Starring: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Ian Holm, Alice Kirge, Cheryl Campbell, Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Havers
Rated PG (probably for Brief Language and Thematic Material)
Everyone knows the theme for this movie. It's as iconic for a sports movie as "Eye of the Tiger" from "Rocky." Not bad for a composer who can't read music. Obviously, trying to type out the rhythm wouldn't do you any good if you don't know it, but you will when you hear it. Thank God for YouTube.
Surprisingly, the film isn't dwarfed by its memorable music. Like the best musical scores, it enhances the material rather than stealing the spotlight. The characters are sympathetic and well-acted, and the themes of determination, sportsmanship and perseverance are well-conveyed. In fact, the performances are so strong that they more than make up for some fairly serious problems.
"Chariots of Fire" is about a group of young Brits competing in the Olympics for running. Unlike most sports movies of this sort, they aren't underdogs. These are some of Britain's most privileged students, but they also have talent. At the forefront are Harold Abrahams (Cross), a young Jewish man trying to overcome the stigma of anti-Semitism and Eric Liddell (Charleson), a devout Christian who runs to glorify God. However, while they are all competitive, there are no villains or backstabbers. They want to win, but only fair and square.
The strength of the two central characters, Harold and Eric, in writing and acting, is enough to smooth over some considerable flaws. Ben Cross and Ian Charleson are absolutely incredible and deserved, but did not get, Oscar nominations (the only nod for acting was for Ian Holm, who plays Harold's coach, Sam Mussabini, which would be acceptable if the character were better developed). They are competitive with themselves and each other, but neither sees the other as an villain or an enemy. Quite the opposite in fact. Rather, they see their competition as a way to achieve their own goals. Neither would dare even consider something as horrible as sabotage or cheating. They want to win because of hard work and determination.
I have a feeling that a substantial amount of the film was cut for pacing reasons. This is because director Hugh Hudson obviously wants us to be more invested in the secondary characters than we are. It's not that they're badly written or acted, it's that they are so sketchily developed that it's hard to remember who they are, much less care about them. Either more time or less time should have been spent with Aubrey (Farrell) and Andrew (Havers).
So see it for the positive messages about sportsmanship and perseverance. See it for the nostalgia trip (the whole film feels like a faded memory). But above all, see it for Ben Cross and Ian Charles.