Another look at 'Chariots'

A few readers have written to chide me for not sufficiently liking Chariots of Fire, which I described as a ''nice little movie'' in one of my columns. In their letters, these viewers describe ''Chariots'' as a ''lovely ballad'' with ''beautiful music, gorgeous scenery, and wholesome story'' that ''gives our young viewers - all viewers actually - a finer concept of conduct.'' They vividly contrast it with the ''various forms of immorality'' prevalent in today's films.

I am certainly for wholesome values in the movies, and I cheer the portions of ''Chariots'' that convey these values effectively! It's also refreshing to find a movie of such modest means, built entirely on high spirits and good intentions, getting such notice (including the Academy Award for best picture) in this seemingly jaded period. Whatever else ''Chariots of Fire'' tells us, there is definitely a hunger among moviegoers for cleaner and more buoyant fare than we've been getting lately. Hollywood, please take note.

It's just that ''Chariots'' isn't as compelling as it might have been in delivering its message, in my view. It's like a book with a wholesome message and a rousing (though scattered) story that's written largely in overused formulas; or a piece of music with a lovely melody, but a weak sense of structure. The pleasures of ''Chariots'' lie mostly on the surface, in its attractive images and earnest performances. At best, these elements draw us into the film and toward its inner (and laudable) values. At worst, they are merely beguiling, and even manipulative. Viewers put off by the tricky editing, perhaps , or the pulsing pop music, are bound to feel disappointed with the package as a whole, no matter how much they admire the virtues at its core.

Most striking in the ''Chariots'' letters was the sense of distress felt by thinking moviegoers at the overall tone of today's movies. No wonder ''Chariots'' has come as such a breath of fresh air to so many viewers! But cleanliness and decency are only the starting point for works of art, as for human relations. Here's hoping ''Chariots of Fire'' is a starting point, ushering in a brand new wave of wholesomeness and cinematic skill at our neighborhood movie palaces.

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