Chariots is a film for the ages
Inspired by the opening of the 2012 Olympics, Paula Fleri Soler explains why over 30 years since its release, Hugh Hudson’s movie remains as relevant as ever.
Since its inception, cinema has gifted us with many indelible images; and the opening scenes of Chariots of Fire’s protagonists running barefoot in slow motion on a sandy beach to the strains of Vangelis’s unforgettable piano-and-synth score remains one of the strongest, most emotional visuals the medium has to offer.
Released in 1981, Chariots of Fire is, of course, the film that is brought to mind at the time the 2012 Olympics are under way. A perfect example of British filmmaking at its best, it was a triumph for its producer David Puttnam, and director Hugh Hudson.
The film, whose title is taken from the William Blake poem adapted into the popular British hymn Jerusalem, is based on the true story of two British athletes who competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Ben Cross and Ian Charleson play Englishmen Harold Abrahams and Scot Eric Liddell respectively, who travel diverse paths to the Olympics.
Abrahams is a law student at Cambridge, a Jewish man of Lithuanian extraction who runs as a way to escape the subtle prejudices he encounters. Liddell is a missionary’s son; born in China, after a brief sabbatical in Scotland, he plans to return to the country of his birth to continue his father’s mission – but not before he utilises his athletic gift, a gift he believes he has received from God.
In the 31 years since its release, the film has not lost any of its impact. In fact, it may serve as a timely reminder of the ideals it celebrates – faith, passion, and more pertinently, the idea as expressed by Baron de Coubertain, the founder of the modern Olympics that “the important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well”.
And the struggle and eventual triumphs of the two protagonists of the film is what Chariots of Fire portrays so well. It helps to bring the focus of the current Olympics back onto the many thousands of athletes participating and the ideals of the games themselves away from the noise of the corporate sponsorships, security issues, strikes and other stories that dominated the headlines in the run-up to the games.
Both Cross and Charleson were virtually unknown at the time of their casting. So positive were their portrayals, that for better or worse, they remain best known for their respective roles in the film. From young men following their respective careers in 1919 when the film opens, to their final moments at the Paris Olympics five years later, both actors embodied their characters, two men whose lives were plagued by moments of self-belief, doubt, happiness and sadness in equal measure as they race for their country, God and themselves.
The two actors are supported by a solid ensemble, with standouts being Charleson as Abrahams’s crusty coach and mentor Sam Mussabini, and Alice Krige as his long-suffering girlfriend Sybil Gordon. The script by Colin Welland was efficient in establishing the lives and background of its two protagonists, while suitably ratcheting up the tension in the race moments.
The movie’s costume and production design come straight from the British school of filmmaking excellence, as the action takes us from the hallowed halls of Cambridge University to the vast swathes of the Scottish Highlands and of course the track of the Colombes Olympic Stadium in Paris.
Chariots of Fire opened to great critical acclaim, and remains ever popular. It did have its detractors – Time Out magazine describing it at the time as “an overblown piece of self-congratulatory emotional manipulation perfectly suited for Thatcherite liberals. Pap”.
Harsh though this assessment may have been, they were clearly in the minority; and the film went on to win numerous awards including four Oscars for Best Film, Original Screenplay, Milena Canonero’s costumes, and of course, Vangelis’s sublime score.
The score, especially its signature tune may certainly have been overused and abused in the 31 years since the film’s release; but if you stop and really listen to it in its rightful context, it has lost none of its resonance. The same can be said of the film... other Best Picture winners may have enjoyed a higher profile over the years, but a re-watching of Chariots of Fire serves as a reminder that it is a film whose ultimate message is timeless.
In its review for the re-release of the film to coincide with London 2012, Empire magazine sums it up thus: “... the emotional wallop is undeniable. 2012 aside, Chariots is a film for the ages”.