Art Vs Commerce: This Time It’s Personal (1980s)

1981

And now for the moment when the 80s Oscars made film history say “Wait, what?”

Some of our Best Pictures have been all-time classics. Some have been movies you probably know at least one scene of. Some have lines so iconic people who’ve never seen the movie can quote them almost perfectly.

And this one has a score people know instantly but when asked what it’s from might manage “The one about running?”

…I’m saying “iconic” a lot this entry. Please don’t make a drinking game out of it, I don’t think it’ll go well.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Okay first off, the famous Chariots of Fire theme? The Oscar-winning synth tune whose relevance as a cultural touchstone has outlasted the movie it’s from by several decades? It only plays under the opening and closing credits. That’s it. Don’t wait for it.

So. Chariots of Fire. In which some upper-crust British lads attend fancy schools and run fast enough to make the 1924 Olympics, and this might be the whitest movie I’ve ever seen, and I saw the aggressively Welsh How Green Was My Valley.

The movie focuses on the true story of two men’s attempt to make the British Olympic track and field team: the internet tells me their names were Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, but the movie wasn’t great at investing me in its characters, so I knew them as Jewish One and Scottish One, and the other main runners as Rich One and Narrator One. Narrator One tended to vanish for long stretches, I often lost track of which he was.

Harold is a Cambridge student devoted to running, who has to deal with a steady stream of passive-aggressive antisemitism from university staff. Eric is the son of Scottish missionaries, who intends to follow in their footsteps, but also loves running, and feels that racing gives glory to God. He faces staunch disapproval from a woman that I thought was his mother, and then thought was his wife, but I just checked and she’s his sister, apparently. Catholics, man, so afraid of their own horniness it’s hard to spot the difference between sister and wife sometimes.

Anyhoo the first time Harold and Eric race, Eric easily takes the win, so I assumed he was now the antagonist, but I guess not? Because not to get ahead of myself, the Americans are the antagonists. Which is different for an Inspirational Sports Movie, but I guess if you’re going to make one about Olympians from anywhere but the US or Russia, the Americans and Russians are your only possible nemeses, because they take the Olympics seriously.

Harold’s loss means he starts training with Sam Mussabini (The Fifth Element’s Ian Holm), something that doesn’t sit well with the Cambridge bigwigs. They claim it’s because they find using a professional trainer ungentlemanly, Harold’s pretty sure it’s antisemitism, or racism against his trainer’s Italian and Arabic heritage, or just old-school British classism, and ignores them… but must juggle training with his new relationship with an actress (Star Trek: First Contact’s Alice Krige).

Meanwhile Eric’s sister who ISN’T his wife or girlfriend feels running is distracting from their Jesus stuff, but he remains compelled to run… until the Olympics schedule his race on… Sunday. And despite pressure from all the top British Olympic bigwigs and the future King of England (the one who abdicated), he refuses to run on the Sabbath. (Rich One switches spots with him after winning a silver medal, so he can run, but a longer distance than he’s used to.)

So Eric inspired Harold to try harder and get faster, then had the far less compelling obstacle. I mean come on, it’s antisemitism and classism versus “I toileth not on the Sabbath,” obviously I’m going to think Harold is the one, true protagonist (Narrator One was a tertiary character at best), but the climactic final race was Eric’s?

This wasn’t my longest movie by a wide margin but for a movie about running it was very slow. Watching this bowl of mayonnaise wear fancy suits to be Olympians wasn’t exactly the Miracle on Ice. I watched this thing for two hours and felt invested in it maybe once. No wonder this decade saw a surge in Best Pictures that didn’t make the top– what? It did? No. No, what? Seventh place? Over… over a James Bond movie? By four million dollars.

…Son of a bitch. Did not expect that.

Here’s some Tweets in which I attempt to figure out which loaf of white bread I’m supposed to cheer for.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s 74th, just under A Man For All Seasons and a few notches above Tom Jones and Gigi. That’s the sort of company Chariots of Fire should be in, yes, and I wish to renew my objection in the strongest terms that the delightful Going My Way is down there under them.

So I guess we’re fully back to 60s/70s protocol, because not only did the Best Picture make the top ten (somehow), but the box office champ got a best picture nomination… because of course it did, it’s George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, at their peaks, working together, that’s Blockbuster Dynamite.

(Spielberg had asked to do a Bond movie, but Eon Productions only hired British directors for Bonds. Thankfully George Lucas had another offer.)

The Box Office Champ

First: anyone who thinks it is or should be called Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is free to leave.

Second. While I haven’t seen Reds, On Golden Pond, or Atlantic City, Raiders of the Lost Ark should have won Best Picture, it just clearly should have. Raiders of the Lost Ark is the movie that inspired others, that remained a classic, that even today is a beloved, iconic hit, whereas the other four are largely forgotten. Sure Chariots of Fire had that iconic theme music, but come on, Indiana Jones didn’t?

Now this movie’s gotten some criticisms over the years, as anything noteworthy will in the age of Cracked After Hours and it’s twisted, evil cousin Cinema Sins. You could argue that Indiana Jones’ involvement in the plot has no real consequence; you could argue that Indy would not have survived clinging to the outside of a submarine for an indeterminate amount of time; you could even, as the above link does, argue that Indy revealing that God exists, takes vengeance on evildoers, and hates Nazis so much his artefacts literally burn swastikas off of crates might have had an impact on World War II; to all of which I say oh hush up you joyless pedant.

A good Indiana Jones movie is an adventure, it’s about the thrills of the journey, not the precise details of the destination. It’s about the action, the narrow escapes, the bold triumphs, the satisfaction of the good guys prevailing (even if only for a moment) because they’re a little more clever than the bad guys. Even Belloq, who managed to keep up with Indy the whole movie, then flew too close to the sun.

Also as Lucifer’s brother Amenadiel would tell you, humans aren’t meant to intermingle with the Divine, even if they had taken the Ark on a world tour instead of shoving it in a warehouse (spoilers for one of the most iconic shots in film history) it might have gone very poorly and this isn’t the point.

It’s a thrill ride with some excellent characters. The chemistry crackles between Harrison Ford’s Indy and Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood; Paul Freeman’s Belloq is perfectly smug; John Rhys-Davies excels as digger Sallah (his first of two legendary franchises on this list); Denholm Elliott gets less to do here than he would in a later installment but he nails what he has. And everything is perfectly accompanied by John Williams’ flawless score, and brought to life by Spielberg’s genius direction.

I like that Belloq is a worthy nemesis, always one step ahead: he’s just as smart, just as capable, they even establish that Marion can drink a man twice her size literally under the table, then have Belloq keep up with her. He’s Indy without scruples, and ultimately that’s his undoing: Indy triumphs over Belloq not through being smarter (he might be) or tougher (he is, Belloq needs an army around him at all times), but by being humbler. Humility makes all the difference.

So many classic moments. The duel with the swordsman that wasn’t (and the story behind it), “bad dates” (screw that Nazi monkey), “Snakes, why did it have to be snakes,” the big German who just likes a good fistfight. And while I could spend a day researching everything Raiders of the Lost Ark inspired or helped bring to the screen by proving old-school adventure movies could mean modern-day box office success, suffice to say, without it we almost definitely wouldn’t have 1999’s The Mummy, and that would be no life at all.

This is the problem with the Art/Commerce battle in the next few decades. And in the 40s and maybe elsewhere. The Oscars proved, time and time again, that they had no ability to recognize what would or wouldn’t be timeless or influential, picking instead what happened to tick their boxes at that exact moment in time. We have and will again see worse examples, but this one’s pretty glaring. The popcorn movie is remembered as an all-time great, the award winner is remembered for one track off its soundtrack, and not even the arrangement from the movie itself.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 95% from critics, 96% from audiences, that’s 15 and 16% higher than Chariots of Fire respectively.

What Links Them? Oooo this is a tough one. But there are two races of a sort happening, and God is at least tangentially involved? That’s something.

What’s The Mashup? In Chariots of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and his Nazi-backed rival Belloq compete to find the Ark of the Covenant, but the local government has a solution: exclusive excavation rights to whichever team can win a footrace. The US wants to stay neutral, but the United Kingdom sends two of its best. Eric is willing to race Belloq’s Nazi stooges to keep a holy artifact out of their hands, while Harold just wants to show those anti-Semites up. Sallah and Indy rig booby traps to slow the Nazis. Belloq argues that the rules didn’t specifically forbid him from using a razor scooter.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Bond: For Your Eyes Only tries to re-ground Bond after all that space nonsense in Moonraker. This one opens with Bond finally killing Blofeld and avenging his wife (sorry “Bond-is-a-codename” believers), but they never say his name, in the movie or credits, because of an ongoing lawsuit with Kevin McClory, who prior to Dr. No had helped develop the script that became Thunderball and felt he thus owned a certain chunk of Bond lore, including Blofeld and SPECTRE. So Albert Broccoli killed off an unnamed Blofeld in the cold open as a “screw you” to McClory. Anyway Bond faces off with Julian Glover, who tried to kill Tom Jones a couple of times and just last year led the assault on Hoth.
  • Steven Spielberg and his frequent producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall start the hitmaking machine Amblin Entertainment.
  • The Man of Steel and General Zod face off in Superman II. Director Richard Donner (who had filmed 75% of the movie concurrent with Superman) was controversially fired by the producers, and replaced with another director who did extensive reshoots, adding more slapstick and goofy humour that didn’t mesh with the movie Donner had been making. Years later, Warner Bros. agrees to let Donner assemble his version of the movie, releasing Superman II: The Donner Cut. Whew. What a mess, right? Glad that was a one-time thing.
  • The Muppets say “Let’s try something different” in their sequel, The Great Muppet Caper.
  • James Bond producer Albert Broccoli wins the Irving Thalberg lifetime achievement Oscar, suck it McClory. I mean just imagine thinking you’re the king shit Bond guy because you helped write goddamned Thunderball. (Look his lawsuit obviously had some merit but the longer I go without looking right at it the dumber it seems.)
  • Sam Raimi gathers some college friends, including Bruce Campbell, to make the low-budget The Evil Dead. Raimi gets some help on the edit from a young go-getter named Joel Coen. Cinema was given true gifts with this film, even if it took a minute for the industry to notice.
  • A bunch of renegade time travelling little people kidnap a kid for a cult hit romp through history in Time Bandits, which made the top ten at the year’s box office, and which I watched over and over as a kid but didn’t know Sean Connery was in it until university.
  • Offbeat horror comedy An American Werewolf in London debuts. Often homaged, never equalled.
  • Look Chariots of Fire might not have set film history ablaze but it got me out of watching On Golden Pond, which made it to number two at the year’s box office. Just shy of $100 million under Raiders.
  • Dudley Moore gets stuck between the moon and New York City in Arthur. I think. That’s what the main theme said, I can’t be sure, I only saw the sequel.

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