THE Best Picture: Chariots of Fire (1981)

By Christian DiMartino

There is barely a Best Picture winner that I can think of that I genuinely don’t like (I’d probably have to revisit Out of Africa, but what a beautiful yawn; and what the hell was Tom Jones?). That being said, there have been some choices over the years that make you roll your eyes at just the Oscar-baity predictability of the choice. It also doesn’t help whenever you place some of these movies next to the ones that they were competing against. The famous one, of course, is when How Green Was My Valley? beat Citizen Kane. Who is still watching How Green Was My Valley? I do recall an episode of Frasier whenever Frasier tried to rent it… but that was the 90’s. Then there’s the topic of Chariots of Fire. Who, I ask you, is still watching Chariots of Fire?

Here’s the thing: Chariots of Fire is actually a decent movie, but it isn’t anything remarkable. It tells a good story decently, but most of all, the big takeaway from Chariots of Fire is that score by Vangelis. Oh, you know the one, it’s totally epic. Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun-dun-dun. Good stuff. That score has been used out the wazoo, but it always seems to fit the occasion. Score aside, it’s a fine movie… but it was one of those occasions where, of the five choices, the Academy happened to pick the worst of the bunch. It’s mostly just sort of a bland choice, especially whenever the other choices made a bit more of an impact.

The film is directed by Hugh Hudson, who went on to make uh… well, he, uh… he went on to make… uh… well, he went on to make Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, which is literally the only other movie on his IMDb filmography that I recognized, and have actually seen (I probably like it more than those few who have seen it). Chariots of Fire tells the story of two British track athletes, one named Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and the other named Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson). Abrahams is Jewish, and Liddell is a devout Christian, and the two, with both their religious backgrounds and family influences, compete against each other in the 1924 Olympics.

The movie looks good, and it tells the kind of good old fashioned sports tale you don’t hear too much about these days. Chariots of Fire entertains, and it does have some strong performances as well (the late great Ian Holm nabbed a Best Supporting Actor nomination here). Yet for all its decency, Chariots of Fire isn’t a film that wowed me as I watching it. Mind you, it might’ve hit differently in 1981. Imagine watching this film in a theatre, with that Vangelis score thundering throughout the theatre. It could’ve gotten anyone hyped. Yet watching this movie on DVD, well… it’s fine. The other four nominees, I also didn’t get to see in a theatre, but each of those films managed to do a little more for me anyways.

So yes, Chariots of Fire did win Best Picture, over the likes of Warren Beatty’s Reds, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mark Rydell’s On Golden Pond, and Louis Malle’s Atlantic City. Each of these movies, in my opinion, are great. Malle’s Atlantic City features great performances from Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon, and is richly entertaining; On Golden Pond is perhaps corny, but it works beautifully. Reds and Raiders, on the other hand, are next-level filmmaking. The Academy at least had the decency to reward Beatty with Best Director, because man, even on DVD, Reds is likely to take your breath away. The best, or at least personal favorite, of these films would’ve been Raiders of the Lost Ark though, because Spielberg managed to take something cartoonish and turn it into magnificent, timeless entertainment, and, not to mention, magical filmmaking.

So yeah, Chariots of Fire isn’t Raiders of the Lost Ark, nor is it Reds, On Golden Pond, or Atlantic City. What it is though is decent, a case in which the Academy went all in on a movie mostly because it seemed like the right thing to do. It’s a film that oozes and screams Oscar, so naturally, they went for it. It’s not a bad choice… it just isn’t the right one, considering the circumstances.

Chariots of Fire: B

Best Picture

Did Win: Chariots of Fire

Should’ve Won: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Best Director

Did Win: Warren Beatty- Reds

Should’ve Won: Beatty or Steven Spielberg- Raiders of the Lost Ark

Best Actor

Did Win: Henry Fonda- On Golden Pond

Should’ve Won: Fonda (but Dudley Moore, Beatty, and Lancaster rule)

Best Actress

Did Win: Katharine Hepburn- On Golden Pond

Should’ve Won: Hepburn

Best Supporting Actor

Did Win: John Gielgud- Arthur

Should’ve Won: Gielgud or Howard E. Rollins- Ragtime

Best Supporting Actress

Did Win: Maureen Stapleton- Reds

Should’ve Won: Stapleton

Best Original Screenplay

Did Win: Chariots of Fire

Should’ve Won: Reds

Best Adapted Screenplay

Did Win: On Golden Pond

Should’ve Won: Ragtime

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