Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Olympics are over

Today saw the closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, and so today will see the recommendation of one more movie about the Olympics: Chariots of Fire, the Best Picture Oscar winner for 1981.

You probably know the story; Chariots of Fire tells the story of the British track team at the 1924 Paris Olympics; specifically focusing on two of the team's members: Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross), and Eric Liddell (played by Ian Charleson). However, it's much more than a story about running and winning Olympic gold; it's really a story about drive, determination, and moral dilemmas. Abrahams is Jewish in a class-conscious Britain which didn't treat Jews nearly as well as it treated Christians. (There is, however, some debate as to whether the real-life Abrahams suffered as much discrimination as the movie version does.) He runs, apparently, to prove that he's just as good as those Christians who run everything. Eric Liddell, on the other hand, is the son of Scottish missionaries (and was actually born in China). He runs not only for glory of Scotland, but to serve God as well. Both athletes eventually qualify for the Olympics. However, there's a conflict for Liddell in that the heats in his event are scheduled for a Sunday, and as a devout Christian, he refuses to run on Sunday. He's even so devout that he's willing to turn down the exhortations of the Prince of Wales to run for the glory of Britain. (This section is one of the parts of the movie that is not entirely factual; the real-life Liddell was always scheduled to run in the 400-meter race he ends up running in the movie.) I won't give away the ending, except to say that you can find out the results of the 1924 Olympics in any good reference book such as an almanac or encyclopedia.

Chariots of Fire has gotten a knock in its reputation in the quarter-century since it was released; one which in my opinion is unfair. A large part of the reason for this is probably due to the fact that certain sections of Chariots of Fire are eminently parodiable; one particular sequence involves the British team training by running along the beach, a scene iconic enough to make the movie poster, DVD cover, and the cover to Vangelis' single of the theme music (the song reached #1 on the US pop charts). The synthesizer-based theme, with its memorable opening strains, is probably another reason why the movie has come in for so much parody. The music by itself doesn't particularly evoke the idea of running, but because it was the theme to the movie, it has since become almost instantly recognizable and iconic. There's also the filming of the actual Olympic races, which don't seem to be in real time, allowing us to focus on the facial expressions of the athletes as they're running, much in the same way we see the skin of anybody subject to high g-forces being pushed back.

However, Chariots of Fire really does deserve its place in the pantheon of great movies. It's an outstanding movie not only about sports and the Olympics, but about two individuals with burning passions. It's also one of the movies that made the idea of historical movies set in the Britain of the first third of the 20th century -- after the death of Queen Victoria and before the beginning of World War II -- commercially viable, and probably helped pave the way for all those Merchant/Ivory films and even the lush adaptations of British novels from earlier eras. Chariots of Fire has a much more accurate look to it than all the historical movies made on the Hollywood studio backlots and soundstages decades before. Happily, Chariots of Fire is available on DVD for you to watch whenever you wish.

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