Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Chariots of Fire (1981)
Studio Line: Warner Bros. - Two men chasing dreams of glory!

England's finest athletes have begun their quest for glory in the 1924 Olympic Games. Succes brings honor to their nation. For two runners, the honor at stake is a personal honor..and their challenge one from within.

Winner of four 1981 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Chariots of Fire is the inspiring true story of Harold Abrahams, Eric Liddell and the team that brought Britain one of its greatest sports victories.

Director: Hugh Hudson
Cast: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nigel Havers, Nicholas Farrell, Ian Holm, John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson, Cheryl Campbell, Alice Krige
Academy Awards: Won for Best Picture; Best Screenplay; Best Costume Design; Best Original Score-Vangelis. Nominated for Best Director; Best Supporting Actor-Ian Holm; Best Film Editing, 1982.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Surround; subtitles English, Spanish, French; closed-captioned; single side - single layer; 36 chapters; rated PG; 124 min.; $24.98; street date 9/3/97.
Supplements: Production Notes; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Vangelis

Picture/Sound/Extras: C-/C/D-

Of all the times that the Academy picked the wrong film as Best Picture, 1981 still stands out as a particularly misguided example. That was the year that Raiders of the Lost Ark fell to the likes of Chariots of Fire. How a true classic like Raiders... could not beat a milquetoast piece of cinema like COF remains a mystery to me.

Not that COF is a bad film, for it's a fairly well-crafted piece of work. Essentially the movies concentrates on the parallel stories of Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a devout Christian who postpones missionary work to use his excellent sprinting skills "for God's glory", and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Jewish guy who is looked down upon due to his ethnic background and who runs to silence these bigots and improve his own stature. The plot concentrates on their various encounters and preparations for the 1924 Olympics, where they are slated to face each other in the 100-meter dash.

At best, the film could hope to offer realistic and compelling portrayals of these two and set up a tense encounter at the end of the picture; when that happens, we should be torn about who we want to win the race. Without giving away too much of the story, let's just say the movie has its cake and eats it too. Obviously, the filmmakers are constricted by facts; from what I understand, much of COF takes some liberties - as is almost inevitable with movies based on true stories - but there are some facets they could not change, and various event outcomes fall into that category. However, I felt a little cheated that the ending towards which they so strongly build does not happen in the expected manner; the rivalry of the two runners and their very different personalities are accentuated to such a degree that the ultimate ending seems very anti-climactic.

Which means the entire film felt like foreplay to me, and somewhat bland foreplay at that. COF falls very much into the "stiff upper lip", genteel form of British drama that seems coherent and respectable but fairly dull and dry. Although depictions of athletic events by nature should be exciting and tense, this film's races are almost totally devoid of any thrills. This would seem more acceptable if the story itself provided great insight into the characters or had some strong reason for being, but I couldn't establish the existence of either of those; the participants are generally well-portrayed and mildly interesting, but they aren't strong enough to hold my attention. The story seems to have some inherent drama that the filmmakers just don't tap.

One major annoyance for me was Vangelis' synthesizer score. I'm probably in the minority here, as most people seem to love this music - it remains popular listening - but I found his work to be completely inappropriate for the film. Vangelis' "new age" piffle felt radically out of place in this period drama and I didn't think it worked at all; his music for Blade Runner perfectly fit the futuristic subject but it seemed odd and intrusive in a movie that takes place just after World War I. I'll give the filmmakers credit for trying something different and daring, but I didn't like it.

As for Chariots of Fire itself, I thought the movie provided a mildly watchable and interesting tale of two competing runners but 18 years after the fact, I still can't believe this fairly mediocre piece of work beat Raiders of the Lost Ark for Best Picture. The victorious film seems too drab and ordinary to top an outstanding piece of work like that. Is a recount still possible?

(One personal note: it took all the will I could summon to call the movie Chariots of Fire in this review. Any other time I've mentioned the piece, I've referred to it as Chariots of Eggs due to my affection of an SCTV parody of that name. That title - as with my common name for Dances With Wolves, which I prefer to call Dances With Clams for reasons unknown - has nothing to do with my thoughts about the film; I just like the sound of it. In the interest of clarity, I fought off my stubbornness and called the movie by its correct name, but it'll always be Chariots of Eggs to me!)

The DVD:

Chariots of Fire appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. No, the aspect ratio doesn't match the one seen in theaters, which was likely 1.85:1 (I couldn't find definitive information about this); in their infinite wisdom, Warner Bros. decided to issue this award-winning film as a fullscreen affair. Why? I have no idea. In any case, I don't believe this is a pan and scan transfer; it appears to be an "open matte" presentation, which means we don't seem to lose any information from the sides of the picture. That's all well and good, but I still prefer the original theatrical dimensions.

I might not mind the fullframe transfer so much if it wasn't such a mess. The whole thing isn't a disaster - indeed, large parts of it look quite strong - but significant portions of it display substantial problems.

Sharpness seems consistently fairly good, with a crisp image that rarely shows any softness. However, this comes at the expense of edge enhancement; I noticed more than a few examples of moiré effects, and jagged edges abounded, particularly in the rims of the many straw hats we see.

Print flaws are a frequent concern. Grain appears through most of the movie, and a wide variety of other faults occur; I noticed lots of speckles, some black grit, plus a few scratches, hairs, nicks and blotches. In addition, some poor digital encoding shows up through some odd artifacts. Two examples: first, at 28:35, there's an interior scene which depicts a candle on a mantle in the background. That sucker jitters like nobody's business; the instability of the scene is bizarre. Later, at about 55 minutes, some wicked flashing occurs in background trees. It's something of a strobe effect but it doesn't resemble moiré issues; the trees just seem to flash while they're on screen.

Colors actually seem pretty good. As is often typical of this kind of period piece, COF uses a fairly limited palette that maintains a generally brown tone, but a few brighter hues appear at times, and they tend to look nicely saturated and accurate. Black levels seemed very deep and rich, and shadow detail also was appropriately heavy without any excessive murkiness. Although some parts of the film really look fine, too much of it appears flawed for COF to rate any higher than a "C-".

Better but still somewhat problematic is the film's Dolby Surround soundtrack. The soundfield itself tends to very strongly favor the forward channels, which provide a relatively broad experience; the score spreads nicely to the full forward spectrum, and we also hear some good use of ambient effects on the left and right that enliven the proceedings. The surrounds offer only modest reinforcement of the music and effects; for all intents and purposes, they're not a factor.

Quality seems inconsistent. On the positive side, the score sounds very dynamic and rich, with some surprisingly strong bass and a nice level of clarity. Effects are acceptably accurate and crisp; they don't stand out particularly well, but they don't appear weak, either. The mix's greatest problem stems from the dialogue, which remains intelligible throughout the film but usually sounds brittle and edgy; too much distortion comes through when speech occurs. I also detected a few instances during which the dialogue slightly bleeds to the right speaker. Without those issues, the soundtrack might have earned a decent grade; it's got many components that exceed what I expect from a 1981 release. However, as it stands, I had to give it a very average "C".

COF continues the general trend of virtually featureless DVDs issued for movies that won Best Picture. We find very perfunctory biographies for 13 of the film's actors plus director Hugh Hudson, as well as a listing of awards for which the picture was nominated and its theatrical trailer. What a bland package!

Chariots of Fire is far from the worst film that ever took home the Best Picture Oscar, but it's a curiously bland and uninspired affair. I found it eminently watchable and fitfully compelling, but I have no clue how it took home such high honors. The DVD presents flawed but generally acceptable picture and sound and a few weak extras. For those interested in Academy Award history, it may be worth a rental, but that's about all I can endorse.

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