I'd like to spank the Academy

Chariots of Fire (1981)

ChariotsDirected by Hugh Hudson

This is another movie I grew up watching. My family must have an eclectic taste in movies, but I’ve never really realized that until now. Anyway, it’s always interesting to really pay attention to a movie you’ve seen a dozen times before. I noticed things and understood things differently than I ever had before. That might also have to do with the fact that I’m older and so see life a little bit differently than I did. But whatever the reason, watching Chariots of Fire again and trying to be impartial while doing so was a really good experience. And I think I will always be a little bit in love with Lord Lindsay.

So what’s the story? Harold Abrahams is an Englishman who goes to Cambridge and loves Gilbert and Sullivan. He’s also a Jew, which means that to some, he will never be entirely English. He runs to prove to everyone, not least himself, that he is as good as everyone else. Eric Liddell is a missionary who was born and grew up in China, but he also plays rugby for Scotland. He runs for the glory of God. These two men show their dedication in the 1924 Olympic games.

The Good: This movie has great acting. I’m honestly surprised that Ben Cross wasn’t nominated for a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Harold Abrahams. Ian Charleston is just as good as Eric Liddell. The supporting actors are good as well. I noticed when I watched the famous running on the beach sequence that the four main runners (Harold, Eric, Aubrey Montague, Lord Lindsay) show their characters’ personalities in the few seconds that the camera is focused on them. It was all very well done.

This is the third movie that took place in a historical time this week, and this is the third one where the designer actually paid attention to what people were wearing at the time. Hooray for more correct historical costuming! Thank you, 1981!

I was impressed by the screenplay this time around. It’s based on a true story, but of course things are compressed or changed in time to make for a more streamlined story. All of the characters are distinct people with strong personalities. The story is inspiring, but it could have become overwhelmingly cheesy if the writers weren’t careful. The writers did an excellent job.

The Bad: I feel terrible saying this, but the music is bad. The themes are beautiful, and when the theme song is played on a piano or by an orchestra, I love it. However, the music in the movie is played on a synthesizer, and it just doesn’t work. It’s so very 1980s. It might have been fine if the movie took place in the 1980s, but it’s not okay in the 1920s. (And before anyone jumps down my throat for insulting the music, go and watch the movie. If you disagree with me after that…well, we will just have a difference of opinion. But it will be an informed difference of opinion.)

The Ugly: There is no ugly in this movie. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen; best costume design; best music, original score.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best actor in a supporting role (Ian Holm); best director; best film editing.

Comments on: "Chariots of Fire (1981)" (8)

  1. This movie is the best. One of my favorite things about it, though, is that the two protagonists are running for such different reasons and you want BOTH of them to win. It would be so easy to pit the virtuous Eric Liddle (“I’m running for the glory of God! He gave me a body that’s good at running so I will run!”) versus the angry Harold Abrahams (“I’m running to prove I’m better than all the rest! They’ll regret the numerous slights/discriminations/prejudices I’ve had to endure over the years!”) But both motives–one selfless, for God; one intensely selfish, but so understandable–are treated with equal dignity.

    I don’t know why, but I always kind of want to hug Aubrey. He’s just so normal compared to the rest–dashing Lord Lindsay (not merely an aristocrat–he’s a gentleman), steady Eric, intense Harold. In retrospect, I think I was always a little bit in love with ALL of them.

    And while the synth soundtrack may be a little OTT, the theme song is still iconic!


  2. Jonathan said:

    Here’s an agreement to disagree about the music (I watched the movie again just a couple of years ago.) The music rocks. It’s iconic and copied/parodied for a reason. Would it have been played in the 1920s as is, on a synthesizer? No, but that doesn’t mean that the Ten Commandments should have been restricted to period music. It deserved the best music win.

    I’ll give you Abraham’s performance. It should have been nominated. Other performances besides Ian Holmes also should have been nominated. Is there a rule against nominated multiple actors from one movie? I also agree with you that the portrayal of each athletes motivations was very well done.

    And I’m curious, how do you know so much about period clothing? I’m the average movie goer who would believe just about anything that kinda looked like it might have been something that someone would wear more than a few decades ago.


    • +1 to Jon re: music should have won.

      There can’t be a rule against multiple people being nominated from the same movie, because the women who played Mammy and Melanie Wilkes were both nominated as best supporting actress. I can’t think of any good reason why the guy who played Harold wasn’t nominated.

      Melanie (at least in part) knows about period clothing because her little sister is an overbearing fashion history nerd. (Want to know the five layers of fabric that make up an eighteenth-century corset? I can tell you the layers’ names, plus the type/texture/purpose of each.)(We all need hobbies.)


    • What Heather said is true. Little sister would bring library books about fashion history home and I would sometimes read them, but more often would hear, “Melanie, you wanna know something cool?” followed by a fashion history fact. But I cannot name the five layers of fabric that make up an 18th century corset. I just know the basics.


  3. Jonathan said:

    Ok yes tell me the five layers of a corset. Seriously.

    Also I will be looking forward to the Grouch’s critique of Amadeus, including any sartorial observations.


    • From the outside in:

      Cover layer (the nicest fabric you can afford; for fancy folk, that might be silk brocade or heavily-embroidered silk in the first 3/4 century, and then it mellowed out to darker colors of subtler silk. For poorer people, it would generally be the highest-quality linen or maybe fine wool you could afford).

      Next two layers are called the ‘tow’ layers, and they’re basically the fabric backbone of the corset; the bones are sewn in-between these two layers, so the fabric has to be strong enough that the bones can’t poke through or twist in their channels. Often this would be a stiff, thick, tightly-woven linen canvas known as coutil (still used in the making of professional tutu bodices!). Sometimes the tow layers were sewn to the cover fabric at the seams and then the individual channels for the bones were sewn through all *three* layers, so that there was a decorative striped pattern on the outside cover; obviously, they didn’t do that if the outer fabric was embroidered or otherwise really fancy on its own.

      The fourth layer is the “crash,” and it sort of functions as a little bit of padding between the hardness of the tow layers and your skin. It was generally linen, occasionally wool, but a much looser/coarser weave–often made from the crappier flax left over after the nice stuff was spun.

      Then the innermost layer was the lining, which might be silk for the wealthy but was often just a nice, smooth, breathable linen. Corsets can be really hot and sweaty, so linen was a nice thing to have next to the skin.

      The busk (a wide, flat piece of wood which functioned to keep the front of the corset straight and promote that smushed, smoothed, conical silhouette) was generally slipped between the third layer (inner tow layer) and the crash layer, so a channel had to be sewn for the insert. Ultimately:

      Cover (fancy)
      Tow (strong)
      [narrow bones in narrow channels covering the entire corset]
      Tow (strong)
      [1″ to 2″-wide piece of wood sewn into a single central channel]
      Crash (padding, plus gives a place for the busk to be inserted)
      Lining (smooth inner layer)

      And of course the edges were often finished in ribbon, silk, twill or leather, so you might end up sewing through seven layers of fabric by the end.

      Now you know.


      • Jonathan said:

        Yes, now I know.


        1. Bones? As in animal bones? I don’t get this part.

        2. Busk. Is this the thing that made it so you can tighten the laces and make a woman’s waist thinner? (I’ve seen Titanic, so I know tons about corsets.)

        3. Why is this so interesting to you? (This is not a derogatory comment at all.)

        4. What time period were these worn? (I did a quick Google search on corsets, and most of the results were for a different product than the one that you describe.)

        5. Why a fancy covering at all? Wasn’t it supposed to be worn under clothing?

        Sorry Grouch for derailing your review. 😉


  4. 1. Not technically “bone,” but baleen, which they called “whalebone.” It’s kind of similar in feel to those really thick zip ties used to secure pipes–a little bit of flexibility and “give”, but not too much. (I don’t mean the skinny zip ties you secure someone’s wrists with when you kidnap them; the yard-long ones you can find at Home Depot.) Whalebone largely replaced the reeds, cords and metal of the Elizabethan era, then were temporarily supplanted by cording in the Regency era (not quite so stiff), then boning again for the Victorian era, and then flat steel, spiral steel, and plastic boning in the twentieth century.
    2. For a good tightlace you need strong bones (over the entire body of the corset), strong fabric, strong eyelets for the lacings, and strong laces. The busk isn’t so much to help it lace tightly as it is to guarantee the correct silhouette–trust me, you can’t slouch or bend much when a 2″-wide, 14″-long piece of hardwood is tightly strapped to front of your body.
    3. I think clothes–past and present, haute couture and Walmart–are fascinating. They protect us from the elements, obviously, and much is made of their ability to make someone look “good” or not, but they’re also a major form of communication. Clothes can broadcast religious or political affiliations, socioeconomic status, gender, employment, country/culture of origin, personal beliefs, etc. (And that’s before you start throwing slogans or graphics on tshirts.) When both the wearer and observer understand the language, a lot can be said without being said. When the wearer and observer *don’t* speak the same sartorial language or misread the situation (eg, a feminist trying to explain to a burka-wearing feminist how she is being repressed; a woman wearing a miniskirt and tall heels in the “wrong” part of town) there can be problems. Clothing’s importance as language increases in atmospheres that are already tense or charged; my history thesis examined moments in history when clothes (worn wisely or foolishly) impacted the course of history. (I compared Antoinette and Washington on the eve of their respective revolutions; Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain on the 2008 campaign trails.)
    4. I was referring to the eighteenth century specifically; they actually called them “stays” instead of corsets back then. (Another reason to smack whomever wrote “Pirates of the Caribbean.”) If you google “extant Georgian stays” or “extant rococo stays” you should get some good results, and Elizabeth Swan’s stays are actually a pretty good example of 1720s(ish?) stays. The desirable body shapes change drastically over the next couple of centuries, but the basic construction of the corset–outer layer, strong boned fabric, inner layer, central busk in front, back lacing–stays more or less the same over time.
    5. Because conspicuous consumption. 😉 The back-lacing design necessitated having someone help the wearer into it; one’s family or a maid would see it, at least. And if you were the queen of France (for example) a dozen people might be in the room with you as you got dressed, since helping the royals get dressed was one of the absurdly complicated ceremonies Louis XIV implemented to help control the nobles.


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