We arrive now at the only time that the Oscar for Best Picture been awarded to a single piece of music. For if there's any other explanation for how Chariots of Fire took the top prize at the Academy Awards for 1981, I'm god-damned if I know what it might be. Nomination leader and Best Director winner Reds had its epic scope; On Golden Pond had hit the Zeitgeist right in its beating heart; Atlantic City had ratchet-tight artistry and craftsmanship; Raiders of the Lost Ark had all three of those things. Mostly what Chariots of Fire has, based on every conversation I've ever had about it, is a scene of men in white-on-white outfits running through the surf against a grey sky while Vangelis Papathanassíou's main theme dreamily soars above them on the wings of angelic synthesizers. And it is a hell of a scene, such an effectively otherworldly mixture of sound and image, that I can't imagine anybody who has seen it entirely dislodging it from their memory ever after. Enough to win Best Original Score? Sure, he said through gritted teeth, trying to swallow back the memory of John Williams's "Raiders March". Enough to win literally anything else? Apparently.

The film tells the true-enough story of two men who ran on Britain's athletics team at the 1924 Olympics: Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), with details fudged around to make for a cleaner story, but the end results of who won what awards are correct. It starts at 1919, when Abrahams enrolled at Cambridge and faced stark antisemitism (technically, it begins in 1978, at his funeral, and then shifts to that beach in a moment that feels left out of time altogether, and then it arrives in 1919), and covers the next five years with no particular focus on much of anything other than scenes of one or both men running, or sometimes one of their future Olympiad colleagues running. Abrahams ostensibly has to fight against England's long history of anti-Jewish bigotry, though other than various insert shots of John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson looking ashen-faced and crabby, director Hugh Hudson and Colin Welland don't actually put all that much of this ostensible major theme into the movie. Given the film's aesthetic preoccupations - three different moments where the film grinds to a halt for a musical number - Abrahams being a big ol' Gilbert & Sullivan nerd is a far more defining aspect of his identity than being Jewish. Liddell, meanwhile, is intensely religious, a fact that will eventually create the one actual conflict in the whole entire 124 minutes of the movie that takes more than one scene to sort out. But this does not come until well along in the second half, so mostly we just seem him running, getting mildly chewed out by his equally religious sister (Cheryl Campbell), and we get the sense that, even though this is all based on fact, Welland just needed a Christian to balance out his Jew.

Speaking of the women who are in the movie basically just because somebody had some vague, lingering sense that you shouldn't make a movie only with men, Alice Krige makes her big screen debut as the woman Abrahams falls in love with; the film has misidentified her as the wrong actor named "Sybil' who was a member of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. This fact isn't actually funny at all, but it amuses me privately as a general indication of where the filmmakers' priorities were.

The point is, Chariots of Fire presents a shapeless, frictionless vision of training for the Olympics as something you do in a vague way over a nondescript period of time. It does not to any meaningful extent present Abrahams or Liddell as noteworthy people with interesting lives; they are people who, during a seven-day period in the summer of 1924, did one interesting thing. I am confident that the filmmakers would tell me that this is all about demonstrating the human capacity to balance being true to one's beliefs and one's self with what one likes to do and is good at; also, I'll bet they really did think they were doing something important about antisemitism. But both the social message and the personal uplift message run into the same problem: I don't walk out of this film with any sense of who Abrahams is. He's just another runner, distinguishable from several other characters only in that he gets more screen time.

The only level the film works at - no, I take that back, there are two levels - but the main level the film works at is as a movie about running. Not even, really, a movie about training to run; there's too little connective tissue between scenes for the causal relationships necessary for that. But Hudson and cinematographer David Watkin worked up a good strategy for how to frame the groups of men running and individual men running, sometimes with just a slight dash of slow-motion to let us more closely attend to the shape of their bodies as they move. Every running scene is just different enough that it never feels repetitive, which is good, because there are a lot of them; there are no really exciting, expressive ways of presenting these scenes, just different angles of different settings, but this was never, ever going to be the kind of film that indulged in expressive aesthetics. This is a film that has no deeper idea for "style" than the drench everything in a glowing golden hue of nakedly pandering nostalgia.

It is in all respects a quintessential David Puttnam film - Puttnam being a prolific producer and for a short time head of Columbia Pictures, whose work covers far too broad a spectrum of movies to ever say "he did this one thing". But he did have a certain tendency around this period to favor movies that are "about" social injustice in a very diluted, tastefully neutral way, the kind that rewards the audience for being so morally good as to go see it, and then goes on to win awards; Chariots of Fire was, in fact, the second of four Puttnam-produced Best Picture nominees in a relatively short span of time, including 1978's Midnight Express (the closet thing to an outlier in the bunch), 1984's The Killing Fields, and 1986's scandalous Palme d'Or winner The Mission. He's like a British version of Stanley Kramer, replacing that man's all-American hucksterism with a prim focus on tasteful coffee table aesthetics. And Chariots of Fire is by far his most British film, from its title (referencing the quintessential Church of England hymn "Jerusalem") to its plot (how could any inspirational Olympic story fail to be jingoistic?) to its subdued, muted acting and the general sense of flavorless warmth. This is a film that had to have a scene of people swearing added for the American cut just to make sure it didn't get a kiss-of-death G rating. That is some aggressively gentle, muted shit for a film about racism, religious torment, and professional athletes. This results in one of the bizarrely smooth sports movies ever, devoid of active conflict or any sort of narrative engine; it is, in the final analysis, a film that is profoundly boring, boring as its most dominant personality trait.

Rather than leave it there, I did mention it worked on a second level, and that level is Vangelis. I would have been a Williams voter all the way in '81, but the score is iconic for a reason, and despite being dated the the early '80s in ways that must have seemed obvious even then, it still has a weird classical quality. Not just the main theme, either. Vangelis provides several different cues (and reuses some from earlier in his career), all of which subtly color the imagery we're watching - or not so subtly, in the pompous, aggressive music written for a scene of the Americans training. But even that has the dream-pop floating sensation of the rest of the music, and that sensation pulls the scenes of running out of the realm of banal awards bait and into a sort of hallucinatory idea of bodies moving as an expression of spiritual meditation. This is a far better articulation of the film's alleged themes than anything a character ever says or does; it's a far more stylish, evocative moment than anything else that ever happens. So as undeniably cheesy a the music is, well, it works; it works extremely well, in fact, and that ultimately matters the most. Especially in a movie so resolutely devoid of personality as Chariots of Fire.