CHARIOTS OF FIRE (Hugh Hudson, 1981)

Hugh Hudson’s somewhat condescendingly-classist anti-condescendingly classist, sentimental recollection of British glory in the 1924 Summer Olympics won the best picture Oscar on March 29, 1982, a few days before Margaret Thatcher militarily launched the Falkland Islands “dispute” against Argentina, which swelled her popularity at home, greasing her path to re-election as prime minister. How much did Hudson’s nostalgic film and its great success stroke Britain’s hankering for past glory of empire?
     This stirring piece of popular entertainment is framed by the 1978 funeral service for Harold Abrahams. After winning the 100-meter race, Abrahams became a barrister, broadcaster, statesman. Written by Colin Welland, Hudson’s account flashes back to events leading up to the Olympics in Paris.
     There are joint protagonists. The other is Eric Liddell, a Scot who gives up rugby to train as a sprinter. He also postpones his work as a Chinese missionary. Liddell placed first in the 400-meter race. “I believe that God made me for a purpose,” he tells his sister, “but He also made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.” Liddell was killed in China at the end of World War II, and “all of Scotland mourned.”
     Unlike mediocre sports movies, this one delves into the motivation spurring athletic commitment and accomplishment. The son of a Lithuanian Jew, Abrahams, Gatsby-like, pursues social acceptance; less convincingly, he is “running away” from being Jewish. Liddell honors God. The film invents Liddell’s refusal to race on the Sabbath out of religious conviction.
     Employing synthesizer and delicate piano, Vangelis’s music haunts. Rather than generating artificial suspense, (overused) slow motion during races expresses the athletes’ wrenching effort.
     But the towering thing about Chariots of Fire is Ian Charleson’s deeply affecting portrait of Eric Liddell—and the movie’s sense of fleeting time.

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