I have recently discovered the purpose of my life. I discovered this while having a conversation about films with a friend who is under the age of twenty five. He is a fairly well-read sort, with a bevy of films across many genres to which he’s been exposed so that he can hold his own in a semi-serious conversation about the cinema (yes, I’m going to incessantly annoy you with bougie terms like “film” and “the cinema” – get used to it) – as long as it does not involve any films from either the 1980s or the 1990s. He can go on, at length, about the importance of the so-called Hollywood New Wave and how such monumental films like The Graduate and The Godfather still influence filmmakers today. This is because most of those films are “required reading” for anyone daring to live in L.A. and claim that they have some modicum of understanding in film aesthetics and history. Additionally, being abreast of the latest and greatest films is S.O.P. for any semi-legit cineaste. What this has done, however, is create a kind of blank spot for the awkward middle-ages of American modern cinema, namely the 80s and 90s. Mention Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Terms of Endearment, Amadeus, Out of Africa, or Platoon and they all draw blanks. By the way, those are all Academy Award for Best Picture winners from 1981 to 1986 – Sundance Cinderellas they’re not. People of a certain age have forgotten or never learned that many of America’s best films came from the Decade of Greed and the Whatever generation – Generation X.
In honor of the Academy Awards event taking place this Sunday, I have taken it upon myself to remind us why Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for Best Picture in ’81 and why it is still a worthy film amongst the pantheon of Oscar champions. First, let us compare the film with its competition that year: Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Reds. Atlantic City is that age-old tale of an old has-been gangster suddenly coming into a big pile of means (in this case drugs) and takes that last stab at being relevant before he’s betrayed by his own misplaced desires. On Golden Pond was notable that year because it featured Henry Fonda opposite Katherine Hepburn as an elderly couple experiencing the twilight years of their lives. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of those rare gems of Hollywood filmmaking prowess. It is a kind of perfect storm of story, characters, photography, and music that swoops into Hollywood once in a blue moon. Reds is a biopic of the life and career of radical journalist John Reed. The film is quite literally the product of a singular vision as Warren Beatty stars in it, produced it, directed it, and wrote it. All of the nominated films are masterworks in their own right (especially Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is a personal favorite) but Chariots of Fire was tailor-made as Oscar bait.
It features an all-British cast of relative unknowns which, you would think, is its greatest weakness. On the contrary, it is its greatest strength. Working on the principle that the closer an image, whether it be a photograph or a drawing, is in detail to its original subject the less likely it is for an audience to sympathize with that portrayal or image. This principle also works in reverse: the stick figure is a universal symbol of humanity that crosses language barriers and culture barriers and it is also one that evokes maximum sympathy in its audience. Why is this? It is because we are more likely to project ourselves onto the image of the stick figure because it is so blank to begin with whereas a highly detailed portrayal is much more difficult for us to project onto because the fine details tell us that it is already an individual or persona. This is why children love cartoons so much. Therefore, the fact that a major motion picture features a bunch of so-called no-name actors, the audience is more likely to see themselves in the characters and therefore are prone to be much more sympathetic to its characters. This is in no way a hard and fast rule. For instance, if the actors are just bad, then there is no amount of visual theory that can evoke sympathy from that audience. Good thing for Chariots of Fire that ALL the actors were just superb. There is a reason why American casting directors keep dipping into Her Majesty’s talent pool: those Brits just make good actors (Daniel Day-Lewis, Ian McKellan, etc.).
Secondly, the film is a drama of the highest order. If it wasn’t a track-and-field sport drama it could even do well as a stage play. The primary focus of the film is not necessarily on who is the fastest man at the 1924 Olympic Games but it brings into question the very nature of sport – its purpose, its raison d’etre in modern times. Ostensibly, the film focuses on the very different lives of two of England’s greatest athletes, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams. Liddell is the son of a missionary and so devout that he vows to never run or play sport on Sunday to honor his God. Abrahams, on the other side of that coin, is an English Jew who comes from privilege but has all his life had to endure the reminder that he is a Jew in England and not simply an Englishman. This is the kind of stuff that Academy voters drool over. I won’t tell you how it all plays out – you’ll just have to see it for yourself – but I will say that, by the end, I felt a tremendous wave of sympathy for the human condition. It refuses to end in any way that one would expect a film like this to end, but then it surprises you by ending in the only possible way that it can end.
Lastly, I have to mention the music. For a film that would play just as well on Masterpiece Theater as it did at the cinema, its music soundtrack was a risky novelty that worked like a charm. Techno-DJ Vangelis was tapped to write original music for the film which many people at the time thought was a horrible mistake. Now, even after all these years, one only has to hear the first few notes of the main theme and it becomes instantly recognizable while also being novel enough to transport us to some heavenly shore — perhaps that part of Elysium where the gods race immortal champions forever.
Posted by Paul Yim