The new British film "Chariots of Fire" emerges as an attractive hybrid. Between its savory period setting -- England in the early 1920s -- and its celebration of dedicated young athletes -- sprinters Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, stars of the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris -- the movie suggests "Upstairs, Downstairs" with inspirational competitive themes reminiscent of both "Rocky" and "Breaking Away." Expertly acted, "Chariots" is an undeniable rouser. However, there's also something a trifle much about its very wholesomeness and likability.
Opening today at the Tenley Circle, "Chariots" begins with a grandiose scene which also is the epilogue. Director Hugh Hudson, cinematographer David Watkin and composer Vangelis Papathanassiou have orchestrated a rhapsodic credit sequence in which the British team members run cheerfully through the surf during a morning workout. It's like the training sequence in "Rocky" carried to blissed-out new heights.
However, it's quickly apparent that we aren't dealing with athletic palookas on this ceremonial occasion. While qualifying as spiritual outsiders in the overly exclusive context of the British class system, runners Abrahams and Liddell, admirably portrayed by newcomers Ben Cross and Ian Charleson, are eminently respectable young men striving to maintain their integrity while pursuing athletic fame.
Abrahams, the privileged, ambitious, intense son of a successful Jewish immigrant, is miffed but scarcely thwarted by reminders of anti-Semitism, represented by John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson as a set of pompous Cambridge dons. Liddell, a pastor in the Church of Scotland dedicated to a life of missionary work (he died in heroic fulfilment of this calling in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1944), regards his athletic prowess as a God-given talent which should be cultivated to reflect glory on his faith. Modest and attractively pious, he encounters a temporary obstacle to Olympic immortality when his event, the 200 meters, is scheduled for a Sunday, making it impossible for him to compete. A workable compromise is suggested by a teammate, Nigel Havers as an adorable fabrication called Lord Andrew Lindsay (to perfect his hurdling technique, Lord Andrew has the butler fill champagne glasses and place them on each hurdle). Liddell gets a second chance in the 400.
The movie is overbalanced on the evocative but gratuitously inspirational side. Almost every sequence is sharply played and luminously shot. Watkin's lighting is often so warm and tactile that the imagery itself generates an illusion of well-being. Despite its bombastic tendencies, "Chariots" has a healthy glow that's charming.
In the course of making an impressive directing debut, Hudson pumps up more urgency and glamor than the sketchy profiles of Abrahams and Liddell justify. Colin Welland's screenplay seems a structural lemon that demands much good will early on to offset its anticlimactic defects.
I gather that some of these may be caused by fidelity to fact. Welland follows the activities of Abrahams and Liddell in more-or-less parallel scenes that converge when they face one another in an eagerly anticipated 100-meter race early on. Their paths then diverge, only to disappoint ordinary expectations by failing to converge a second time during the climactic sequences at the 1924 Games.
Evidently, Abrahams and Liddell never met a second time as competitors. Moreover, they don't seem to have fraternized while members of the same British team in Paris. It's still a letdown to discover that the rematch you naturally expect never materializes and that no relationship -- not even a brief sporting friendship -- evolves between the two major characters.
And although there's a good deal of entertaining social documentation connected with Liddell's family and Abrahams' college career, one can't help wondering about Abrahams' family. Where's that prosperous, solicitous clan that gets mentioned in one scene? They never even turn up for the Games. Instead of a natural father, Abrahams is given a surrogate sporting one. Ian Holm, in a wonderful performance as his trainer, Sam Mussabini, is another ethnic endeavoring to broaden the social horizons of British sport.
The film's appeal for an American public should be enhanced by the belated appearances of Dennis Christopher and Brad Davis in delightful cameos as the Yankee competition at the Games. In fact, Davis' brief turn as Jackson Scholz is a revelation. After "Midnight Express" and "A Small of Circle of Friends," who would have expected this astonishing transformation into an endearing embodiment of the dashing young men of the '20s? The choice of Christopher as the other personable young American underlines the pleasant affinity between "Chariots of Fire" and "Breaking Away," in which Christopher played the lead.
The curiously bellicose title presumably derives from the preface to William Blake's long polemical poem, "Milton," which was adapted into a hymn so familiar in England that the import of the original lines may have been lost in a generalized haze of ceremonial patriotism. Returning to those lines, one feels a vehemence peculiarly inappropriate to the elegaic mood and style of "Chariots of Fire":
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire.
"I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand Till we have built Jerusalem In England's green & pleasant Land.
Perhaps something gets lost in the translation from British to American. Blake's Chariot of Fire suggests a revolutionary juggernaut. The young heroes of "Chariots of Fire" are certainly upstanding, idealistic specimens, but they seem in no sense social malcontents and they pose no plausible threat to the prevailing social system.