Worst Best Picture: Is Chariots of Fire Better or Worse Than Crash?

chariots of fire

image source: the guardian

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1981 winner Chariots of Fire. Is it better than Crash?

Your typical sports movie is the story of an underdog either defeating a superior enemy or competing valiantly and losing. Chariots of Fire doesn’t exactly follow the template, but it’s assuredly still a sports movie that is about a bigger struggle.

It’s the story of a Christian missionary and a Jewish student at Cambridge and their struggles as they prepare to run in the 1924 Olympics. The actual running itself is iconic, you almost certainly know the training scenes and the song even if you haven’t seen it, but it mostly doesn’t deserve commentary. It’s standard sports-movie fare: one guy beats the other, the other trains hard in suspect ways, they meet again in a final showdown for personal glory and country and all that. It’s the background of Chariots of Fire that is much more interesting.

Most commentary on the movie uses the same word to describe it: quiet. That’s not a bad word, for sure, since most of the other Best Picture winners are about war or a great struggle, but while no great army descends on France in Chariots of Fire, there’s plenty of struggle. Harold Abrahams, the Jewish runner, faces continual antisemitism that ranges from some teasing on his first day at Cambridge about the ethnicity associated with his last name to some deeper insinuations about why he wants to train so hard to win Olympic gold. One of the great strengths of the film is the ability to sell the difficulty of being Jewish in this life — Cambridge, the Olympics, and Britain in the 20s — without being too heavy handed.

The missionary, Eric Liddell, faces his own off-track problems. He’s Scottish and comes from an intense family full of people who wish he would quit running and go be a proper missionary. I found myself particularly moved by the idea that this man who had a chance to become one of the all-time greats in his field was being constantly reminded that “his field” was supposed to be something altogether different. Parents just don’t understand, even 90 years ago in Scotland.

Liddell has to balance his running with his dedication to his faith, and as in all things one has to lose. His ultimate test comes when he is told at the last second that the most important race of his life is not on a normal day as he was told, but on Sunday. It’s a particularly interesting idea of a personal challenge, as most movies wouldn’t be able to handle the tone required.

The Best Part: After insisting that he will not race on a Sunday, Liddell is met by a series of increasingly important people who try to lean on him. It’s understated — no one yells at him — and that’s a great strength of the sequence. They respect his convictions, but they’ve got to win this damned race. The scale of the Olympics in 1924 is also pretty wonderful. It looks more like a high school football game in a very small town, which is charming.

The Worst Part: A lot of the Scottish missionary scenes tend to feel out of place in a narrative that otherwise goes very directly towards the final race. It’s important to establish Liddell as conflicted, but it may not be necessary to do it to this degree. The Americans towards the end also feel a bit silly, but that’s me speaking as one of them. It’s amazing how consistent “Americans” are treated in films like this, and at least my countrymen get out of Chariots of Fire mostly as silent plot points.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s certainly better, if for no other reason than that “quiet” distinction. Chariots of Fire isn’t a template a lot of movies can reuse, but it’s a tone that anyone attempting to get a message across like this could stand to benefit from. It’s a way to tell a story and make a point without yelling into the camera. Crash is terrified you won’t “get it” and Chariots of Fire trusts that you can watch the movie and take it in on your own.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Tough Questions: What’s the Worst Advice You’ve Ever Been Given?


Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given?

Rules are simple: no one can tell you what to do, not even your dad or a cop. They can only advise you. Who has done the worst job of it in your life?

Alex Russell

I’m terrible about unsolicited advice, so I’m usually the other end of this one. As for advice someone’s given me, I’ve got to go with something I was taught in college. Have everyone write down their feelings. I was in training to be a high school teacher, but a series of my education classes were “general” classes for teachers from preschool through high school. When you need something to apply to a six year old and an eighteen year old, you have to be pretty broad. When you have to be pretty broad, you end up saying a lot of really silly stuff. The moment the shine came off the apple for me was when a person looked me straight in the eye and told me that the way to handle a teenager that wouldn’t listen in class was to have them write down their feelings about class and to take away their recess.

Brent Hopkins

The worst advice I have ever received was to be brashly honest in relationships. This just straight up does not work and causes so much stress and pain on both ends that it kinda is a self-sabotaging mindset to be in. I am not saying I am a consistent liar or anything now, but I have grown to appreciate the little lies and the withholding of information to keep the peace. There are times where lying IS actually the best option, not just Eagle Scout levels of honesty. That being the case I am regularly told I am still too honest, but I have figured out when that extra push is too much and to just keep it to myself.

Andrew Findlay

I am fortunate enough to have trouble remembering advice that has landed me in a laughably compromising position. People who feel qualified to give it out in my life generally give it soundly, and most problems arise from me not following it. That being said, one general piece of “advice” that really annoys me is “Beer before liquor, never been sicker. Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear.” There is no, zero, nada physiological reason the order in which you ingest poison will make you feel worse or better. It’s like having a rhyme that starts “strychnine before arsenic…” Alcohol is a poison. You feel bad because you drank poison. If you drink so much you find yourself muttering useless, rhyming rules about it, you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

Gardner Mounce

A youth pastor once told me that it is a wife’s marital duty to sexually submit to her husband whenever her husband asks for it. He said that since two people become “one spirit and one flesh” when they are married, and since someone can’t rape themselves, then a man can’t be said to rape his wife.

Jonathan May

“Write what you know”–an often espoused platitude in creative writing programs. If people only wrote what they knew, then science fiction and fantasy, as genres, wouldn’t exist. If people only wrote what they knew, there would be only autobiography, which (unfortunately) so much of “today’s” writing is inherently. With the rise of the personal essay and proliferation of creative writing programs, I heard this advice often from writers at all levels, and I wanted to ask them, “Do you ever write outside of yourself?” So yeah, “write what you know” is horrible advice. All you writers out there–do whatever the hell you want.

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s 80s Movie About… Frogs: Should You See Hell Comes to Frogtown?


Gardner Mounce

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out (or have “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in them). You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: we talk recipes. Should you see Hell Comes to Frogtown?

Hell Comes to Frogtown is a 1988 movie about the last man on earth. Or maybe the last sexually active man on earth. Or at the very least, the last sexually desirable man on earth, given that what you find desirable is a fat Mark Wahlberg lookalike with a glans penis haircut. Piecing together what the movie is about is a pointless task. Most of the lines are mumbled and I had been drinking. But from what Wikipedia can tell me, it’s the story of a group of female scientists who kidnap a man named Sam Hell, put him in an explosive chastity belt, and use him to rescue some prostitutes from Frogtown (more on Frogtown in a bit). The movie is to Mad Max as Krull is to Star Wars. It’s one of those beautifully bad 80s clones that’s lovable for its earnestness (i.e. it’s sincere like The Room rather than purposefully campy like Sharknado).

One reason to watch Hell Comes to Frogtown is that it’s like a time capsule for what was considered funny in 1988. Rape, for instance. Lots of rape and misogyny. You’re not going to believe me but the following still is from a scene that’s meant to be funny.


Oh, I get it! She’s like a slave but for sex! Zing!

I’m not saying that people don’t still make rape jokes, but how about this: in another scene, our heroes catch a female savage, give her a libido-boosting shot, and then Sam Hell rapes her. But, you know, in what is supposedly a “light-hearted way.” So light-hearted that the next morning the two are seen cuddling. Then the savage hugs and thanks Sam and we never see her again. She’s a plot device in the worst possible sense: she has no function in the movie other than as that which is sexually liberated (against her will). (Editor’s note: uhhh… whoa.)

All this happens before the heroes even make it to Frogtown. What is Frogtown? Frogtown is where the frogs live. Because of an Apocalyptic Scenario, frogs are now human-sized, speak English, and sometimes have three penises. The scenes in Frogtown are so sexually frustrated no one would be surprised if the writers all have frog fetishes.


No, please don’t. You’re so far out of my league.

There are details I could go into, but that would be a one-way ticket to Spoilertown. And trust me, you want to visit Frogtown firsthand.

The plot holes in Hell Comes to Frogtown are Mexican sinkhole-sized. Why does Sam Hell need to go with them to Frogtown to save the women when they have this girl who just sits in the car and polishes her guns?


Why do characters inexplicably change outfits from one scene to the next?

Why would the scientists strap Sam in an explosive chastity belt when his dick is the only thing of importance to them?

And who the fuck is this guy?



Should You See It?

Of all the reasons to watch Hell Comes to Frogtown, it’s the simplest reason that’s the most convincing. That’s this: in the late 80s a movie called Hell Comes to (Motherfucking) Frogtown was released, and for some reason you haven’t seen it.

Watch it on Hulu Plus or stream it on Amazon for $2.99.

Noah is about Vegetarianism, Religion, and the Nature of Man: Should You See It?


Brent Hopkins

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see Noah?

I watched Noah a week ago in theaters and I must say I was completely caught off-guard by what I witnessed. To start, I am not a particularly religious person but I have beliefs and I took the smallest bit of them and my fuzzy knowledge of Old Testament scripture with my girlfriend (who is more Buddhist than anything) to the theaters to see the latest Bible film.

Right from the opening scenes you know that this is not going to be a bright and sunny telling. There is the hunting of an animal for its meat and the immediate comeuppance from Noah (Russell Crowe) showing that hunting animals and consuming them is bad for your health because he will murder punch you into seeing his side of the story. This gives a slightly Gladiator-esque feel to the movie, but instead of fighting Rome, Crowe is now pitted against the fallen of humanity. This is an even more epic scale and the film does a good job of portraying this.

The film is relatively visceral, as much of the Old Testament is, but there are definitely a lot of modern day problems brought up by director Darren Aronofsky. The one that kind of turned me off the most was the heavy handed message that eating animals and general lack of conservation is the stem of humanity losing itself. One of the first things you hear Noah tell his sons is why the humans are hunting animals for meat. He tells them it is because humans are ignorant and think that the meat gives them strength. That was such an in-your-face advertisement for vegetarianism that I felt like I got hit with a Whole Foods ad. This theme is the main thread that continues throughout the film and each time it rears its head I just wanted to scream “I GET IT! ANIMALS ARE SACRED.”

Noah has always been a story about a boat big enough to hold two of every animal. The logistics of this have always been fascinating to me and now that technology and computer graphics have advanced enough to maybe handle this I was intrigued to see how Noah would build this thing and keep all the animals from massacring one another. The world Noah lives in is completely barren of vegetation and animals for the most part. Humans have ravaged the land and nothing is really left. Noah finds a workaround for this by planting a seed that gives him plenty of treesources (get it) to build his Ark. Even still, this would be an impossible task for just Noah and his family (three male children, his wife, and a girl they saved) so Noah gets more physical labor help from The Watchers. These guys are stone-covered golems who have been punished for going against The Creator’s (“God” is never used in the entire film) wishes by being bound to terra firma as opposed to being allowed to fly freely as they once could. They were mostly slaughtered by the evil humans but the remaining ones decide to help Noah as he is the only person they have met to have contact with God in a very long time.

The Ark is built over the course of a few months and the way the animals are dealt with is a huge letdown. They just quietly come in groups of two, they don’t really fight, they don’t really do anything, they just go inside then get put to sleep with a concoction Noah’s wife creates. This is a bit of a copout and I felt like it ignored probably the biggest characters in the Noah story.

Now this would be a pretty boring movie if there was no conflict and well, this is a blockbuster film, so revenue must be made. The conflict comes from Cain, the other side of the human coin. He is the king of the humans and when he notices that all this forest has sprung forth and all this meat is traveling to one location he takes the right amount of interest in the situation and has to see what the deal is. Cain is a savage man who has no qualms with killing animals, humans, and everything in between. He feels The Creator abandoned humans so he is just making do with what he has left. Noah says the people aren’t welcome on the Ark and Cain lays down the gauntlet by saying “when this deluge comes to end humanity I am going to come and take this Ark from you and The Watchers and we will eat all of the animals.” You know he will keep his word and the story gets its big action conflict.

This would have made for a good film but this take pushes the envelope in a great way by focusing on Noah as a human. The Creator has said that animals are the innocent on Earth so Noah takes this extremely literally and makes the jump that he must kill himself and the rest of his family must die as well. You watch the deconstruction of a righteous man over the entire course of the film and the pressure that is placed on a family when going against a higher being. Noah becomes a person you grow to somewhat despise over the film, and by the time he and his family are on the Ark it feels less like a new beginning for the world and more like a suspense thriller. You know something is going to have to give but you don’t know how Darren Aronofsky is going to take the story.

Should You See It? 

I would have to say yes. This is not the best film I have ever seen, but I will say it raised a lot of questions for me and really makes you think about the story of a human dealing with a superhuman situation. You never think about all the people that Noah has to knowingly leave to perish or how a person would have to deal with unclear directions from The Creator. I have had more conversations with people about this film than many others I have seen over the years, and it has something for religious and non-religious persons alike. I can see why this caused controversy among a bunch of different factions because it is not a movie to please one group or the other, it is merely an adaptation of a story that does have some open-endedness to it.

Image source: Daily Mail