Chariots of Fire (1981) – Bring me my bow of burning gold…

…Bring me my arrows of desire,

Bring me my spear, O clouds unfold!

Bring me my Chariot of fire.

– William Blake

What must the World be thinking, I wondered, watching Danny Boyle’s extravagant, silly, spectacular, self-referential, nostalgic, ultra-modern opening ceremony for the London Olympics.  After China’s daunting display of might in Beijing 2008, what would it say to the viewer in Bolivia or Burkina Faso about British culture?

Living in the Czech Republic, I found that one segment translated.  Mr Bean still gets air time on Czech TV, so Rowan Atkinson’s skit involving the London Symphony Orchestra and Vangelis’ iconic Chariots of Fire theme was one reassuring light amidst the general bafflement for many viewers round my way.

The Chariots of Fire theme is one of those pieces of movie music, like Bernard Hermann’s shrieking strings from Psycho, or John Williams’ Jaws theme that is so famous it has a life of its own above and beyond the original film.  Pieces of music that have featured in so many adverts and comedy sketches that their original charm and power are lost, and it feels weird when hearing again in their original context.

Hugh Hudson’s handsome period piece picked up the Best Picture Oscar at the 54th Academy Awards, prompting screenwriter Colin Welland’s infamously inaccurate prediction: “The British Are Coming!”.  Moviegoers from the Sceptred Isle had to wait twenty-seven years before another solely Brit venture took best picture, Danny Boyle’s overrated Slumdog Millionaire.

Perhaps Welland wasn’t talking about movies, but athletes.  Chariots of Fire, telling the story of two driven sprinters taking Olympic Gold in the 1924 games in Paris, was poignantly timed: during production, Allan Wells became the first Brit since Harold Abrahams in 1924 to win gold in the 100m.

The era saw a number of British athletes dominate their fields, including Daley Thompson and Sebastian Coe, and the emergence of a certain Steve Redgrave.

Chariots of Fire always struck me as one of those prestige pictures the Academy throws bucket loads of Oscars at, then nobody watches again.  Everyone with an interest in movies knows the Academy operates in a parallel universe one slight remove from current taste, with a lag of about thirty years.

The early Eighties was a particularly notorious era: Robert Redford’s Ordinary People beating Scorsese’s Raging Bull.  James L Brooks’ weepie Terms of Endearment sneaking the gong over The Right StuffAmadeus over The Killing Fields.

Chariots of Fire, at first glance, looks like a nostalgic postcard to the privileged, amateur sportsmen of the British Empire.  However, its two central characters may run with the Union Jack on their chests, but their motivations are much deeper and more personal than King & Country.

Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a devout Scottish Christian, born to Missionaries in China, who runs for the glory of God.  He uses his talent on the track to inspire his congregation.  “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) is an English Jew studying at Cambridge University.  Gravely handsome and fiercely competitive, Abrahams sees running as a way of conquering prejudice.  He is popular and privileged, but perceives Anti-Semitism in the smiles and handshakes of the upper crust society he lives in.

Both men are fast, and clash with the Establishment.  Joining the British Olympic team sailing for Paris, Liddell learns that his race is on a Sunday, and refuses to run.  Not even the future King can persuade Liddell to go against his beliefs and race on the sabbath.

Abrahams is devastated after losing to Liddell on the track, and is approached by trainer Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), who offers to find him an extra couple of yards.

Working with a trainer upsets the Cambridge college Masters (John Gielgud & Lindsay Anderson), who carry the outmoded Victorian belief in amateurism.  In their view, it is better to lose as a Gentleman than win as a “tradesman”.

Liddell and Abrahams both display “Bulldog Spirit”, a loose term us Brits – or more specifically, English – use when claiming virtues for tourselves, most commonly dignity, determination and courage in the face of adversity.

This is what gives Chariots of Fire it’s edge: it manages to be pointed as well as patriotic.  The two men display all the characteristics Brits like to think they have, although Liddell is not running for the country’s glory, and Abraham is seeking to conquer a bigoted establishment.

Working with a curious flashback within a flashback structure, Chariots of Fire also manages to be nostalgic without being sentimental.  The film moved me, and I couldn’t specify why exactly.  Welland’s meaty screenplay and Hudson’s unobtrusive, beautifully controlled direction never allows the movie to tip over into vulgar tub-thumping or flag-waving.  Even the slow motion race scenes aren’t played for cheers, instead showing the characters finding their moment.

Charleson and Cross portray their Liddell and Abrahams as earnest, passionate men.  They are vigorous, honest performances, although Cross comes across better, mainly because Charleson’s unfortunate running style makes him look like the class sissy running away from a bee.

Nigel Havers and Nicholas Farrell give capable back up.  Havers plays Lord Andrew Lindsay, a likeable upper class amateur who trains on his estate by placing a glass of champagne on each hurdle.  Farrell plays Aubrey Montague, a sturdy, dependable type who’s narration triggers the flashbacks.

Ian Holm brings a spiky, sly energy to the role of Mussabini, Abraham’s half-Italian, half-Arabic trainer, who delights in helping his driven young student beat the establishment and the fearsome American competitors.

The film is most famous for Vangelis’ evocative score and the beach running scene, parodied by Rowan Atkinson in a dream sequence at the Olympic ceremony.

The following year, Vangelis provided the stark, synth score for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and at times his electronics sound distractingly anachronistic against Chariots of Fire‘s period setting.

Matched against the running scene, the theme gives the film genuine emotion, inspiration and power.  David Watkin’s camera weaves between the British team as they run along the beach, picking out each of the principle characters.  It’s not a homoerotic training montage like Rocky & Apollo cavorting in the surf in Rocky III.  It shows the characters as young, strong, determined, with the world at their feet.

The scene plays again at the film’s conclusion, after Abraham’s funeral.  With the hazy lensing and the athlete’s white running gear, the men could be running in heaven.  My great-grandmother often told me that when you die and go to heaven, you get to re-live your happiest day over and over.  That’s what the scene looks like to me, Liddell, Abrahams and their friends happy and full of ardour, at the time of their lives when anything seemed possible.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 04/08/2012, in C, Drama, Entertainment, Film, Movies, Reviews, Sport and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I’ve never been the biggest fan of the movie, but this is a very good article in the way you’ve related the film to the Olympics and to British sports fandom.

  2. While watching the Olympics, i noticed that song gets played very 5 minutes in the stadium. I’m sick of it. I can only imagine what everyone else in that stadium must be thinking too. Also, every time i hear it, i wanna run in slow motion.

    • Yes, it’s starting to grate on me now, and I’m not even watching the Games that often…I just have it on telly and keep catching “Chariots of Fire” in the corner of my ear!

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