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William C. Altreuter
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Tuesday, June 01, 2004

To get psyched for the Buffalo Marathon Relay I rented "Chariots of Fire", but I actually ended up watching half of "Zoolander" before going to bed early. I watched "Chariots of Fire" Monday night instead. It goes without saying that the Best Picture winner for any given year is likely to date, but I figured that what was most likely to seem anachronistic in "Chariots" would have been the soundtrack. The movie is, after all, a period piece, set in post Great War England, so I figured if I could get past the synthesizer stylings, I'd be good to go.

As usual, I guessed wrong. The soundtrack is actually still stirring. The movie itself screams "Welcome to the Reagan years," though, and misses its mark far more often that it finds it. For some reason I had confused the Ben Cross character with the Ian Charleson character: Charleson is the devout Christian who declines to run on the Sabbath; Cross is the Jewish son of a financier who encounters anti-Semitism, mostly in the form of the Staler and Waldorf characters played by Sir John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson. Somehow I'd gotten Harold Abrahams, the character Cross plays, confused with Sandy Koufax. There is probably an interesting movie to be made about the rise of English and European Anti-Semitism in the period between the wars, and "Chariots" hints at it: the disfigured porters at the railway station are not that far removed from Corporal Hitler on some level. This is not that movie. Abrahams comes off as mostly whiny: he drinks champagne, he sings Gilbert and Sullivan, he dates a beautiful actress. He is an almost entirely secular figure, and his complaints ring rather hollow.

Eric Liddell, the Charleson character, fairs better, and this is one of the ways that the movie cheats, I think. Liddell seems to enjoy running, while Abrahams seems alternatively arrogant and despairing. For Abrahams being a sportsman is a means to an end, rather than something that he does for the joy of it. When he loses, predictably, to the saintly Liddell, we feel like we are being set up for the Big Race, but the Big Race never comes. Liddell won't run on Sunday, so the obliging Lord Andrew Lindsay, who says he already has a medal (presumably in the 400 meter hurdles, although not according to the results) sportingly gives up his spot in the 400 meters so that Liddell can run in his place. The whole crisis seems contrived when you know that Liddell was already slated to run in the 200 meters (he took the Bronze); worse, we never get to see a rematch between Liddell and Abrahams. At the last minute the American rivals are introduced. Like the members of a boy band, one is cute and blonde, and one wears a hat-- no doubt period realities prevented there from being one who is multi-racial, and one with a lot of tattoos and a black uniform to be the bad boy of the group. They are so one dimensional as rivals that one of them passes a note to Liddell containing a Scripture quotation that tells us that he is secretly pulling for Liddell to win. Well, duh-- we all are, which is the biggest cheat of all: it would be interesting to have Liddell and Abrahams face each other, but what we get instead is the equivallent of a Kids Fun Run: medals for all!

The takeaway from all this amounts to a great credit sequence, and very little else. Love the cars, like the clothes, and I sort of wish I was named Aubrey Montague, just because it would be so much fun to say all the time.

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