Chariots of Fire is the debut feature film from director Hugh Hudson, and in addition to featuring such esteemed actors as Sir John Gielgud and Ian Holm, it also employs a cast of then-unknowns to tell the story of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell and their quest for gold at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. The film took home four trophies at the 1981 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (Colin Welland), Best Costume Design (Milena Canonero), and Best Original Score (Vangelis).
My earliest memory of going to the movies was with my parents to see Chariots of Fire. I’m sure the film wasn’t my choice (not enough explosions in space, thanks), and that my presence was simply due to the fact that a child’s ticket was much less than the fee for a babysitter. But I remember that experience quite vividly and fondly. If I’ve seen the movie again prior to this new release, it was maybe once many years ago on television. But I actually think it hasn’t been since that first theatrical run, and I was surprised how much recall I had for most of the scenes: the characters, settings, and music immediately triggered close familiarity.
It still engages me 30 years hence, though much more deeply now as an adult. At its core, it is a well-told sports story, in which we follow our protagonists’ journey(s), cringe at their setbacks, and ultimately triumph with them at victory. And if it stopped there, it would simply be an enjoyable movie. But that’s only where Chariots of Fire begins.
The intertwining tales of Harold Abrahams – a Jewish runner suffering through religious persecution in post-war Britain – and Eric Liddell – a Christian missionary who opted out of a final Olympic run as it would have meant running on the Sabbath – involve so much history and character study that they quickly outshine the sports element. The story begins with Abrahams (Ben Cross) entering Cambridge as an undergraduate, and quickly feeling the social and scholastic prejudices that existed in those days against Jews. He uses his talent and unwavering personal drive to excel at most every aspect of his education, including making the national team to go to the Olympics. He is largely unparalleled as a runner, until he meets Eric Liddell.
Liddell (Ian Charleson) hails from Scotland and is preparing for missionary work to China. His success as a rugby player has brought him national acclaim, and his speed has won him a shot on the Olympic team as well. He delays the start of his missionary journey to compete in the 1924 Olympic Games. But when he discovers that a race falls on a Sunday, he is faced with the difficult prospect of pulling out of the race in order to maintain his commitment to God and keeping the Sabbath. Both athletes endure separate and different trials by fire, and we see their characters war and wrestle with their circumstances.
In between, we are engaged with life in Britain after the Great War, the social hierarchy between classes, races and religions, as well as the pressure to sacrifice your ideals in the name of nationalism. And the fact that this is all pulled from history lends it a further layer of gravity. The careful and respectful attention the script gives to each character in their situation helps to further elevate the good performances and strong cinematography into something much more compelling.
The heart of the film partly comes from the then-unknown talent at work all throughout. A first-time feature director, a cast largely made up of new talent, and even a novice feature soundtrack composer infuse the picture with raw energy. It feels like a hungry and ambitious film, and matches the drive we witness from the characters on screen. The fact that many of the actors are still primarily known for these roles lets us once again sink into their authentic performances without first having to filter out over-familiar faces from numerous other films (with the obvious exceptions of Ian Holm and Sir John Gielgud, who are forever able to disappear into any role).
There has been some obvious care taken with this release – as further detailed below – and it was a joy to revisit a modern classic and find it every bit as fresh and engaging as ever. Whether looking at it with the fresh eyes of youth or the more seasoned (perhaps, cynical) eyes of many years later, it’s a film that continues to yield ample rewards.
The visual upgrade on this release is immediately striking from the beginning, as the iconic shot of runners on the beach now makes them look like people instead of tiny, nondescript blobs. It’s almost comical to view the original trailer for the film in the bonus section and compare this scene. Although in standard definition and obviously in bad need of repair, detail from the trailer on this scene is almost shockingly non-existent in comparison, and gives an indication as to the extent that clean-up and restoration is needed on some old film stock.
And that restorative work is on fine display here, as the clarity of the picture is impressive throughout. Detail is fine and pronounced, showcasing the excellent cinematography of the film. Grain is still present and pleasing, giving a lively texture and depth to the picture. Color is also kept very natural looking. Many of the interior sets are rendered bright and vibrant, while several outside shots are much more muted with overcast skies, but each space feels authentic and natural. Throughout the quality of the picture is simply a pleasure to take in.
The audio is likewise handled with an impressively deft touch. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track primarily shines during the musical scenes. Both Vangelis’ score, as well as the many Gilbert & Sullivan music numbers, really make use of a wider sound field and are crystal clear. Although not exactly bass-heavy, Vangelis’ music cues lend a very rich balance to the audio track and are impeccably mixed in with the dialogue, which is at all times clear, from boisterous event noise to much more quiet parlor conversations.
In addition to several items ported over from previous versions, there are three features new to this edition. “Paris 1924: Birth of the Modern Games” (HD, 27:21) features Olympic historians recounting both the significance of the 1924 games, as well as Abraham’s and Liddell’s participation. “David Puttnam, A Cinematic Champion” (HD, 25:40) is actually more interesting than it sounds, offering an overview of the producer’s film and post-Hollywood careers, including several tidbits specific to Chariots of Fire. In contrast, “Hugh Hudson: Journey to the Gold” (HD, 14:06) is a much more brief and cursory look at the director’s career, much of it focusing on his early advertising work and then his feature film debut, Chariots of Fire.
First up from previous supplements is a director’s commentary track from Hugh Hudson. Although much of the track is fairly quiet and understated, Hudson often brings up some interesting remembrances from its filming. There are a collection of deleted scenes (SD, 13:27), including the non-American opening scene, where the main characters are introduced playing cricket, as well as several scenes that were largely cut to avoid extra side stories.
Two main features from previous editions are also included. The first is “Wings on Their Heels: The Making of Chariots of Fire” (SD, 27:18) which is a quite informative and interesting look back at the making of the film. Likewise, “Chariots of Fire: A Reunion” (SD, 19:00) finds several of the crew and actors sitting down to discuss remembrances from shooting. Both are excellent inclusions and deliver some genuine insight to the movie.
There are also two screen tests included, both showing early readings of scenes eventually used in the film: “Ben Cross and Patricia Hodge Screen Test” (SD, 4:14), and “Ian Charleson Screen Test” (SD, 4:34). “Sprint Around the Quad” (SD, 1:55) is a brief bit from the reunion gathering, this one set at Eton College where the scene was filmed. “Famous Opening Shot” (SD, 1:06) is a quick extra, where Ben Cross describes the experience of the opening scene from the film, where the pack of runners sprints down the beach. Finally, the film’s theatrical trailer (SD, 1:34) is included.
The film is housed in a digibook case that features pages of trivia, photography from the film and behind-the-scenes photos, as well as original artwork and historical information on the cast, crew and story of the film. Also included is a 4-track sampler CD featuring music from the original score by Vangelis.
Warner has delivered a handsome high definition release for one of its classic catalog titles. The upgrades for both video and audio on this Blu-ray version are striking and impressive. And the timelessness of both the story and picture makes it seem as fresh as ever, over thirty years since its release. A bevy of interesting bonus material simply adds to an already rewarding release. Highly recommended.