I watched this again last night. I had forgotten just how beautifully done it was - both a character study of two very different men and a gripping plot of their attempts to succeed - partly through athletics. the writer and director so well convey both Cambridge and the Edinburgh Presbyterian missionary disciples, in the early 1920s so very well.
The acting is superb - I had never seen a character presented like Eric Liddell in movies - how fine Ian Charleson was in this role, the softness of his voice, his ease and joy in running competitively (especially in contrast with the tense tortured Harold Abrahams). I also loved the more supporting roles - I've read a biography of F.E. Smith and Nigel Davenport is exactly how I would imagine him. The actor who played the Prince of Wales also seemed exactly right with his effortless charm, looks, and lack of imagination. Ian Holm, John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson - all wonderful.
The actors weren't chosen for glamour either - Liddell and Abrahams are not Leni Riefenstahl images of athletic ideals, Liddell's sister is no beauty - and Abrahams' girlfriend is pretty but not stunning. It made them seem more real. (In nice contrast were the near-pretty boy looks of Nigel Havers as Lord Lindsay - it so suited his character).
The races are riveting - partly due to the music and sound effects.
So many small things are done so well - e.g., when Lord Lindsay has the confidence of his class to barge into a room containing the Prince of Wales, and three other lords (including Birkenhead and the head of the British Olympic Committee) and greets them by name - no need for introduction there (as there was for Liddell). It's small but seems quite real.
As an American, it was interesting and funny to see our Olympic team shown as the numerous, ominous, invulnerable "other"! (something like watching a Rocky movie with Rocky as the product of a Russian or East German success machine!). In fact, the one scene that seemed a bit off was the scene of the American track athletes warming up for the Games - all heavy music, machine like athletes, ferocious coach yelling with a megaphone into people's ears. It pounded too hard on the "these are the scary almighty inhuman opponents" theme in contrast to the cheerful British boys running along the beach.
Something I had forgotten about the movie was how stubborn BOTH protagonists are - Liddell fully as much as Abrahams. Liddell is not overly deferential or bashful when dealing with the Prince of Wales - but instead straightforward and very firm.
I truly can't understand anyone not liking this movie - it is very exciting even on the basic level of "will they win?" and so much more. (For example, Ian Holm's character's reaction to success after 30 years is very moving). Those who write to say that "Reds" deserved the Oscar more - are simply wrong. (Reds was so simplistic that it felt like watching the movie "The Hardy Boys Go to the Russian Revolution"). Those who say they cannot differentiate among the boys or between the Scottish and English accents - well, it sounds like some political statement to me.
Do watch it - it's very fine, very moving, very exciting.