor Ian Charleson, who played the Scot, Eric Liddell.  After starring in Chariots of Fire in 1981, which won Best Picture, he took a co-starring role in Gandhi, the Best Picture winner of 1982.  The only other actors I’ve been able to rememember managing that double were Walter Pidgeon, star of How Green Was My Valley, Best Picture 1941, and Mrs. Miniver, Best Picture 1942, and Guy Pearce, co-star of The Hurt
, 2009, and The King’s Speech, 2010.

Click here to see those already seen and to get a list of those left to see.

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