Wednesday, May 18, 2011
You know those movies you're sure you saw when you were a kid, but they were more intended for adults at the time you saw them, and you aren't really sure they were good enough to bother going back and seeing again once you've matured into a film buff?
Yeah, I saw one of those movies this weekend.
For a number of months now I had been circling around Chariots of Fire, the 1981 winner for best picture. In fact, I may have rented it from the library once already, which means -- according to this rule -- I would have needed to watch it this time around, anyway.
But of more interest in my Sunday morning viewing was the fact that I wanted to have an adult reconciliation of the general feelings of awe and wonder I had toward the movie as a child. Was there more to this movie than just a captivating, memorable score and a bunch of people running in slow motion? And in fact, did I actually really see the whole movie, or do I just remember the snippets I might have seen of it when the highlights of the score were playing, possibly on Oscar telecasts?
Having sat through the movie a (probably) second time, I think it seems unlikely that I watched it when I was ten years old, which is when it would have been on cable. I know I never rented the movie (renting wasn't yet an option in the early 1980s), so cable would have been where I saw it. But despite the seeming unlikeliness, I guess I probably did, which is how I remember that scene where Eric Liddell is knocked to the ground in one of his races, but still comes back to win, or how Harold Abrahams races around the university courtyard faster than the 12 strikes of the clock bell, a feat that hadn't been accomplished in hundreds of years. (England is an old place.)
The thing I remember most, however, is being transported by those songs. I think this was the movie that introduced me to the choral hymn "Jerusalem," which still gives me chills -- but which was not used as prominently in this movie as I thought it was (though the words "chariots of fire" are from its lyrics). The score in general, however -- perhaps not even especially the famous theme song -- probably hit me in a way I couldn't comprehend at the time, because it was providing me one of my earliest introductions to electronic music. What wouldn't have struck me as anachronistic at that time, does so today -- it's interesting to see this movie set in the early 1920s containing this modern type of music. That's not a choice that bothers me, mind you -- going outside the box is one of the things that really makes me interested in a period piece these days. It just strikes me as interesting that Chariots of Fire, in particular, was a movie that did that. Maybe that's why it connected so well with the zeitgeist.
Because I must say, I found the narrative itself to be somewhat deficient. In the most basic sense it is structurally sound, in that the two main runners we're following (Liddell and Abrahams) are both on a trajectory toward running in the 1924 Olympic games. However, their supposedly parallel paths don't necessarily progress in the most satisfying way.
One thing I found strange is the subtle undercurrent of anti-Semitism in a movie that's supposedly out to defeat anti-Semitism. For starters, I didn't remember at all that the movie was about this, about how Abrahams, as a Jewish man, is constantly butting up against a Christian establishment that tries to marginalize him. What's strange is that the movie doesn't do a good job convincing us that Abrahams is a paragon of virtue, especially compared to the devoutly Christian former and future missionary Eric Liddell. Both men's religion factors intimately into who they are, but in Abrahams it is this aimless defensiveness that causes him to be excessively competitive, and in Liddell it is this guiding force that reinforces his moral principles.
Over the course of the narrative, it is repeatedly put forth that Abrahams runs to win and for personal glory, while Liddell runs to honor God. This seems not only simplistic, but sort of insulting. Abrahams' reaction to losing a race to Liddell (the only race they run against one another, about halfway through) is that he should give up if he can't win every race he runs. He obsesses about this one loss and it looks for awhile that he won't be able to get past it. He does win at the Olympics, but the movie suggests that it's a hollow victory, especially compared to that experienced by Liddell. Liddell is not perfectly honoring his God by forestalling his return to missionary work in order to run -- his sister makes him feel guilty about this. But by any modern standard what he's doing is perfectly acceptable.
However, one line he won't cross is to run on the sabbath, meaning that he's disqualifying himself from one of the Olympic heats that's scheduled for a Sunday. This is a big plot point at the end, and ultimately he doesn't run, instead running later in the week in place of a different runner, in an event that is not his main event. When he wins this race, it is the movie's climax, and Abrahams looks at his victory with some amount of personal shame, as if Liddell has followed the honorable path to victory, while his path has been tainted by self interest. It's a happy ending for both, as Abrahams is ultimately reunited with his love interest after shunning her in pursuit of his dream. But I can't help but think the movie looks at this Christian runner as the ideal and this Jewish runner as somehow compromised. It left me with a somewhat icky feeling -- not super icky, but somewhat icky.
I don't think Chariots of Fire is necessarily viewed as a great film anymore. I do see that the British Film Institute ranks it 19th in its list of 100 Greatest British Films, above such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Crying Game, Dr. Zhivago, Gandhi and The Full Monty. Then again, it's below a couple films I've never even heard of (Kes, Brighton Rock, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), so it could just be that we'll have to leave the Brits to their own unique view of cinema. (Or maybe it means I should see those films.)
So Chariots of Fire is probably the perfect example of a film the Academy would have chosen as the best picture that year, simply because it is pathologically unable to pick the actual best film in most years. After all, 1981 was also the year Raiders of the Lost Ark was introduced into our lives.
Or I could just be biased against its director. I've never heard of Hugh Hudson before or since -- not to say he hasn't directed any other films, just that I haven't been aware that he's directed them. The Academy gave Warren Beatty the award that year for Reds, meaning Mr. Steven Spielberg had to wait another dozen years to win his for Schindler's List -- a far more fully realized consideration of the difficulty, to put it mildly, of being Jewish.