Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Ian Holm, Alice Krige, Nicholas Farrell, Cheryl Campbell, John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson
This is a story of two men who run ... not to run ... but to prove something to the world. They will sacrifice anything to achieve their goals ... Except their honor.
The time is 1924. Britain's finest athletes have begun their quest for glory in the Olympic Games. Their success will win honor for their nation - but for two champion runners, the honor at stake is a personal honor ... and their challenge won from within. Chariots Of Fire tells the exciting, inspiring true story of Harold Abrahams, Eric Liddell and the dedicated team of competitors who brought Britain one of her most legendary victories in international sports. It's also the film that marked the brilliant resurgence of the British movie industry - and won four 1981 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "virtually a succession of smashing debuts," which it proved to be for Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nigel Havers, Nicholas Farrell and Alice Krige in their first major movie roles, and Hugh Hudson (a veteran of British television) directing his first theatrical feature. Hudson went on to make two more grand-scale period movies, Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes and Revolution. Pioneering producer David Puttnam brought these and many other collective talents together to shape a film whose impact has been lasting and unique. From its bracing footage of competition and pageantry to its extraordinary Vangelis score, Chariots Of Fire has left its mark on movie lovers everywhere.
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Runtime: 124 min.
Release Date: 7/10/2012
• Audio Commentary with Director Hugh Hudson
• “Wings on Their Heels: The Making of Chariots of Fire” Featurette
• “Chariots of Fire: A Reunion” Featurette
• “1924: Birth of the Modern Games” Featurette
• “David Puttnam, A Cinematic Champion” Featurette
• “Hugh Hudson: Journey to the Gold” Featurette
• “Sprint to the Quad” Featurette
• “The Opening Running Shot” Featurette
• Additional Scenes
• Screen Tests
• Hardcover Book
• Soundtrack Sampler
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Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
Chariots Of Fire [Blu-Ray Book] (1981)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 27, 2012)
Over the years, I received more than a few e-mails about my original review of 1981’s Chariots of Fire. When I wrote it in 2000, I expressed that its victory as Best Picture was a “particularly misguided” choice, as I thought that Raiders of the Lost Ark clearly deserved the Oscar that year. Others disagreed, which led to those e-mails.
After 12 years and additional screenings of both flicks, have I changed my mind? Not in the least. If anything, I’m even more convinced that the Academy made a terrible error when they chose Fire over Raiders.
Not that I consider Fire to be a bad film, for it presents a fairly well-crafted piece of work. Set in the period after the end of World War I, the movie concentrates on the parallel stories of two runners. Devout Christian Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) postpones missionary work to use his excellent sprinting skills "for God's glory". Others look down upon Jewish Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) due to his ethnic background so he runs to silence these bigots and improve his own stature. The plot concentrates on their various encounters and preparations for the 1924 Olympics, where they are slated to face each other in the 100-meter dash.
The best the film could hope to offer would be realistic and compelling portrayals of these two characters, and it could also set up a tense encounter at the end of the picture. When that battle happens, we should feel torn about who we want to win. Without giving away too much of the story, let's just say the movie has its cake and eats it too.
Obviously, the filmmakers are constricted by facts. From what I understand, much of Fire takes some liberties - as is almost inevitable with movies of this sort - but there are some facets they could not change, and various event outcomes fall into that category. Still, I felt a little cheated that the movie builds so strongly toward a particular ending but it veers away from that. The rivalry of the two runners and their different personalities are accentuated to such a degree that the movie’s conclusion seems anti-climactic.
That means the entire film feels like foreplay to me, and somewhat bland foreplay at that. Fire falls very much into the "stiff upper lip", genteel form of British drama. It seems coherent and respectable but also fairly dull and dry. By nature, depictions of athletic events should be exciting and tense, but this film's races are almost totally devoid of any thrills.
This would seem more acceptable if the story itself provided great insight into the characters or had some strong reason for being, but I can't establish the existence of either of those. The participants are generally well-portrayed and mildly interesting, but they aren't strong enough to hold my attention. The story seems to have some inherent drama that the filmmakers just don't tap.
For me, one major annoyance came from Vangelis' synthesizer score. I'm probably in the minority here, as most people seem to love this music - it remains popular listening - but I find his work to be completely inappropriate for the film. Vangelis' "New Age" piffle feels radically out of place in this period drama and I didn't think it worked at all. His music for Blade Runner perfectly fit the futuristic subject but similar content seems odd and intrusive in a movie that takes place just after World War I. I'll give the filmmakers credit for trying something different and daring, but I don't like it.
As for Chariots of Fire itself, I think the movie provides a mildly watchable and interesting tale of two competing runners but 31 years after the fact, I still can't believe this fairly mediocre piece of work beat Raiders of the Lost Ark for Best Picture. The victorious film seems too drab and ordinary to top a dynamic and influential piece of work like Raiders. Is a recount still possible?
The Blu-ray Grades: Picture A-/ Audio B/ Bonus A-
Chariots of Fire appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Expect a thoroughly appealing presentation.
Sharpness satisfied. Only the slightest hint of softness ever occurred, as the majority of the movie looked tight and well-defined. No issues with jaggies or moiré effects occurred, and I witnessed no edge haloes. Grain seemed natural, and no print flaws marred the image.
Within the parameters of the film’s design, colors seemed very good. As is often typical of this kind of period piece, Fire used a fairly limited palette that maintained a generally overcast feel. This limited the vivacity of most hues, though a few scenes - like the stage production at which Abrahams first saw Sylvia - boasted more dynamic colors. Across the board, the tones looked appropriately delineated. Black levels also were deep and firm, while low-light shots depicted good clarity without excessive opacity or murkiness. This was a completely satisfying transfer.
The film’s DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundfield tended to favor the forward channels, which provided a relatively broad experience. The score spread nicely across the forward spectrum, and we also heard some good use of ambient effects on the left and right that enlivened the proceedings. For the most part, the surrounds offered only modest reinforcement of the music and effects; they're usually not a major factor.
Audio quality pleased. The score sounded dynamic and rich, with some strong bass and a nice level of clarity. In addition, effects were acceptably accurate and crisp. They didn't stand out particularly well, but they didn't appear weak, either. I thought the lines were somewhat thin – and I heard occasional sibilance, such as during the initial Harold/Sylvia date - but they offered good intelligibility. While I wouldn’t call this a great soundtrack, it was positive enough to earn a “B“ as part of its era.
How did the Blu-ray compare to the 2005 Special Edition DVD? The lossless DTS-HD track was a little warmer and fuller, and it also provided a smoother soundscape; I thought the DVD’s 5.1 mix could seem awkward, but this one blended better. In addition, the Blu-ray looked significantly more accurate, cleaner and more film-like. I thought the 2005 DVD was good, but it couldn’t compete with the nearly perfect presentation of the Blu-ray.
The Blu-ray duplicates most of the DVD’s extras and adds some new ones. We find an audio commentary from director Hugh Hudson. He presents a running, screen-specific chat that works well - when he bothers to talk.
Yes, that means the biggest problem here stems from dead air. Few of the gaps last terribly long, but empty space occurs fairly frequently and adds up to a lot of silence over the movie’s entire running time.
At least Hudson makes the most of the occasions when he does speak. Among other topics, he talks about casting and working with the actors, locations and problems in that domain, the movie’s visual scheme, its famous score, themes and story concerns, historical fact and liberties taken, and the flick’s reception.
Hudson remains proud of the movie, but the track rarely degenerates into bland praise. Instead, it covers a nice array of relevant subjects and manages to keep our interest. If only Hudson didn’t let so much dead air occur, I’d consider this a very strong commentary, but it sags too much for me to regard it as much above average. In any case, it’s definitely worth a listen.
Now we shift to a mix of featurettes. Wings on Their Heels: The Making of Chariots of Fire goes for 27 minutes, 18 seconds and provides comments from Hudson, producer David Puttnam, screenwriter Colin Welland, editor Terry Rawlings, director of photography David Watkin, athletic consultant Tom McNab, composer Vangelis, and actors Ben Cross, Alice Krige, Dennis Christopher, Nicholas Farrell, and Nigel Havers. The piece covers research and developing the script, casting and the characters, physical training, shooting the flick and various production concerns, photographic styles and editing, the score, distribution problems and the movie’s reception.
Surprisingly, not too much information from Hudson’s commentary repeats here. Instead, we get a lot of new material in this consistently engaging documentary. It presents a good overview of the production and provides a lively and tight take on matters.
Next we get Chariots of Fire - A Reunion. The 19-minute program brings together Hudson, Havers, Puttnam, Farrell, and Watkin all in the same room. They chat about the roots of the project and its development, facets of casting, training and mishaps, the use of slow-motion, various production notes, and the flick’s reception. This one stays with an anecdotal emphasis, and that makes it stand out when compared with the other pieces. It also presents information mostly not discussed elsewhere. The participants give us entertaining stories and help create a vivid and entertaining glimpse of the movie.
For a look at history, we head to the 27-minute, -second Paris, 1924: Birth of the Modern Games. It features Hudson, International Society of Olympic Historians co-founder/former president Dr. Bill Mallon, Journal of Olympic History associate editor Stephen L. Harris, National French Sport Institute film archivist Julien Faraut, Running With Fire: The Harold Abrahams Story author Mark Ryan, Olympic historian Philip Barker, Les Paris Des Jeux Olypiques De 1924 author Thierry Terret, and athletes’ daughters Sue Pottle, Heather Liddell Ingham, Maureen Liddell Moore and Patricia Liddell Russell. We get a quick overview of the Olympic revival of 1896 before we learn a lot about aspects of the 1924 games and their athletes. This acts as a good complement to the movie, for it tells us nice details related to the actual Olympics.
The next two programs look at the filmmakers. We locate David Puttnam, A Cinematic Champion (25:40) and Hugh Hudson: Journey to the Gold (14:06). In the first, we hear from Puttnam, Hudson, Open University Vice Chancellor Martin Bean, and Film Distributors Association chief executive Mark Batey; the second show features Hudson on his own.
Both offer looks at the respective careers of Puttnam and Hudson, though the former spends a fair amount of time with other biographical details as well; “Gold” concentrates almost exclusively on Hudson’s film work. This makes “Champion” a bit more detailed, but both work quite well. Actually, I probably prefer the approach taken by “Gold”, as it’s fun to hear Hudson reminisce without any external commentary from others; since the best moments of “Champion” come from Puttnam’s own memories, it might’ve worked better if it followed a similar format. Nonetheless, I like both programs and think they add useful material.
Eight Additional Scenes fill a total of 11 minutes, 18 seconds. These mostly offer minor additions to the characters, with the most significant clip focusing on Liddell’s girlfriend; she was excised from the final film. The snippets are consistently interesting to see.
We can watch the first one - “Cricket in the Ballroom” - with or without commentary from Hudson. He’d already alluded to this sequence in his full commentary, but here he reiterates why it was removed from the American version of the film.
In addition to the movie’s trailer, we get some screen tests. This area includes clips for Ben Cross and Patricia Hodge (4:14) and Ian Charleson (4:34). We saw a little of these in the “Wings” documentary, but it’s fun to inspect them on their own.
In addition to the film’s trailer, a few short clips fill out the set. We find “Sprint Around the Quad” (1:56) and “Famous Opening Shot” (1:06). These both appeared as Easter Eggs on the 2-disc DVD. For “Sprint”, we get a reunion piece in which Hudson, Puttnam and Havers visit the movie’s Eton College location. In “Shot”, Cross discusses shooting the movie’s opening running sequence. Both are quick but interesting.
The package also includes a hardcover book. It features production notes, cast/crew bios, trivia, historical info and photos. Nothing remarkable pops up here, but it’s a nice addition.
A four-song CD Soundtrack Sampler gives us snippets from the score. We get “Titles”, “Abraham’s Theme”, “Eric’s Theme” and “Jerusalem”. I guess the CD adds a little value, but it’s a bit of a tease; anyone who likes it will probably want to have the full soundtrack instead.
Chariots of Fire is far from the worst film that ever took home the Best Picture Oscar, but it's a curiously bland and uninspired affair. I found it eminently watchable and fitfully compelling, but I have no clue why it took home such high honors. The Blu-ray brings us good audio as well as excellent picture and extras. While I doubt I’ll ever think highly of the film itself, I feel impressed with this top-notch Blu-ray. It becomes easily the definitive home video version of Fire and will make the movie’s fans quite happy.
To rate this film, visit the Special Edition review of CHARIOTS OF FIRE