As the 2012 Olympics are drawing closer – start date is July 27th – Warner Home Entertainment has issued a special Blu-ray edition of its Academy Award sports drama Chariots of Fire.  Director Hugh Hudson’s epic won the 1982 Best Picture Oscar, a fact that rankles many viewers to this day; how in the world did a movie about running steal Best Picture from Warren Beatty’s operatic Reds or Steven Spielberg’s seminal adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark, especially considering that the two “losers” have aged so well.

Here’s a secret: so has Chariots of Fire.  In its telling of two athletes – Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) – competing for the Gold Medal in the 1924 Olympic Games, what impresses more about the film today isn’t its epic sweep or sports action.  It’s how thoroughly Chariots of Fire embodies the runner’s mindset.  Visually, Hudson achieves this through long, steady takes backed by Vangelis’ moody electronica score; we have ample time to contemplate Abrahams and Liddell as they move through space, to reflect on their strange grace that is both charged and languid.

Thematically, Hudson puts a stronger focus on the inner turmoil of Abrahams and Liddell than on their race for the Gold.  Running lets the participant get lost in their own psyches: so it is with Abrahams and Liddell.  They run for the spiritual and physical highs the sports gives them, so it comes as a shock when their respective religions come under scrutiny.  The high society views Abrahams’ Jewish faith with distain, even as he races for their country, while Liddell’s strong Christian beliefs often stand at odds with the rigors and demands of Olympic preparation.  It should be so easy – Abrahams and Liddell run because they love to – yet the outside world keeps getting in the way.  More than anything else, Chariots of Fire is fascinated by the disconnect between pleasing yourself and pleasing everyone else.

Warner’s Blu-ray Digibook package offers a strong HD transfer of the film alongside an immersive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track (all the better for appreciating Lord Vangelis).  The set also comes stacked with bonus supplements, including a commentary by Hugh Hudson; seven behind-the-scenes featurettes (“Wings on their Heels: The Making of Chariots of Fire,” “Chariots of Fire: A Reunion,” “Sprint Around the Quad,” “Famous Opening Shot,” “Paris, 1924: Birth of the Modern Olympics,” “David Puttnam: A Cinematic Champion,” “Hugh Hudson: Journey to the Gold”); deleted scenes; screen tests for Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, and Patricia Hodge; and a four-track CD sampler.

If you’re cinematically preparing for the Olympics, then Chariots of Fire is a great start.  Still, if you really want to fill out your pre-game movie marathon, the following selections make for great companion pieces.  Each of the five covers an Olympic sport; each attacks the sports movie genre in as unique a fashion as Chariots of Fire.

Any Given Sunday: Or, Oliver Stone’s Football, meaning you get rampant drug and steroid abuses, more illicit sexual dalliances than the Eyes Wide Shut orgy had, and gridiron action so frenetic you’d think Stone was auditioning to direct Saving Private Ryan 2 (in the director’s cut, a guy gets tackled so hard his eye pops out.  I’ll repeat that. A guy gets tackled so hard his eye pops out).  However, what elevates Any Given Sunday out from the realm of vile wallow is how Stone – using Al Pacino’s beleaguered coach as a proxy – regards the game at its purest, how it requires a mix of brutality and tender love.

Caddyshack: Recommending this one defines the phrase, “preaching to the choir,” but just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean it’s any less worthwhile in an Olympic movie marathon.  In fact, Caddyshack has only gotten funnier since the advent of VHS/DVD/Blu-ray technologies; you can fast-forward through the lame Danny Noonan subplot and skip to the good parts: namely, anything with Chevy Chase, Ted Knight, Rodney Dangerfield, and the great Bill Murray, whose improvisational genius turned a bit part (that of the golf course’s dimwitted groundskeeper) into Caddyshack‘s secret weapon.

The Set-Up: This underseen gem is located at the intersection of the sports drama and the film noir; a washed-up boxer (Robert Ryan, giving maybe his best performance) agrees to take a dive for a fearsome mob boss but reneges at the last moment, turning a fixed match into a primal assertion of his professional integrity.  Director Robert Wise shoots the boxing scenes with docudrama-esque kineticism – you better believe Martin Scorsese took a good look at The Set-Up before he made Raging Bull.

Victory: One of the great “so-bad-it’s-good” movies, this drama finds John Huston attempting to meld soccer competition to the WWII thriller, as he introduces us to a group of POWs using a soccer match between themselves and their Nazi captors to mask a full-scale escape attempt.  It’s The Great Escape meets Bend It Like Beckham, and just as nutso as that description suggests.  The cast alone merits a viewing: an overweight Michael Caine plays the Allied team’s captain; Sylvester Stallone is his second-in-command; their sympathetic Nazi jailer is a skeletal Max von Sydow; and Pelé (yes, the Pelé), plays – as he should – the Allied team’s star kicker.

Without Limits: Another movie about running that, like Chariots of Fire, devotes more attention to those racing than to the race itself.  This biopic covers the short life of Steve Prefontaine, a gifted long-distance runner who died in a car wreck at age twenty-four.  Credit must go to writer/director Robert Towne, who views the sport with an unsentimental eye, and to Billy Crudup’s masterful work as Prefontaine.  Crudup makes “Pre” talented but enigmatic and more-than-a-little unsympathetic; for him, running was the thing, and everything else (fame, fortune, relationships with women and family) fell by the wayside.

Chariots of Fire is now available on Blu-ray; click HERE for Amazon’s listing.  For the other titles included in this article, click HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Culture Olympic Roundup: CHARIOTS OF FIRE and Five Other Sports Films for a...