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Champion on review

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire.

William Blake,
Young Men of the New Age

The movies have finally discovered track and field. After decades of sports features devoted almost exclusively to baseball (the 1899 Casey at the Bat was probably the first sports film), football, and boxing — especially boxing— the movies in the past few years, undoubtedly influenced by the overwhelming popularity of television sports, have branched out into basketball (One on One), tennis (Players), hockey (Slapshot), skiing (Downhill Racer), cycling (the enormously successful Breaking Away), and even bowling (Dreamer). Now, suddenly, track and field is the hot movie sport.

The brief lives of two of Australia’s best young sprinters, ca. 1915, are chronicled in director Peter Weir’s recent Gallipoli, although the absurdity of war rather than sport itself is the film’s primary concern. In writer-director Robert Towne’s current release, Personal Best (see review below), sport itself gets strong competition for audience attention from a Lesbian love affair between two pentathletes.

Track and field, on the other hand, is the central fact of this year’s surprise Oscar winner from Britain, Chariots of Fire — easily the best-ever feature film about Olympic sport, and possibly the best sports drama of any variety ever made.

Chariots of Fire follows the careers of real-life Olympic gold medallists Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) from the early 1920s through their triumphs in Paris in 1924.

Liddell, born in China the son of Scottish missionaries (he died in a Japanese prison camp in 1945), runs because he believes that God has given him the talent to run, and that not to fulfill his athletic potential would somehow be an act of sacrilege.

Abrahams also runs for reasons of religion. He is the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants who have prospered in Britain. The intense, brilliant Cambridge student runs to break the subtle barriers of English anti-Semitism. He runs to prove his equality in the only way he feels will make any difference — by proving his superiority.

Chariots of Fire parallels Liddell’s and Abrahams’ stories, which intersect only during a pre-Olympic meet in London and at the Paris Olympics. The two 100 metre hopefuls barely know each other, although they certainly know of each other. It is to the film’s credit that it doesn’t try to fabricate a friendship between these two very different competitors. Instead, it concentrates on their individual motives for running, their training methods, and the particular personal and social obstacles each must grapple with in some guise or other in order to excel: amateur athletes must always perform within certain limitations; the successful athlete is often the one who has a strength to push back those limitations.

What both men — one a pious Scot, the other an intensely competitive Jew — have in common is that they are outsiders trying to penetrate the aristocratic cocoon of British Olympism. Other than an unyielding stubborness, they share few other characteristics.

Abrahams, in comparison to Liddell, is the modern athlete. He goes so far as to hire a professional coach (Oscar nominee Ian Holm in a marvelous performance) to hone his considerable talent. But in doing so he transgresses the unwritten code of the Cambridge gentleman amateur. Rather than being perceived as fiercely dedicated, Abrahams is seen by the insidiously anti-Semitic Cambridge establishment as a border-line cheat, not as innovative, but as vulgar and pushy.

Liddell, on the other hand, is a raw, natural athlete, essentially self-trained. The pressures on him, if more direct, are certainly no less formidable. Liddell must first of all stand firm against family fears that his running is distracting him from his religious mission. And when he decides that he cannot participate in the 100 m heats in Paris because they are being run on the Sabbath, he must withstand even greater pressure from the entire British Olympic establishment from the Prince of Wales, on down and also from the British popular press, which brands him a traitor to his country.

Liddell, despite having to forego his 100 m specialty, went on to set an Olympic record of 47.6 sec in the 400 m, a distance at which he was certainly not considered a medal threat. And Abrahams, whose major competition in the 100 now came from the Americans (played in the film by Dennis Christopher from Breaking Away and Brad Davis from Midnight Express) won both his heats and the final, all in the Olympic record-equalling time of 10.6 sec.

The climactic Paris Games are meticulously recreated by first-time director Hugh Hudson. The superb photography, with its shifting speeds and perspectives, succeeds in breaking down the seconds of competition into the components an athlete’s mind breaks them down into. The photography simultaneously evokes the anticipation, the doing, and the memory of the event as an athlete might well experience it.

Chariots of Fire sets new standards for the sports movie.

David McDonald

Personal Best is a film that deserves a medal for courage. It is rare that a movie dares to take on most of life’s problems. Unfortunately, courage isn’t enough and the movie fails utterly.

Within the space of two hours we are presented with a tall, nubile and rather dim young athlete (Mariel Hemingway) who is embroiled in a lesbian affair, a heterosexual affair, a coach-athlete power struggle, a father-daughter power struggle, an athlete-athlete power struggle, a battle against fear of success, a battle against fear of failure and, oh yes, the transition from high school hurdler to Olympic pentathlete. Add to all of this drugs, sweat, booze, swearing, leering and bare breasts, and you have a dog’s breakfast on celluloid.

The film might have survived the astonishing plethora of unresolved plots and subplots if the central character were strong enough to bind the mess together. Hemingway, however, impresses only with her physique. She swallows her words and whines her way through the movie emerging from her immature role only twice, once in a cussing session with her manipulative coach and again in a self-sacrificing gesture during an Olympic Trials race.

The gesture, like many other statements in the film, is pointless. Hemingway burns off the early speed of a rival in the 800 m just so her lesbian ex-lover can make the Olympic team. But, since Hemingway has a respectable finish and wins a berth on the team as well, she has really sacrificed nothing and the gesture has little impact.

The film is full of such dead-end issues. Particularly frustrating is Hemingway’s lesbian fling. Her lover, a true-blue lesbian and one of the best pentathletes in the country, takes Hemingway under her wing and into her bed. But it is never clear whether Hemingway is a lesbian, a curious dabbler, bisexual, or simply naive.

The dissolution of the affair is equally obscure. Whether they part because of men, competitive rivalry or lack of interest is left dangling. Then again, perhaps the nefarious coach is scheming to keep them apart. He makes a pass at Hemingway and seems to be involved in some way with her lover, but we don’t know whether he is jealous or genuinely concerned that the affair is hurting their performances.

The coach is a composite of hundreds. Most athletes can recognize some elements of their own coaches in his character. However, his bitterness at being stuck with a female track team when he could be coaching serious sport (football), strikes an implausible chord. After all, he does train the three top pentathletes in the country. What more could any coach want?

Although he appears to be working with a full team, the coach spends most of his time with Hemingway. His character dwindles to an end as the film wraps up and he is left staring at the triumphant Hemingway. Bleakly, because Hemingway has earlier ignored his ultimatum — either ignore your ex-girlfriend kiddo or you ain’t playing on my team. Ridiculous, they are teammates after all.

The film makers clearly want to make an issue out of lesbian athletes. Oddly enough, the most coherent and amusing scenes are Hemingway’s encounters with a male water polo player. Their lovemaking and playful banter are refreshingly believable.

Characters come and go throughout the film, most of them contributing nothing to Hemingway’s convoluted struggles with herself, her sport, sex, her coach and on and on. The rest of the women on the team could have been used in subtle counterpoint to the main characters but they seem to be there only to fill the screen.

Personal Best is tantalizingly close to being a good film. The cinematography is excellent and the subject matter is virtually unexplored. If the issues and conflicts were pared down and the central character spiced up it would be a winner.

Alison Griffiths

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