From the opening notes of Vangellis’ much parodied theme, there can be no doubt that you are watching Chariots of Fire. The fact that the film is book-ended by the same sweeping scene of the protagonists raining on the beachfront provide what is the best moment of the entire film as everything else in between is as dry as sandpaper. Released in 1981 Chariots of Fire rode the wave of liberal sentiment under Thatcherism all the way to an astounding and thoroughly undeserved Best Film Oscar win at the 54th Academy Awards.
Set against the backdrop of the build up to the 1928 Paris Olympic Games, all the constituent elements of a solid period drama are there. There’s a Jewish character, Abrahams (Ben Cross) attempting to prove himself in the face of adversity from University Deans (including John Gielgud). His main opponent, a man who can channel God when he runs, Christian sprinter Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) as well as host of at the time unheard of British actors.
On July 13th 2012 Chariots Fire was re-released as part of the UK’s build toward the London Olympics. Sadly three decades of time have not been kind to the film and it feels dated and decidedly underwhelming in terms of style and presentation. The use of the synth-heavy Vangellis’ Chariots of Fire theme, which at the time was considered revolutionary, now seems misplaced and draws the audience out of the narrative. Sadly it is also the most memorable part of the film and will no doubt outlast the actual film itself.
The performances are routinely good, although some of the dialogue, especially those given to Charleson become nothing more than tedious sermons, devoid of any feeling. Much like Gielgud’s Dean, dressing up his antisemitism in rich language, the protagonists insist upon waxing lyrical about their God’s, their King and country. It’s an obvious attempt to evoke pro-nationalist sentiment, which leads to Chariots of Fire becoming a rather dull and fractious film with little to recommend it outside of the opening and closing scenes.