Chariots of Fire (1981)

TOMATOMETER

AUDIENCE SCORE

Critic Consensus: 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.


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 … More

Rating: PG (adult situations/language)
Genre: Drama, Art House & International, Sports & Fitness
Directed By:
Written By: Colin Welland
In Theaters:
On DVD: Aug 27, 1997
Runtime:
20th Century Fox

Cast


as Harold Abrahams

as Eric Liddell

as Lord Andrew Lindsay

as Sam Mussabini

as Master of Trinity

as Jennie Liddell

as Sybil Gordon

as Jackson Scholz

as Aubrey Montague

as Master of Caius

as Charles Paddock

as Lord Cadogan

as Duke of Sutherland

as Sandy McGrath

as Prince of Wales

as George Andre

as Henry Stallard

as President, Gilbert ...

as President, Cambridg...

as Secretary, Gilbert ...

as Head Porter, Caius ...

as Rev J.D. Liddell

as Rob Liddell

as Mrs. Liddell

as Sleeping Car Attenda...

as Col. Keddie

as Savoy Head Waiter

as American Coach

as Fitch

as Harbormaster

as Caius Porter

as Caius Manservant

as Reporter

as Sybil's Maid

as Highland Provost

as Jimmie

as Ernest Liddell

as Schoolgirl

as Bunty

as Scots Boy

as Scots Boy

as Linda Wallis

as Doreen Sloane

as Steven Ambrose

as Peter Jones

as Phil Tait

as Minor Role

as Alan Lorimer

as Minor Role

as Minor Role

as Paul Mahoney

as Linda Boyland

as Garth Jones

as Minor Role

as Lord Birkenhead
Show More Cast

News & Interviews for Chariots of Fire

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Critic Reviews for Chariots of Fire

All Critics (63) | Top Critics (11)

Despite its bombastic tendencies, Chariots has a healthy glow that's charming.

Full Review… | August 4, 2015
Washington Post
Top Critic

Oddly, for a film about triumph over adversity, there's nothing as uplifting as the opening and closing jogs along a windswept beach.

Full Review… | February 21, 2015
Time Out
Top Critic

A movie that, with the help of Vangelis Papathanassiou's wonderfully stirring music, lifts the spirits to a new high.

Full Review… | February 17, 2015
New York Daily News
Top Critic

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

Full Review… | February 6, 2013
Chicago Tribune
Top Critic

It is an affirmation of clouded and second-hand values -- and, as a result, it becomes vulgar.

Full Review… | August 4, 2015
The Spectator

The film is not just about the race between Abrahams, the Jewish law student (Ben Cross), and Scottish missionary Eric Liddell (the late Ian Charleson). It's a character study and a social history too.

Full Review… | February 21, 2015
This is London

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.

Bathsheba Monk
Bathsheba Monk

Super Reviewer

½

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.

Daniel Mumby
Daniel Mumby

Super Reviewer

½

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.

cosmo313
Chris Weber

Super Reviewer

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