Cinema: Winning Race

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CHARIOTS OF FIRE Directed by Hugh Hudson Screenplay by Colin Welland

Seeing Chariots of Fire is like exploring a wonderful historical restoration.

All the brass has been polished, the draperies lovingly arranged, the superb craftsmanship of the antique furnishings set off by careful burnishing. At the very least one gets from the film an authentic sense of life as it must have been lived in a more gracious and perhaps more innocent time.

But there are real people moving through this movie's rooms, historical characters driven by private obsessions. By insisting that the audience share the weight of the traditions that pressed down upon the actual people, by forcing attention on the nuances of manners and speech of England in the 1920s, and by simply taking their own sweet time about telling their tale, the film makers throw into high relief the powerfully contrasting passions of the characters.

Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell were, of all things, runners. But neither ran simply because he had the gift of speed. The former was the outwardly arrogant, inwardly fuming son of a rich Jewish family, ever conscious, despite his enrollment at Cambridge, of subtle, painful discrimination. He would beat these gentlemen at their own avocation—amateur sport. If that goal required paying a professional coach (wonderfully played by Ian Holm), a tactic that was against the code if not the formal rules, so be it. Liddell was of an entirely different breed. The modest and pious son of missionaries, he ran, as he saw it, for the glory of God. If his faith told him that he must not break the Sabbath by running on Sunday, then so be it. Never mind that the race he was passing up was a qualifying heat for the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Never mind that the Prince of Wales (played with sublime twittiness by David Yelland) was enlisted in the fruitless attempt to force him to trim his conscience.

That both men finally achieve athletic apotheosis in the Olympics is emotionally satisfying, of course, but almost incidental to the rewards of watching Chariots of Fire. This is not, after all, Rocky. It is something more even than a thinking man's Rocky. One takes from it subtler pleasures—the controlled ferocity of Ben Cross as Abrahams, for instance, and the gentle strength of Ian Charleson as Liddell. A word of praise, too, goes to a supporting cast that includes Sir John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson as a pair of congealed Cambridge dons, Nigel Davenport and Patrick Magee as Olympic committeemen respectively too smooth and too Blimpish. 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.

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