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Chariots of Fire

(1981) *** 1/2 Pg
124 min. . Director: Hugh Hudson. Cast: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Havers, Ian Holm, Alice Krige.

/content/films/4369/1.jpgAmong the stateliest of Oscar's Best Picture winners, Chariots of Fire immediately calls to mind its opening minutes, which include a slo-mo shot of a pack of young English runners splashing barefoot down the beach in Kent to the synthesized strains of Vangelis.  This combination eyeworm-earworm launched a thousand parodies, but in its context, it's a poetic encapsulation of nostalgia, of memory. This is how it was: we were young, we were vital, we were champions. Or as Andrew Lindsay prefaces the image in a 1978 prologue, "Now there are just two of us—young Aubrey Montague and myself—who can close our eyes and remember those few young men with hope in our hearts and wings on our heels."

Nothing else in Hugh Hudson's veddy veddy British Olympic running epic can compete with those opening moments, which may explain why Chariots of Fire seems, now more than ever, something of a victim of expectations. It's good—at times very good—but it wasn't the best film of 1981. The history-based narrative builds, in flashback, to "a chance to win the world championship in Paris," the 1924 Summer Olympics. Principally, screenwriter Colin Welland puts the spotlight on two celebrated runners: Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross, never better)—an obsessively determined Jewish athlete with "the gift of the gab"—and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a Scotsman and principled Christian who runs for the greater glory of God. Their peers Lindsay (Nigel Havers) and Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell) also take on a certain prominence in the story, contributing to a point-of-view problem: the prologue might suggest we're seeing Lindsay's memory come to life, but Montague provides swatches of narration; and neither has a very detailed throughline as a character.

Chariots of Fire's greatest strength is in its nuanced comparison and contrast of Abrahams and Liddell. Both men face a degree of misunderstanding when it comes to their faith traditions. Liddell is asked to run on a Sunday, which threatens his Olympic bid, and he must explain even to his sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell) how he views his running not as a distraction from his Christianity but as a fulfillment of it: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." Meanwhile, Abrahams faces institutional, insidious discrimination from the Masters of Trinity College (John Gielgud) and Caius College (Lindsay Anderson) at Cambridge, neither of whom would ever cop to anti-Semitism. The film also must serve training plotlines, most importantly the coaching of Abrahams by Sam Mussabini (a brilliant Ian Holm), who shares such reassuring wisdom as "A short sprint is run on nerves. It's tailor-made for neurotics."

Less successful in narrative terms is the anemic, shoehorned-in romance between Gilbert-and-Sullivan-loving Abrahams and Gilbert-and-Sullivan-singing soprano Sybil Gordon (Alice Krige). Their relationship is one of many story points that's been fudged when it comes to the historical record, one strike against the film. And with a running time of just over two hours, there's more here than the screenplay can fully serve, so what remains can come off as a bit stodgy rather than fully fleshed out. Still, Hudson made a genius call in bridging the lovely period recreation with Vangelis' very modern score, the cast is impeccable from top to bottom, and the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat reliably go for the gut.

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Aspect ratios:

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 7/4/2012

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner gives Chariots of Fire its Blu-ray debut in a digibook special edition. The hi-def transfer allows the picture to retain its natural, filmic look, with grain untouched. It's a very handsome image, with as much detail and color value as the source provides. Contrast isn't terribly sharp and shadow crush can be a problem, but those issues may well be endemic to the original photography. Overall, this Blu-ray handily trumps any previous home-video edition, aided in that task by a fine lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixthat's especially lively when giving full body to Vangelis' score.

A commentary by Hugh Hudson nicely covers the film's relation to history, the production, and some subtleties on view in the final product, though Hudson at times goes quiet for a bit.

Seven "Deleted Scenes" (13:27, SD) include "Cricket in the Ballroom (Alternate European Scene)" (with optional commentary by director Hugh Hudson, "Two Masters and Abrahams," "Tea Dance," "Nationalism," "Eric and Jennie Liddell Argue," "Harold Abrahams Running Past a Car," and "Harold and Sam Speak of Speeding Up the Pace."

In the Behind the Story section, you'll find "Wings on Their Heels: The Making of Chariots of Fire" (27:18, SD), including interviews with Hudson, composer Vangelis, Cross, producer David Puttnam, screenwriter Colin Welland, Alice Krige, Dennis Christopher, athletic consultant Tom McNab, Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Havers, director of photography David Watkin, and editor Terry Rawlins; "Chariots of Fire: A Reunion" (19:00, SD) with Hudson, Puttnam, Havers, Farrell and Watkin sitting together to reminisce; the new historical featurette "Paris, 1924: Birth of the Modern Games" (27:21, HD); "David Puttnam, A Cinematic Champion" (25:40, HD) with Puttnam, Hudson, Open University vice chancellor Martin Bean, Film Distributors Association chief executive Mark Batey; and "Hugh Hudson: Journey to the Gold" (14:06, HD) with Hudson, as well as "Ben Cross and Patricia Hodge Screen Test" (4:14, SD); "Ian Charleson Screen Test" (4:34, SD); "Sprint Around the Quad" (1:56, SD) with Puttnam, Hudson and Havers returning to the scene of the crime; and "Famous Opening Shot" (1:06, SD) with Cross commenting on same.

Last up on the Blu-ray disc is the "Theatrical Trailer" (1:34, SD), but the 36-page, full-color digibook—which also houses a CD sampler with four soundtrack cuts—includes production stills, production notes, bios of actors and real-life figures, and trivia.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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