Best Picture #54: Chariots of Fire

Each week this column will highlight one winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, progressing chronologically until all winners have been discussed. There will be a brief discussion of the film itself followed by a mention of what we wish won from the nominees in the given year (though in many cases there were films that were superior in terms of quality and/or impact that were not nominated). This week’s entry is Chariots of Fire (1981).

Mostly remembered by people who haven’t even seen it for the Vangelis theme playing while some pasty Brits run on the beach, Chariots of Fire really doesn’t amount to much more than that. A true story about two British Olympic athletes who competed in 1924, it attempts to be both a story about the glory of a Christian God and the anti-Semitism rampant in early 20th century Britain and manages to lose the thread on both. Eric Liddell, the devout son of Scottish missionaries who would later become one himself before being murdered in a Japanese internment camp in 1945, runs because he feels it is his God given gift and the truest way to experience his maker, going so far as to refuse to compete in an Olympic event because it took place on a Sunday and therefore couldn’t be done in accordance with his beliefs. His story was apparently chosen because the filmmakers wanted something along the lines of A Man for All Seasons (one of my favorite Best Picture winners) that would show the dedication someone had to their God, but while I was impressed by the lengths he went to and sometimes inspired, having to forgo running in a race is not nearly the same as facing death at the hands of a king who created a new religion and Liddell’s story isn’t a fraction so interested or profound as Sir Thomas More’s. Muddying the waters further is the parallel narrative about Harold Abrahams, a Jew who was often held back from his potential on account of his religion and who the filmmakers seemed less interested in making a film about. A real shame given that the hardships faced by a Jewish man disparaged throughout life and eventually dispatched to the 1936 Berlin Olympics are at least a bit deeper than those of someone whose greatest quandary was whether to run on a Sunday. If they were looking to find a parallel to Sir Thomas More in the world of sports (which seems an idea fraught with to begin with given the disparity in the issues seen), there could’ve been so many other people chosen who overcame more but if it had to be these two men, the focus could’ve been better placed. None of this is to say that the film is bad though. In fact, I quite enjoyed most of it, especially the running sequences, and the classic theme deserves all the praise, but the actual message often got lost in the drama and seemed trite when it was seen.

The Real Best Picture:

After Ocean’s Eleven, there is no film I can rewatch so frequently and always find such joy in as Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is the greatest of Spielberg’s works and the peak of the action and adventure genres. Far and away the best film of the lineup.

Best Picture Winners

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