Most people are familiar with the Vangelis' theme to this movie, but they don't know much about the film itself, and it's a shame that the film itself hasn't received enough recognition.
Today when the defining climax comes in a sports movie, they can conviniently rely on slow-motion to create drama. If you've ever taped a basketball game or a baseball game, it's fun to take just that game winning shot or game-winning homerun and watch it frame-by-frame to be able to disect exactly how that batter was able to do that, and movies of the 90s (Angels in the Outfield, Iron Will, the Rookie, etc, i could name about 20 others) have picked up on that.
But Chariots of Fire was able to create a lot of that drama without any slow motion or much of the technology that we have today. Instead, I think those races in the end are so captivating because the characters themselves engage us.
The story takes place in 1920s Britain, and yes, it is true, people back then were able to run pretty fast, even though they wore funny-looking shoes. The two main characters are both sprinters with different motivation. The first, Harold Abrahams, is a promising young student at Oxford with a chip on his shoulder, he's Jewish and feels like an outsider. One of the things the film does really well is get that paradox across to us, we see the guy fit in really well, he gets girls, he gets to act in the school play and sing corny Brittish songs, and of course since he's so fast, he obviously has the respect of the other runners, but on the other hand, there's that slight difference between him and everyone else. It's partially a self-fulfilling prophecy, him feeling like an outsider makes him an outsider, but also some of the finer details of the film reinforce the point, the shots of the university, itself, look so gothic and non-Jewish.
Either way, that subtleness really is part of how the film is so delicately made and able to give a grasp of the guy's kind of inner motivation.At the same time, the movie follows a parallel plot of another sprinter Eric Lidell, who's dashing good looks and speeed win him many fans, but he's not really into that, he's a missionary and very devoted to God, but he loves running too, and as he tells one of the other sisters he works with, he feels that his two passions complement each other, and that he thinks that when he's running, he feels God's strength and he can also use his fame to talk about how great God is, so he follows through on that.The movie tells two captivating stories, with a great historic-period feel, but it is kind of interesting how the character's two paths never really collide, but rather seem to kind of coexist on the screen, harmoniously. Considering the two run the same event, and with the clashing ways in which religion motivates the two, you'd think that would set the stage for conflict, but oddly, it doesn't happen like that. The two first meet, and have a tense and contrived "good luck to you" exchange before the race in which one loses (I won't say which one), and when they get to the Olympics, Eric refuses to run the 100 because it takes place on the Sabbath, even though he's been training for that for months.
While there's some dissapointment that these two aren't gonna battle it out as predicted, that moment in the movie says a lot about the character, and I think by making the movie more about their inner journeys within themselves rather than verse each other, the movie boldly defies the predictable route.