I finally watched Chariots of Fire last night. I say finally, as if to imply that I've been trying to view it and been repeatedly stymied in my attempts, or something like that. Actually, not only have I not had Chariots of Fire at or anywhere near the top of my viewing list, but I've even seen it before, technically. However, I choose to discount my initial viewing, because at the time I was (1) 10 years old, and (2) suffering from a malaria-induced fever of c. 104 F.
My real impression of the film from my childhood was that it consisted of a bunch of people standing around talking a lot, interspersed with scenes of some guys running around. And as it turns out, that juvenile impression was extremely accurate. This movie is stodgy and talky, indeed. However, if you have to have pedantry and verbose pageantry, it's always a safe bet to go with the classy British production, and if you get a fabulous cast, solid script, and well-crafted direction to go along with your tony accents, so much the better.
I have spent the better part of 24 hours trying to decide if Chariots of Fire is a great film, or merely a good film. Many people count it among the very best films ever made, but a glance through IMDB's entry for Chariots of Fire will reveal that many other people also have things to say along the lines of "This movie is more boring than C-SPAN" or "THIS is the clunker that beat Raiders of the Lost Ark for Best Picture Oscar?" Each according to his or her taste, I guess. Chariots of Fire is actually a bit like another slow-moving but critically-lauded British movie that won the Best Picture Academy Award during its time: Cavalcade. Both films have opponents labeling them as "least deserving Best Picture winner ever", and both end up being better movies after one is done watching them. Ultimately, both films are not really about events; they are about people, and watching people who are human beings, and not merely figures in an explosive action sequence, requires a little more concentration and reflection than the standard summer popcorn movie viewing experience.
Anyway, I finally concluded that all things considered, Chariots of Fire could justifiably be described as a great movie, not merely good. Why? Well, why might it be less than great?
-Gab gab gab. The script itself isn't bad, but there's just so much of it.
-Yawn yawn yawn. It's a sports movie that even sports fans can find boring. The overall pacing is incredibly slow, especially considering the fact that it's about men who are incredibly fast.
-The score. Okay, okay, I know Chariots of Fire has one of the most recognizable and beloved film scores of all time. And it won an Oscar, of course. BUT, while the composition isn't bad, I think the arrangement was severely lacking, a fact which is more glaringly evident after one has left the 1980s behind. The whole synthesizer thing is jarringly incongruous with both 1920s Europe and the world of competitive sports.
-Editing. Oscar-nominated, and beautifully done in most parts, yet WHAT IS UP with the constant slow-motion thing? It loses its impact if done too often, okay?
-The fact that, despite the title, this movie contains not one single chariot of fire. As a child, I would really have valued a few wagons being alight at some point in the narrative, and my adult self agrees. If nothing else, it would have been a relief from the tedium of the talk-talk-talk of post-Victorian existential crises.
On the plus side, the Pros:
-First of all, it's gorgeous, a visual treat. The lands of England and Scotland have never looked better, and it's all nicely staged with fairly good 1920s period detail. The Oscar-winning costumes help, too.
-The acting is earnestly done, with sincerity but without undo Brando-style emoting. Very British, very RSC. Seasoned professionals such as Sir John Gielgud and Ian Holm (Oscar nom) keep standards high, and lesser-known individuals such as Ben Cross and Ian Charleson do not fail to meet those standards in their own performances.
-Then there is the script. One never sees characters reciting lines, but rather genuine people speaking honestly and realistically. The above-mentioned acting helps, but good writing shines through in the fact that despite the much-complained-about talkiness of the film, the dialog itself never sounds heavy-handed.
-The honest and positive portrayal of a truly godly man. This is one movie wherein the religious man is lauded for living by his principles, rather than sneered at for his gauche naivety or exposed as a bigoted hypocrite.
-The simple fact that, like all great films, Chariots of Fire works on so many levels. It can be viewed as a sports movie (everything leading up to the Big Race), as a story of the human spirit, as an illustration of the triumph of faith. The film has all of the elements because it is a story of humanity, of human individuals, and so it will have as many facets as real people themselves do.
Bottom Line: See this movie! Even if you don't much like it, you should be able to find at least something to appreciate.