Sunday, December 6, 2009

Weekly Rant: Best Prop Blunder


When film fans argue about the worst movies to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, the debate rarely goes on for too long before someone mentions Chariots of Fire. About the only thing that’s memorable from the 1981 film – beyond its Best Picture win – is its synthesized Vangelis score, which seems as detrimentally anachronistic today as it was wildly popular at the time. What saves Chariots of Fire from even more derision, I suspect, is that the movie is hardly ever discussed. If it isn’t one of the least impressive movies to win Best Picture, it’s at least one of the most forgotten.

That said, today’s post isn’t about whether Chariots of Fire is Oscar-worthy. (At least On Golden Pond didn’t win, I say.) Today’s post is about a filmmaking blunder so significant that it deserves an award. If you’ve never seen Chariots of Fire and want to avoid spoilers, read no further. Otherwise …

To put it in a nutshell, Chariots of Fire is about running and religion. Its climactic moment finds Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) running in the 400 meters at the Olympics because the finals of his best event, the 100 meters, will fall on Sunday. Liddell, a Christian, refuses to run on the Sabbath.

Just before the 400 is set to begin, American runner Jackson Scholz (Brad Davis) hands the British Liddell a note that reads: “It says in the Old Book, ‘He that honors me I will honor.’ Good luck.” Liddell smiles, crumples the note in his right hand and gets into his crouch for the start of the race, the letter sticking up from his right hand as if he’s carrying the Olympic torch.

For all intents and purposes, this moment is what Chariots of Fire is all about. The idea that Liddell is running to honor God, and that he’s gained the respect of others by doing so, is The Point, if you will, of the film. That’s why I find it absolutely stunning that at one point during the race – more specifically, from one camera angle – this letter magically disappears from Liddell’s hand.

Let’s go to the replay (click to enlarge as necessary):

Liddell gets ready for the race …


Scholz approaches and hands the note to Liddell …


Liddell reads it …


Crumples it …


There’s the note in his right hand …


Still there …


Still there …


Still there …


And oops …


Where did it go?


It’s back! In fact, now it sticks out of both sides of his hand like a relay baton …


But now it’s gone …


Like a magician Liddell opens his hand as if to prove it’s empty …


But when he crosses the finish line – victorious, of course – it’s back again …


I’m sure most films have at least one continuity error. But as prop blunders go, this one is especially glaring, precisely because the film has directed our attention to the note in Liddell's hand and because this is the film's Big Moment. To imagine an equivalent, picture Luke Skywalker’s confrontation with Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back and imagine if Luke’s hand suddenly reappeared after it had been sliced off. Think of the end of Die Hard and imagine John McClane firing three shots with his only two bullets. Or imagine a scene in True Grit in which Rooster Cogburn suddenly didn’t have an eye patch.

I ask you, Cooler readers, can you think of a more egregious prop error (or continuity error) in a movie?

9 comments:

Troy Olson said...

It's probably unfair to reference a movie the quality of which gets it onto MST3K (as the movies they make fun of are expected to have continuity errors), but my favorite has always been in the movie THE GIRL IN GOLD BOOTS where one of the characters seemingly teleports into a scene with no rhyme or reason.

Here's the youtube clip -- it's right at the beginning.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TFiB3e3_J4

Craig said...

The answer is simple: Eric Liddell worked spare-time as a magician, having run away to the circus as a lad. (Literally run away -- that's how he caught up with it, because he was so fast.) There he lived a sinful life cheating at cards and boozing and women before encountering a preacher waiting outside the bearded lady's tent. Liddell always credited the good reverend with turning his life around, yet still he couldn't resist pulling the occasional vanishing letter trick during his races. This entire subplot was edited shortly before its initial release, but can be found in Hugh Hudson's Director's Cut. Illuminating behind-the-scenes footage can also be found of Hudson on his collector's edition for "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan" of Robert Towne beating the shit out of him for fucking up his script.

Sorry, what was the question?

Craig said...

More seriously, there's a sequence in the courtroom thriller "Jagged Edge" where Glenn Close's attorney somehow changes dresses mid-questioning.

And, of course, one of Siskel and Ebert's faves was when Michael Caine falls out of the boat in "Jaws 4: The Revenge" only to climb back in with a dry shirt.

Jason Bellamy said...

Great comments, guys.

Craig: I think the studios were worried that people would get confused as to why such a deeply religious guy would dabble in the dark arts of magic. Only makes sense that they cut it.

This moment from Chariots of Fire popped into my mind, by the way, because of two movies I saw yesterday, Brothers and Red Cliff.

In Brothers Tobey Maguire's character becomes a POW in Afghanistan. At one point his fellow POW says they've been there for 2 months, but Tobey doesn't have so much as 5 o'clock shadow. Later, however, he has a full beard. I guess after a few months of shaving with a rock he decided, "Fuck it, I'm gonna let myself go."

In Red Cliff the advancing enemy army manages to build a castle-like fortress out of wood overnight. Though perhaps that explains what got cut from the 5-hour original.

Anyway, back to props mistakes ...

Another one of my favorites happens in Glory. The 54th is in its first fight with the Confederates. They exchange several rounds of gunfire. Then Matthew Broderick's Col. Shaw gives the command to charge. At that point, magically, all of the 54th has fixed bayonets. Which goes to show why Shaw was such a kickass commander.

Keep 'em coming ...

nightfly said...

I always liked the magical expanding rooftop in "The Untouchables." It's like Costner grabs the guy and then backs him up several yards, and then runs him back towards the door. Maybe he knew he needed some momentum to toss Nitti clear of the scaffolding that saved him earlier? (Speaking of which, where did that scaffolding go, anyway? I don't remember it in the long shot looking up at Ness.)

Daniel Getahun said...

I love that you've been able to compare C of F with Die Hard. Everything should be compared to Die Hard.

Maybe he was pumping his arms so fast that he briefly loosened his grip, the paper went flying in the air, and he caught it moments later on its fall.

I love finding these errors. I've submitted a few to IMDb when I remember them more immediately. In "The Nativity Story" a few years back (which may get some airtime here and there in this season), there is a talking scene between King Herod and his son where they switch places mid-scene, standing to the right and/or left of each other. Maybe they just shift around a lot while talking to each other.

And one of my favorites is the apple in Daniel Kaffee's hand when he meets Commander Galloway in her office.

Sam Juliano said...

Good one Jason! Until now I have never realized that. Awesome layout there which was riveting to follow. But I also liked some of the funny responses here, and I can't say this film hasn't fallen from favor over the year's since it's Oscar win, which at the time I'll admit I applauded. Even the man I still consider to be America's greatest film critic -Kael is arguably as great- the extremely hard-to-please Stanley Kauffmann (who incredibly is now 94 and still writes film reviews for THE NEW REPUBLIC, though Chris Orr is now sharing the duties) issued a very favorable review for the film, and Vangelis's score was one of his favorite components. I must admit that the film moved me, though my British colleague Allan Fish scoffs and insults me regularly for my defense, so I'm not about to even go there at this point. I know the film's critical reputation has erodes since it's Academy Awards success, which I think we can safely say now was at the expense of Louie Malle's ATLANTIC CITY, of the five films that were nominated. I can think of a number of other films that were far worse choices than CHARIOTS, but again it's clear that this film has a large number of detractors, including a few close personal friends.
I can think of the famous gaffe in the Alistair Sim A CHRISTMAS CAROL, where you can see the stagehand in the mirror, but that's more of a blooper. The CHARIOTS matter is exactly what you say it is.
Incidentally, Kael was no big fan of the film, saying with a rather derisive tone: "The piicture is a piece of technological lyricism held together by the glue of simpleminded heroic sentiment; basically its appeal is watching a couple of guys win their races."

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks, Sam. And perfect observation by Kael.

I'm somewhat fond of Chariots, though it's difficult for me to imagine it as the best film of any year. But the parts I like, I like quite a lot.

I'm sure a lot of it, though, has to do with America's love affair of the British accent. Me included.

Whit said...

Nothing beat The English Patient (1996) in my lifetime.