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Chariots of Fire (1981)



Average Rating: 7.6/10
Reviews Counted: 57
Fresh: 48 | Rotten: 9

Decidedly slower and less limber than the Olympic runners at the center of its story, the film nevertheless manages to make effectively stirring use of its spiritual and patriotic themes.


Average Rating: 6.6/10
Critic Reviews: 8
Fresh: 6 | Rotten: 2

Decidedly slower and less limber than the Olympic runners at the center of its story, the film nevertheless manages to make effectively stirring use of its spiritual and patriotic themes.



liked it
Average Rating: 3.6/5
User Ratings: 36,433

My Rating

Movie Info

Based on a true story, Chariots of Fire is the internationally acclaimed Oscar-winning drama of two very different men who compete as runners in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a serious Christian Scotsman, believes that he has to succeed as a testament to his undying religious faith. Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), is a Jewish Englishman who wants desperately to be accepted and prove to the world that Jews are not inferior. The film crosscuts between each man's life as he

Aug 27, 1997

20th Century Fox

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All Critics (57) | Top Critics (8) | Fresh (48) | Rotten (9) | DVD (21)

Although it is extremely well made, I frankly don't understand what the shouting is about. Good, yes; great, no.

February 6, 2013 Full Review Source: Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Top Critic IconTop Critic

Like every element in this picture, the actors look right; they seem to emerge from the past, instead of being pasted on to it, as so many characters in historical movies seem to be.

August 1, 2008 Full Review Source: TIME Magazine
TIME Magazine
Top Critic IconTop Critic

No imbalance mars the pic, whose cross-the-board achievement lifts it to an impressive level of unified accomplishment.

March 26, 2007 Full Review Source: Variety
Top Critic IconTop Critic

The battered Britons may have some excuse for enjoying this nostalgic re-creation of empire ideology, but what's ours?

December 17, 2006 Full Review Source: Chicago Reader
Chicago Reader
Top Critic IconTop Critic

Really this is an overblown piece of self-congratulatory emotional manipulation perfectly suited for Thatcherite liberals.

February 9, 2006 Full Review Source: Time Out | Comment (1)
Time Out
Top Critic IconTop Critic

This is strange. I have no interest in running and am not a partisan in the British class system. Then why should I have been so deeply moved by Chariots of Fire?

October 23, 2004 Full Review Source: Chicago Sun-Times | Comment (1)
Chicago Sun-Times
Top Critic IconTop Critic

This 31-year-old Oscar winning true-life drama climaxing at the 1924 games proved a winner all the way. And it still is.

February 25, 2014 Full Review Source: Daily Star
Daily Star

Vigorous but rather scattered.

February 25, 2014 Full Review Source: Christian Science Monitor
Christian Science Monitor

Chariots is a film for the ages.

January 10, 2014 Full Review Source: Empire Magazine
Empire Magazine

Sir John Gielgud and Patrick Magee head up -- but don't show up -- director Hugh Hudson's excellent cast of mostly unknown British actors. The cinematography, too, is splendid.

January 10, 2014 Full Review Source: People Magazine
People Magazine

Granted, this is a British film and so you expect a restrained, understated reaction from the runners, but it's this decided lack of fun that makes the movie drag so much.

February 22, 2013 Full Review Source: Three Movie Buffs
Three Movie Buffs

What fails as drama are the races themselves, shot front-on so that we don't know who's winning until the tape is breasted, but Hugh Hudson's decision to use slow motion and David Watkin's beautiful lighting lend them a proper heroic burnish.

February 22, 2013 Full Review Source: Independent

It's an uncomfortable reminder of how the memory can cheat and the Academy Awards can favor nostalgic sentimentalism over strong storytelling.

February 22, 2013 Full Review Source: Digital Spy
Digital Spy

Is it possible to run in slow motion and not hear Vangelis? This is the signature of all great films, a classic scene forever imprinted in your imagination.

July 26, 2012 Full Review Source: UTV

As world events have proved time and again, this is a timeless story, rooted in an era long before anyone had thought of Spandex or terrorist attacks.

July 19, 2012 Full Review Source: Birmingham Post
Birmingham Post

Vangelis was the secret weapon that Riefenstahl didn't have.

July 15, 2012 Full Review Source: The Ooh Tray
The Ooh Tray

The cast is impeccable from top to bottom, and the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat reliably go for the gut. [Blu-ray]

July 13, 2012 Full Review Source: Groucho Reviews
Groucho Reviews

Unfairly dismissed by some as an empty exercise in cheap schmaltz, this has an old-fashioned innocence that celebrates the human spirit with a lot of careful detail.

July 13, 2012 Full Review Source: Radio Times
Radio Times

Even after 31 years, Chariots of Fire doesn't simply impress; it inspires.

July 13, 2012 Full Review Source: Daily Telegraph
Daily Telegraph

To be clear, there's no way -- no way -- this should have won the Best Picture Oscar over Warren Beatty's magnificent Reds, but it's a far better movie than its detractors claim.

July 13, 2012 Full Review Source: Creative Loafing
Creative Loafing

In my opinion it stands on the podium of sporting movies just below Raging Bull.

July 12, 2012 Full Review Source: Sun Online
Sun Online

The reason it succeeds with audiences around the world is that it's a stirring tale about inspiring people.

July 12, 2012 Full Review Source: Daily Mail [UK]
Daily Mail [UK]

A bold, intelligent, romantic film with all the lineaments of a classic, and a score by Vangelis as instantly hummable as the music for Jaws.

July 12, 2012 Full Review Source: Guardian

An odd, malformed antique that still manages to retain a certain surface-level charm.

July 12, 2012 Full Review Source: Little White Lies
Little White Lies

Enhanced considerably by Vangelis's stirring score - has a film ever owed so much to its music? - the picture also works as a poignant paen to youthful hopes and the passing of time.

July 11, 2012 Full Review Source: Daily Express
Daily Express

Audience Reviews for Chariots of Fire

Okay, so I'm superficial, but the CLOTHES in this movie are breathtaking! As are all the vehicles--cars with wood paneling, sleeper cars in trains with same paneling and little servants who bring tea to that same sleeper car to wake you. It made me long for a world I've experienced only on PBS mini-series and made me long to dress like they do in this movie although I would probably be considered mad. Several social points I thought were brilliantly conveyed: the idea of immigrant as striver; the idea that aristocracy actually loathes outstanding achievement (the gentleman's C--see George W. Bush and all the Kennedys' report cards from Harvard and Yale); and the notion of sports--in this case field and track--as a physical way to prove something about your character, which must be why people get so upset when professional athletes do something that mars that character like take PEDs or give in to carnal urges. One particularly telling moment about class: the Prince of Wales invites the American runner (who is obviously of his class) to lunch at his club, but tells Abrahamson to "do your best, that's all anyone can expect." I found it actually chilling.
November 7, 2012
Bathsheba Monk
Bathsheba Monk

Super Reviewer

The story chronicles two runner who are competing against one another in the Olympics, despite their similar backgrounds. One is an English Jew, fighting against the prejudice he has been harshly subjected to; the other, a devout Christian from Scotland who believes in supporting his beliefs with sports. Now this is based on a true story to which it stays quite faithful. Costumes are immaculately designed by Milena Canonero, and we get the pitch-perfect bleakness of early twentieth century Europe. Unfortunately, Greek composer Vangelis's score makes the film seem incredibly '80s, and the feeling is lost. His score is hit-and-miss, with the more successful side acting out during the utterly breathtaking sequences of competition.

read it all at
September 25, 2012

Super Reviewer

The UK re-release of Chariots of Fire to coincide with the London Olympics gives us a golden opportunity to re-examine the film which revitalised the British film industry. Long after writer Colin Welland's fateful cry of "The British are coming!" at the Oscars, the film still stands as one of the defining moments in 1980s cinema, for better or worse. Neither the disappointment of Hugh Hudson's subsequent career, nor the seemingly endless stream of parodies and imitations, has tarnished what remains a truly great piece of British filmmaking.

For those of us not caught up in the patriotic fervour of the Olympics, it would be tempting to dismiss Chariots of Fire as an outdated, backward piece of filmmaking. Lindsay Anderson, who has a supporting role in the film, was very scathing about the seeming resurgence of British filmmaking following its Oscar success. The pioneer of Free Cinema and the British New Wave claimed that, in their quest for international success, British films had abandoned the unique style and adventurous spirit that they had in the past. He remarked that "the British came, but their first-class air fares were paid for in dollars."

In spite of Anderson's comments, which carry more than a grain of truth, it is very difficult to come out of Chariots of Fire without having had one's spirits even slightly raised. While the tone of Hudson's film is light and respectful, not to say uplifting, it scores over many subsequent epics on the grounds that it actually has something to say. It even knocks Gandhi into a cocked hat by giving us characters to admire without holding them at arms' length. It wants us to understand the history through the pleasures and pains of the people who made it, not by remonstrating about the reputations they accrued.

David Puttnam once described Chariots of Fire as being essentially about "Christianity and Judaism, getting on". He wanted to make a film about the relationship between the Abrahamic faiths, at a time when anti-Semitism was as rife in British culture as Christianity was strong. The film depicts these anti-Semitic tendencies very delicately, with a series of barbed off-hand comments about Harold Abrahams "not going to be singing in the church choir" or being "semi-deprived" because of his background. But Hudson is also careful not to labour the point, playing on the absurdity of his predicament in the restaurant scene, where Sybil accidentally orders two plates of pigs' trotters.

The film shows a great amount of reverence for the respective faiths of the central characters. While it doesn't ask the kind of deep, difficult spiritual questions that something like Shadowlands does, nor does it shy away from demonstrating the problems that come from such devotion, whether it be Eric's quarrels with Jennie about missionary work or his refusal to run on the Sabbath. In an age where religious belief is dismissed as always being irrational, idiotic or rooted in hatred, it is refreshing to see a depiction of religious belief (be it Christian, Jewish or otherwise) which recognises the good intentions of the people upholding those beliefs and the positive impact which they can have on one's character and works.

Alongside its examination of the practical workings of faith, Chariots of Fire also tackles the issue of sportsmanship and the reasons why people may represent their country, whether in the track and field or on the battlefield. Both Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams have multiple motivations which lead them to run for Britain. Neither of them are doing it explicitly for their country, as shown by Liddell's resistance to the Prince of Wales about running on the Sabbath or Abrahams' personal obsession with beating Liddell. While Abrahams' relationship with God is rather ambiguous, Liddell runs because that is God's purpose for him at this point in time. The affections of women also play a role, with Liddell looking to reconcile with his sister Jennie and Abrahams vying for the affections of Sybil.

For a film which appears so reverential and respectful towards British institutions, Chariots of Fire does tap into the erosion of old values by new ideas that emerged after the First World War. In one of its best scenes, Abrahams is confronted by the Masters of Gonville and Caius about him employing a professional athletics coach in the shape of Sam Mussabini. They claim that it is against the amateur spirit of athletics in general and the Olympics in particular, accusing Abrahams of compromising himself and bringing their colleges into disrepute.

Abrahams, by contrast, sees the Masters' conception of sportsmanship as an outdated relic. The ruthlessness he exhibits in his preparation foreshadows the determination of the athletes we recognise today, indicating the kind of selfless spirit which has become diluted and eroded as more of Abrahams' archetypes have passed through all forms of sport. Certainly the 1924 Olympics as depicted in the film bear very little resemblance to the modern-day Games; you won't find athletes in 2012 using trowels to dig out their starting marks, or passing each other notes of encouragement.

Chariots of Fire may be British with a capital 'b', but it doesn't fall into the obvious traps that would hamper later export-driven efforts from the likes of Merchant Ivory. The aesthetic of 1920s Britain is very well-evoked, and it takes a while to adjust to all the social niceties of post-war England; to paraphrase Mark Kermode's comment about The Shawshank Redemption, there's a whole lot of chariots before you get to the fire. But once you are in the zone the characters cease to feel like stereotypes of British culture, and for all its painterly cinematography the film has enough pace to sustain itself beyond its beautiful landscapes.

Perhaps the most famous aspect of Chariots of Fire is the soundtrack by Greek composer Vangelis, who would later provide the soundtrack for Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and 1492. Puttnam, who worked with him on Midnight Express, intended to use electronic music as a counterpoint to the traditional songs of the period, setting Abrahams' performance in HMS Pinafore against the synth-driven montage of Liddell running over the Scottish hills. For the famous opening scene on the beach, Hudson originally wanted to use 'L'Enfant', which Vangelis had recorded for one of Hudson's documentaries. Vangelis bet the director that he could come up with something better, and the rest is history.

The brilliant soundtrack, coupled with the now-synonymous use of slow-motion, hints at the real power and purpose behind Chariots of Fire. Above and beyond its themes of patriotism, spirituality, duty and devotion, it is a film which seeks to inspire and incite fervour, whether it be pride in one's country, admiration for these men or awe at the kinds of sacrifices they made. Hudson depicts the characters so believably and naturalistically that you would need a heart of stone not to be won over by them. Even those of us who aren't ardent patriots can enjoy it without feeling guilty; the film is celebrating the individuals who represented Britain, rather than the act of representation itself.

The performances in Chariots of Fire are of a very high standard. Ben Cross brings real depth to Harold Abrahams, which makes it all the more disappointing that his subsequent career has brought him so relatively little recognition. The late and much-lamented Ian Charleson is superb as Eric Liddell, inhabiting the character to the point of writing much of his own dialogue (for instance, his speech to the athletics crowd gathered in the rain). There is also good support from Lindsay Anderson and Sir John Gielgud as the masters of Gonville and Caius. While Gielgud is happy playing to type, Anderson retains a wry awkwardness, perhaps imagining the fate of future dons in his brilliant satire If.... from twelve years before.

Chariots of Fire is a great film which is more than deserving of a re-release this summer. Its gentle pacing and stiff-upper-lip may prove impenetrable to some, and the legacy it has left behind for British filmmaking has not been one of unmitigated benefit. But to judge it on its own terms, outside of these Olympics or any other, it is a triumph of British cinema, with emotional depth and intelligence to spare. It demands to be seen by anyone with an interest in British film, and now is the perfect time to do so.
May 13, 2012
Daniel Mumby
Daniel Mumby

Super Reviewer

This is an elegantly low-key fact-based period drama centered around two runners competing for Great Britain during the 1924 Olympics in Paris, One of them, Eric Liddell, is a devout Scottish Christian who feels that he is running for the glory of God. The other, Harold Abrahams, is an English Jew who runs as a way of trying to overcome prejudice. It is a sports movie, and it is inspiring, but it's not really about the sports.

Instead, this is a movie where the sports are the backdrop and it's really a film about dedication, determination, and faith. Prejudice is also a very strong underlying subtext. This movie takes these issues seriously, but it also manages to be entertaining and not just a "heavy" film. It's got a few trappings of the sports movie genre such as montages and slo-mo, but they never truly stick out or get in the way. This is about the characters and themes more than anything.

The pacing is far from breakneck, but I never felt that the film was too sluggish or boring. The deliberate pacing allows for the characters and themes to be well developed. You really feel like you get to know these people and care about them and their respective beliefs.

Probably the most notable thing about this movie is the music. I kind of feel like people are more familiar with this film's music, especially the stirring theme song than the actual movie itself. That's a bit of a shame, but at least that means this film made some sort of cultural impact. Vangelis did a good job here, and it is surprising how well his contemporary synth-based music works with the period setting.

Give this movie a shot. It is an old fashioned and very British film, but it has some really good performances, memorable music, and actually tries to say something meaningful.
October 4, 2011
Chris Weber

Super Reviewer

Movies Like Chariots of Fire

    1. Harold Abrahams: If I can't win, I won't run!
    2. Sybil Gordon: If you won't run, you can't win.
    – Submitted by Roberto P (2 years ago)
    1. Eric Liddell: Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.
    – Submitted by Nusfish K (2 years ago)
    1. Eric Liddell: I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.
    – Submitted by Chad E (3 years ago)
    1. Rev J.D. Liddell: You can glorify God by peeling a potato if you peel it to perfection.
    – Submitted by Chad E (3 years ago)
    1. Harold Abrahams: Aubrey, I've known the fear of losing but now I am almost too frightened to win.
    – Submitted by Roberto P (3 years ago)
View all quotes (5)

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Foreign Titles

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  • Les Chariots de feu (FR)
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