Hugh Hudson’s 4 Oscar-winning classic was re-released on 13th July this year, for British cinema to make its contribution to the Olympic build-up. However, this classic piece of cinema which is widely agreed to be the greatest film about athletics, (Run Fatboy Run didn’t quite make it), has somehow fallen into a stuffy and conservative stereotype, regarded now as highbrow, wooden and even bland. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
The film is a comparison of two runners’ lives and their journeys towards making the Great Britain team for the 1924 Paris Olympics, the Jewish Cambridge undergraduate Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and the Scottish Christian missionary Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson). Hudson beautifully illustrates the opposing nature of the two men’s lives, problems and experiences in their individual paths to the Olympics. Fiercely ambitious Abrahams engages in quarrels with the university hierarchy, enthusiastic emersion into Gilbert and Sullivan and sprint training amongst the ancient brickwork and beautifully kempt college quads. It effortlessly flits back and forth from Abrahams to depicting Eric Liddell’s moral dilemmas involved in balancing professional athletics and religious duty, strongly illustrated through his battles with his extremely devout sister (Cheryl Campbell).
For a film about sprinting, the running sequences could not be slower, but such is the nature of the beast, as with all great sports films, the story is not about running. Indeed, it’s unimaginable to have a high-paced, blaring sprinting montage in the middle of such a delicate and finely tuned dramatic piece. Hudson’s pitch-perfect representation of the struggle both men undergo in the pursuit of victory is 98% off the track. Yet the slow motion running and the iconic Vangelis score is what people remember, this cliché that has latched itself to Chariots is partially responsible for the film’s undeserved dreary label. There are undeniably strong elements of old school, ‘rah-ness’ and establishment trumpeting embedded in the film, such as a game of cricket in an oak-floored ballroom, yet what is often tragically overlooked is that Chariots has moments of genuine humour: Nigel Havers’ training regime consisting of trying not to spill the vintage champagne balanced on his hurdles, Ian Holm’s grouchy one liners and the subtle mockery of the Olympic committee and even the Prince of Wales; proving that Chariots is a film very much aware of its own nature and is more than capable of self-satire, whilst combining into a rich tapestry of more serious themes that engage the audience in an entertaining yet thought-provoking style.
Upon its re-release, Chariots will no doubt experience the established view that it’s cosiness and conservative patriotism detract from its entertainment value, however those returning with a set point of view or even newcomers should prepare for a surprise, as they will be presented with a film about class, religion, youth, anti-Semitism, bureaucracy and the divisions that lay fractured upon the face of post war Britain. This balance of drama, music and stunning cinematography make for an eternally entertaining film that can be relied upon to spark joy into audiences again and again.