With the Academy Awards airing Sunday, I decided to use the first of my semi-regular Olympics columns to revisit the most acclaimed and honored movie ever made about the Olympics.
"Chariots of Fire" tells the true story of two runners, one Jewish, the other a Scottish missionary, who followed their convictions and ran to glory at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. The movie won four Oscars in 1981, including best screenplay, best original score and, of course, best picture. I loved "Chariots" when it came out and was happy to see it beat the overhyped "Reds" for best picture (though I was disappointed to see "Raiders of the Lost Ark" lose).
Was "Chariots" really the best movie that year, better than "Reds," "Raiders" and other nominees, "Atlantic City" and "On Golden Pond"? Well, it was obviously better than "On Golden Pond." But how does it stack up 30 years later?
To see whether "Chariots" really deserved Academy gold, let's go to video replay
Scene 1: On the beach: The movie begins at the 1978 funeral service for Olympic champion Harold Abrahams, then quickly cuts to the famous beach scene where we see a young Abrahams and fellow 1924 British Olympians running across the sands. They wear white shirts and shorts, along with the sort of joyful expressions that indicate they should be tested for non-performance-enhancing drugs.
Perhaps they are so euphoric because they are hearing the Oscar-winning Vangelis soundtrack, a score so stirring that the synthesizer music still sounds cool three decades later. Are there any runners alive who haven't recreated this scene in their heads at least once? For that matter, is there anyone who hasn't posted a YouTube video of themselves running to this song? (For all the copies and parodies, none are better than this one by "SCTV" and Hall and Oates --yes, Hall and Oates!)
The "Chariots" opening is just a wonderful, inspiring scene that makes me want to go for a run right now. I give it the silver medal for most inspiring sports movie scene, just behind Rocky's gold medal-winning "Gonna Fly Now" sequence. Timmy Lupus catching the fly ball in "Bad News Bears" to music from "Carmen" wins the bronze.
Cambridge arrival: We're introduced to Abrahams and his classmate, Aubrey Montague, as they arrive at Cambridge for fall term 1920. They are runners, but Montague tells Abrahams, "Only trouble is, I can't stand getting beat. And you?" Don't know, Abrahams replies -- "I've never lost."
This scene also reveals just how privileged many Olympians were in those days. Eleven months after the end of World War I, the two students arrive at Cambridge and immediately enlist porters to carry their luggage, which prominently includes golf clubs and tennis racquets. Two horribly disfigured WWI veterans look on in disgust. "That's why we fought the bleeding war for," one says. "To give s---- like that a bleeding education."
By the way, if Abrahams looks a little old to be just now entering school, it's because he was played by a 34-year-old Ben Cross, perhaps the most outrageous actor-to-character age gap other than Wilford Brimley playing Pop Fisher in "The Natural" when he was in his 40s.
The college chase: Abrahams takes on the College Dash, a race around a campus quadrangle in the time it takes for the bell tower to toll 12 times at noon. "What's special about it, my dear lad, is that in 700 years, no one has ever done it." Joining Abrahams just before his run is classmate Lord Andrew Lindsay, who arrives with a cigarette holder in his mouth, a champagne bottle in his hand and a flowing scarf around his neck. (I would love to see Usain Bolt saunter up to the start line of the 100 in London with a scarf and a cigarette holder.)
The two race around the quad, with Abrahams just crossing the line before the final toll. Abrahams' battle against anti-Semitism is one of the movie's major themes. Watching the race from their ivory towers, the bigoted Cambridge master (played by John Gielgud) observes to a colleague, "Perhaps they are God's chosen people after all. I doubt there is a swifter man in the kingdom."
The Flying Scotsman: The film cuts to Scotland, where our second hero, Liddell, speaks to a group about the glories of God. Liddell is a Christian missionary and a brilliant athlete who never lets an opportunity pass to talk about God. He is sort of the Tim Tebow of his day, except Liddell refuses to compete on Sunday.
We also meet Liddell's zealous sister, Jenny, who thinks her brother loses an ounce of his immortal soul every time he runs. She takes the gold medal as the biggest sourpuss in movie history, edging Myra Fleener from "Hoosiers."
Unlike Jenny, Liddell's father encourages Eric to use his athletic skills to a greater purpose. "You can praise God by peeling a spud if you peel it to perfection," he says. "Run in God's name and let the world stand back in wonder." Tebow couldn't say it better.
Training montage No. 1: Here is a prime example of how "Chariots" differs from most sports movies. Others show training montages with dynamic, inspiring music, like "Gonna Fly Now" or the Notre Dame fight song. We see Abrahams running in Ralph Lauren-quality tennis sweaters to Gilbert and Sullivan.
The coach: Abrahams attends a meet between Scotland and France, where he sees Liddell get knocked off his feet by another runner in the 400. This is like the Mary Decker-Zola Budd incident, except for a key difference -- Liddell rises to his feet and rallies to win the race.
After the race, Abrahams meets professional coach Sam Mussabini. This is radical because, back then, athletics were supposed to be for amateurs and gentlemen. What is interesting is that when "Chariots of Fire" came out, professional athletes still were barred from the Olympics. The IOC moves slowly, my friends.
Night at the opera: Dressed in a tux and watching from a private box, Abrahams falls in love with Lindsay's sister, Sybil, a chorus girl singing "Three Little Maids" in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado." You know, for all the fame Vangelis received for his soundtrack, we hear Gilbert and Sullivan's music nearly as often.
Abrahams loses to Liddell: Abrahams and Liddell finally meet on the track. Liddell crushes Abrahams, who doesn't know how to handle the loss. He is in agony, partly because he replays the race over and over in his head, and partly because there are some really annoying synthesizer sounds playing in the background. Sybil tries to cheer Abrahams, to no avail. Exasperated, she says that if he's going to behave this way, perhaps it is best he lost. "I don't run to take a beating! I run to win!" he shouts. "If I can't win, I won't run." She wisely counters: "If you don't run, you can't win."
Just then Mussabini walks up and offers his coaching services, saying he can help gain Abrahams 2 yards by correcting the way he overstrides.
Training montage No. 2: Another training montage, this one alternates between shots of Abrahams running in more sweaters under Mussabini's watchful eye and Liddell running through the Scottish Highlands. Not only is Liddell wearing leather shoes, a shirt and wool pants, he is also wearing suspenders! He obviously does not have an endorsement deal.
The montage continues and now we see Liddell running on the beach wearing (gasp!) shorts and no shirt! Exposed legs and a bare chest! Jenny is right! Her brother is sprinting straight to hell. The next thing you know, he'll be wearing a swoosh.
"God also made me fast": After showing up late to a prayer meeting due to a running commitment, Liddell tells his sister he will return to China to continue his missionary work after he runs in the Olympics. She is furious, but he cuts her off, saying, "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure."
This is a medal contender for best line in sports movie history. Others include:
"Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." -- "The Pride of the Yankees"
"OK, well, uh candlesticks always make a nice gift." -- "Bull Durham"
"Smokey, this is not 'Nam. This is bowling. There are rules." -- "The Big Lebowski"
"There's no crying in baseball!" -- "A League of Their Own"
"Show me the money!" -- "Jerry Maguire"
And of course
"So I got that goin' for me, which is nice." -- "Caddyshack"
Champagne hurdles: Sybil meets with her brother at his Downton Abbey-like estate to complain about Abrahams' running obsession. Lindsay tells her to deal with it, explaining that while he himself has a chance to be a fast runner, Abrahams could be the fastest. That, he emphasizes, is quite different because it means immortality (as well as massive shoe contracts).
Lindsay then begins his strenuous afternoon training regimen. He has his servants set up hurdles on the grand lawn, carefully setting a full glass of champagne on each one. A maid brings him his running spikes, Lindsay takes off his robe, removes the cigarette from his mouth and runs a nearly flawless dash that spills only one drink. Admit it, you would be way more excited about track and field if they ran the 110 Champagne Hurdles.
Ivory-towered bigots: Those pompous, bigoted Cambridge masters call in Abrahams to chastise him for hiring a coach, particularly one of both Italian and Arab descent (say it isn't so!). This just isn't done by a Cambridge man. Why, the next thing you know, Abrahams will expect to be paid for competing in front of thousands of fans who bought expensive tickets to see him! And you know what that would lead to -- agents!
Abrahams accuses the masters of hypocrisy, leaves their office and despairs in the courtyard. But good news! Abrahams' pals immediately rush over to tell him he has made the Olympic team! And Liddell, too!
Never on Sunday: Bad news! Boarding the boat for France, Liddell learns the 100 heat will be held on a Sunday. "It's only a heat," his friend says. "Does it make all that difference?" It does. Liddell will not race on the Sabbath, which as we all know, the Lord set aside for watching football.
The Yanks are coming: The American Olympic team arrives in France and we meet sprint champs Charlie Paddock and Jackson Scholz. Paddock is played by Dennis Christopher, who portrayed Dave Stoller in "Breaking Away" just a couple of years earlier. Christopher was only 26 at the time and had already been in two of the best sports movies of all time. And then his career just went in the tank. Within a couple of years, he was doing single episodes of "Trapper John," "Matlock" and "Murder She Wrote," along with such straight-to-video trash as "Dead Women in Lingerie." His was a swifter, greater fall than Ben Johnson.
Training montage No. 3: Those damn Yanks train under the guidance of professional coaches (hiss!), each wielding megaphones while putting the athletes through their paces. Wearing loose gray sweatsuits that will remain fashionable through "Rocky" and "Heaven Can Wait," the Americans perform bizarre exercises that are best described as guaranteed to pull a hamstring or strain an oblique.
The Olympics begin: The Olympics open with the athletes marching into the stadium, the majority of them white and male. The opening ceremonies were much simpler in those days. There was no torch to light (that tradition didn't start until 1936), but there was no over-the-top "entertainment" like Yoko Ono singing "Imagine," either.
The Prince of Wales: At a private waltz for the Olympians, Liddell is escorted to a private chamber. There the Prince of Wales -- who will go on to become a fascist sympathizer -- asks him to run in Sunday's heat out of love for his country. Liddell refuses. "I won't run on the Sabbath and that's final."
Just when it appears there is no solution, Lindsay dashes in (though, sadly, sans cigarette lighter). He won a silver medal earlier in that day's hurdles. How about if Liddell runs the 400 in his place Thursday? They all agree it's a splendid idea. After all, a sprinter can easily be ready to run a quarter-mile in four days!
Olympic montage: While we see a montage of athletes in physical and emotional pain during the Sunday races, Liddell speaks at a church, quoting Isaiah. All nations before God are nothing, he says. But they who wait upon the Lord "will mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary."
The climax: Finally, after all the tuxedos, bible verses, scarves and Gilbert and Sullivan music, we get to the men's 100 final. The movie's slow buildup is about to pay off. And then, we not only see the race in slow motion (twice), but we also see the runners crouching at the start line to dig their footholds in slow motion as well! Abrahams wins the 100, though what with all the slow-motion video, his winning time must have been approximately two minutes and 14 seconds.
We move on to the 400 and a most unexpected sound. As the runners prepare for the race, American fans begin chanting "U-S-A! U-S-A!" Apparently, we're in some sort of bizarre time warp because the 1924 Olympics and 1980 Winter Olympics are both being held at the same venue. Wait, is that Kurt Russell in Lane 4?
Scholz hands Liddell a note that says, "It says in the old book, 'He who honors me, I will honor.' Good luck." And apparently, God does, because Liddell wins in an upset. Tebow would be proud.
The conquering heroes: The team returns in England to triumph. As we hear a boys' choir singing, the movie shifts back to the 1978 funeral, then just as quickly returns to the opening beach scene. At first, we hear only the sound of their feet hitting the wet sand, but the Vangelis music swells until we have an exact duplication of the opening. Director Hugh Hudson knew a powerful scene when he saw it.
This scene is what really won "Chariots of Fire" the Oscar for best picture, because frankly, the rest of the movie isn't as deserving. I liken it to last year's winner, "The King's Speech," which is a very good movie, but will it really be one you love to watch years later? I don't think so. But it's the sort of classy British indie that makes the Academy voters feel good and smart about their ballot, just like "Chariots."
"Chariots" is a thoughtful, beautifully made and occasionally moving movie. It's very good. But aside from the beach scene and champagne hurdles, it isn't all that much fun, either. It captures the power of sports, but apart from that opening, it pretty much whiffs on the joy of sports. Which is why it's not a top Netflix choice all these decades later.
And that's also why the 1981 Oscar should have gone instead to "Raiders of the Lost Ark," a movie that knew when to have fun and when to keep things moving, a movie people still watch again and again. And it has a pretty rousing soundtrack to run to, too. The silver medal, meanwhile, goes to "Chariots."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His website is at jimcaple.net.