Chariots of Fire is based on the true story of two very different track athletes who competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a devout Scottish Missionary who is running as a testament to his faith, whilst Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) is a Jewish student at Cambridge University, running in the face of prejudice and xenophobia which are thrown at him from all angles.
The film intersects across the two athlete’s stories as they train for the Olympics, yet this structure conflicts rather than complements how the themes are explored, despite two strong central performances from Charleson and Cross. Ian Holm, who plays Sam Mussabini Abraham’s coach, has tremendous screen presence and it is a surprise that despite being nominated for Best Supporting Actor, he failed to win the Oscar.
Chariots of Fire carries a level of nostalgia for a by-gone Britain in the aftermath of the horrors of the First World War, and offers an interesting examination of the British class system. Made in 1984 during the turbulent and painful Thatcher years, it’s easy to see why Hudson’s film struck such a cord with audiences of the day. However, to modern audiences the nostalgia and issues seem dated and trite. Whilst it touches on several interesting themes, Colin Welland’s script only succeeds in establishing the tension of the two conflicting characters. He fails to truly engage with the issues at hand, and most surprising of all is how this sporting saga of triumph over adversity fails to ever uplift.
Chariots of Fire won a flurry of Oscars back in 1984, and it’s tempting to compare the film to the recent success of Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2011), which captured the Academy’s hearts with its themes about class and its plethora of toff characters. The appeal will always be there for people to revisit Hudson’s award-winner in a year of both the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, despite perhaps being remembered a little too fondly.