Just out on Blu-ray -- timed perfectly for the Summer Olympics in London which kick-off Friday -- is Chariots of Fire. This 1981 film, with a victory as improbable as the story it tells, included a first-time feature-film director, two unknown actors in the lead roles, and a cinematographer and composer who never worked on a movie. Their combined efforts were rewarded with four Academy Awards including Best Picture.
I wholeheartedly agree with the film's director, Hugh Hudson, that a movie such as Chariots of Fire would never be made today; at least, not without major Hollywood names in the credits.
The movie is the true-to-life story of two English runners -- one, Harold Abrahams, is Jewish and running to prove himself to the world, the other, Eric Liddell, an evangelical Christian who is running for the glory of God -- who achieved astonishing victories at the 1924 Summer Olympics in France.
Ben Cross and Ian Charleson play Abrahams and Liddell, respectively, and their fresh faces bring us closer to their performances and the film. The actors, along with most of the cast, were not runners, but were put through the paces in an intensive three-month boot camp to make believable sprinters out of them.
Much of their competitions were shot in slow motion for dramatic effect and to extend what would ordinarily be a 10-second race into minutes of gut-wrenching agony or heart-pounding triumph. The technique was criticized at the time and Hudson, throughout the director's commentary, maintains decades later he made the correct creative decision. His point -- and it's valid -- is that the film is not about the competition as much as it is these two athletes. Some of the criticism lobbed at the film no doubt is due to the iconic and Oscar-winning electronic score by Vangelis, which became so popular it suffered a backlash.
But his soundtrack and Hudson's vision for the film work together to stir and overwhelm the emotions. As Hudson said, U.S. audiences were cheering the film as the British athletes were beating the Americans.
For anyone who has applauded the film or has never seen it, this Blu-ray book set is hard to overlook. The film looks gorgeous in 1080p -- you'll marvel at the detail in the Oscar-winning costume designs by Milena Canonero -- and there are several hours of added features including interviews with the cast and crew, and a fascinating historical documentary that fleshes out the importance of the 1924 Olympics and puts in perspective the accomplishments of Abrahams and Liddell.
-- KIRK BAIRD
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