Movie producers seem to have taken a good look at the number of joggers out there, perhaps especially noticing the amount of money they are willing to pay for cloth shoes. Suddenly, we have the history, drama and philosophy of running, done in nothing- but-the-best quality, for the luxury trade. Like the histories of blacks and women, runners' history must have been there -- at least since the battle of Marathon -- but was not highly visible until the market for it was perceived. Now there are two films opening, almost at the same time, about heroic runners in the early part of this century. "Gallipoli" is not a war movie, as might be supposed from its being named for the World War I battle. Three-quarters of it takes place before the runners, two young Australians played by Mel Gibson and Mark Lee, arrive at Gallipoli, and they no more ponder the meaning of war -- or why they need be involved -- than they would ask the point of running a race. Even at the front, less is shown of the fighting than of the runner who communicates between general and major. The battle's only dramatic excuse is to demonstrate that the few seconds of difference that runners use to distinguish winning from losing can literally be the difference between life and death. It's a beautiful and carefully made film, directed by Peter Weir (on whose story it's based) with much of the rough lushness he brought to "Picnic at Hanging Rock." The sketched characters of two young, friendly rivals, the acting, dialogue, photography, settings, costumes -- everything is of excellent workmanship. The same may be said, even more perhaps, of "Chariots of Fire," to open in October. Again, there are two young rival runners who participate in the 1924 Olympics: one a Jewish student at Cambridge, the other a Scottish missionary. They, and their respective environments, are magnificently depicted. An occasional, sardonic commentary, provided by Sir John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson as two Cambridge college masters, is as delicious as you can find in the most important and dramatic of films. But both movies suffer from problems directly coming from their themes. One is that insisting that running is a philosophy and a reason for living becomes, after a while, silly. Any sport may be exhilarating and absorbing, but when a rich, educated young man moans to the beautiful, talented young woman who adores him that he has no justification for his life if he can't be the best runner, it makes the whole enterprise seem foolish. Nor does it seem plausible, as both films would have it, that running confers on its winners the wild adulation of the world -- children cheering in the streets, women going mad with love, old people renewing themselves in jubliation. The other problem is that running is not the most photogenic of activities. Horse racing is magnificent on film, and team sports can be fascinating, but running is graceless and painful to see in close-up detail. Both films do wonders with flying hair, feet splashing up sand and water, and distant figures in the mist or shimmering sunlight. But the fact remains that the grimace on a runner's face and the jerky arm movements are a strain to watch, and the panting state in which the athlete is left afterward makes the winners look most pitiful in their moments of triumph.
GALLIPOLI -- At the K-B Janus and Outer Circle.