There is much that is cheesy and dated about Chariots of Fire. The Oscar bait heavy inspirationalism. The frequent slo-mo sequences that suggest the film’s director, Hugh Hudson, was a sort of pacifist late 20th century Zack Snyder. More than anything else, that icon of ’80s cheese, the Vangelis soundtrack.
And yet, the film works. Even as I was watching it, thinking how its brand of male bonding would make Freudian critics and queer theorists giggle with glee, how it was manipulative and tear-jerky, I couldn’t escape the pull of its pathos and earnestness, nor its nationalist nostalgia. The latter is easiest to accept, perhaps, as the film’s idealisation of the Britain of Yore nevertheless permits a critical note or two: the anti-semitism of the Cambridge deans, the echoes of a recent war defying patriotic re-interpretation, or the way that one character’s beliefs trump the pride of the British empire even in the face of its future king.
The film even pulls off the Vangelis, although just about (and you have to be willing to accept it as a product of its time), because its synth strains add an intriguingly anachronistic note to the movie’s nostalgia for a better, nobler time – filtered, by now, through our own ambivalent, ironic nostalgia for the ’80s. The movie’s editing, too, helps with its Nicholas Roeg-like fragmenting touches, adding a touch of strangeness to what might otherwise be too reassuringly – and boringly – familiar.
Chariots of Fireworks as a one-off thing: if there was another film like it (and there very well might be – can’t say I’m too versed in sports movies), even if that film was equally well-made, it would feel like too much: too much pathos, too much British nostalgia, too much Inspiration with a Capital I. In itself, the film holds up. At least if you have a touch of yearning for that silly, gentle, noble Englishness that never really existed except in the minds of writers, poets and the people who made the Hovis bread ads.
P.S.: After my long hiatus from this blog, I’ve decided this: I’ll aim for one entry per week. No more, no less. It’d be cool if you stick around to find out together with me whether I’ll manage.