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Spring Arts Fest to screen uplifting Olympics film

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Hugh Hudson’s “Chariots of Fire” is an oddity, a critically-acclaimed Best Picture winner that everyone’s heard of, but few casual viewers have actually seen.

Perhaps best known for Vangelis’ ingratiatingly pulse-heavy electronic score, the film was an underdog at the 1981 Oscars but brought home the top prize, beating out Warren Beatty’s heavily favored “Reds” – a fitting victory for a film about overcoming the odds. The film will be screened Friday in the Browning Cinema at the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts (DPAC) as part of the Spring Arts Fest.

Though it might be lazily categorized as a sports film, “Chariots of Fire” – like its Best-Picture predecessor “Rocky” – transcends its athletic origins and becomes about characters and story rather than sport itself.

Based on a true story, it follows two runners as they prepare for the 1924 Paris Olympics. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a devout Christian who runs for the glory of God. By contrast, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) is a Jewish student who runs to prove that Jews are not an inferior race. The film follows the two as they train and prepare for the Olympics – balancing drama and character development with effective cross-cutting of the parallel stories.

“Chariots of Fire” is a film of quiet brilliance, with an effective but low-key plot. Nothing about it is particularly flashy, which is surprising for what seems to be a feel-good sports flick. Even the Olympic sequences, ostensibly the climax of the film, arrive refreshingly devoid of melodrama. The picture is instead driven by the characters as it follows them in their their calm determination to win.

All the virtues of running are lauded throughout the picture and the audience comes to sympathize with all of the characters. The acting is superb across the board, particularly Ian Holm’s ornery trainer, Sam. The film is extremely effective throughout, especially in its opening, which depicts runners on a beach to Vangelis’ famous score, and in the Olympic sequences, which celebrate the purity of the event and the positive intentions of the amateur competitors.

“Chariots of Fire” remains an anomaly to this day, as it was directed by a little-known filmmaker in Hudson who had done nothing before and has done little since. It starred unknown actors in Charleson, who died of AIDS in 1990, and Cross, whose credits since have included such gems as “Exorcist: The Beginning” and the softcore thriller “Cold Sweat.” Aside from the venerable Holm, who seems to be everywhere (he has been in everything from “Alien” to “Lord of the Rings” to “Garden State”), there is not a single immediately recognizable name involved in the entire project – everyone from the director to to the screenwriter (both of whom garnered Academy Award nominations for their work) have continued to toil in obscurity.

Yet something happened with “Chariots of Fire.” The filmmakers came together and made a very special film. Almost everything about it is superior, from the screenplay to the acting to the score. It is old-fashioned, traditional filmmaking, but really, what’s wrong with that?

There was virtue in a good story well-told in 1981, and there is virtue in the same today. Perhaps that’s why “Chariots of Fire” holds up so well more than two decades later. It treads familiar ground, but it touches the heart and stirs the soul and does so with earnestness and touching sincerity.

A great film, to be sure, and an uplifting affirmation of the human spirit.