CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981)

  • Director: Hugh Hudson
  • Writer: Colin Welland
  • Starring: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Havers, Ian Holm, John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson, Cheryl Campbell, Alice Krige, Struan Rodger, Nigel Davenport, Dennis Christopher, and Brad Davis
  • Accolades: Shown at 1981 Cannes International Film Festival, 4 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Costumes), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – Hugh Hudson, Best Supporting Actor – Ian Holm, Best Film Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Tubi app, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Chariots of Fire is perhaps the most British of sports movies, the triumphant underdog story for people who like Downton Abbey. It takes place at a very even keel, for the most part, with its runners lightly joshing each other about how, “You’ve got a real battle on your hands, what?” Its two heroes are running into the wind, if you’ll excuse the saying, because they don’t quite fit into the culture of “gentlemen” that has been running things up until then, yet they are both definitely “gentlemen” in the modern sense. Chariots of Fire is very much a movie about the subtle distinctions of the British class system.

But now, 40 years after its release, Chariots of Fire is mostly reduced to a few images and sounds, particularly the opening scene on the beach. The movie will come back to that scene, set to Vangelis’ incredible electronic score (the most famous track eventually went to #1 on the Billboard charts in the US), at the end too. It’s like a one-hit-wonder musician deciding to play their one hit at both the beginning and end of the concert. And yes, everyone in that scene is a pasty, upper-class British dude, but it retains its essential, uplifting quality. Few movies are so wholly dependent on their very specific sonic landscapes as this one. Without the Vangelis score, in this scene and many others, there’s basically not a movie here, certainly not one that anyone remembers.

The movie that is here centers around two British runners training for the 1924 Olympics in Paris. It is a true story, or as one review I read said, “a true enough story.” Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) seemingly has it all, he’s rich, he has talent, a great singing voice, and he’s just started school at Cambridge, but he has a massive chip on his shoulder because he’s a Jewish man in an upper-class English world. Nobody is racist to his face, and a couple non-Jewish people openly question whether he’s imagining things, but we repeatedly see people make little comments thinking he won’t find out. “They’ll lead me to water but they won’t let me drink,” he comments to the girl he likes. 

Feeling angry all the time about what we today would call “microaggressions,” he decides he’s “going to run them all off their feet.” He even hires a coach, Sam Mussabini (one of the great legends in real-life track circles, played here by Ian Holm), much to the consternation of the two old guys in charge at Cambridge (Played by the legendary John Gielgud and the seminal English director Lindsay Anderson). They basically tell him that a real gentleman never tries so hard at something, that actually training is somehow unseemly, and also seem vaguely upset that his coach is “half-Italian.” Later we see how old-fashioned they really are when the American runners show up at the Olympics, training army-style as their coaches scream in their ears with old-timey megaphones.

Abrahams’ great rival is Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson, who gives for me the best performance in the movie), the Scottish son of missionaries whose sister (Cheryl Campbell) repeatedly urges him to give up running and focus on the church. He tells her that God wouldn’t have made him so fast if he wasn’t supposed to run, and gives these interesting motivational speeches to the crowd at meets after he wins. In his first scene, Abrahams is asked how he handles losing. “I don’t know, I’ve never lost,” he replies offhandedly. Well, he loses to Liddell, then we cut to him sulking in the stands, staring at the track, having no idea how to handle it.

The movie seems to be setting up some sort of showdown between these two at the Olympics, but this fails to materialize. Liddell finds out literally as he’s getting on the boat to France that the 100 meter heats are to be run on Sunday, and makes the decision not to run on the sabbath. Despite appeals from every upper class English dude they can find, including the literal Prince of Wales (David Yelland), no one can talk him out of it. It is in this kernel that I think you’ll find the reason the filmmakers wanted to make this movie. It is about a guy quietly standing up for what he believes in, when it would be much easier to just do what everyone wants. Liddell is, essentially, the 1924 version of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee. Everyone involved is bailed out, to some degree, when another runner (Nigel Havers, playing a fictional character apparently loosely based on another real, very upper-class British Olympian, Lord Burghley) gives up his spot in the 400m to allow Liddell to switch to that event. This allows the movie to end with both of its heroes, Abraham and Liddell, triumphant underdogs, as happened in real life.

As a movie, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (a very appropriate saying for this movie). What outer emotions are displayed tend to be held at bay with stiff upper lips. I think it’s gone out of fashion at least a little, maybe to some degree because it’s very much the story of rich white people’s problems. All of these people are going to be fine no matter what happens, even if Abraham (very relatably, I think) builds it up in his mind to an almost painful degree. It’s also weirdly shaggy in a narrative sense. There are several characters at Cambridge or on the British Olympic team that the movie acts like we should care about, but there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason they’re in the movie? I feel the same way about the love story between Abraham and a popular stage actress played by Alice Krige. She’s has a few scenes with him that work very well (like when she shows up at the track after his loss and tells him he needs to grow up if he can’t stand to ever lose), but otherwise the plotline seems mostly an excuse to shoehorn in more Gilbert & Sullivan songs. I was going to say it also sort of forgets to end, but really, that’s how most sports movie romances are. He wins, she’s happy about it, the end.

Though some of the details are moved around, these are real guys, and they really are legends in the UK, though in the US they would be entirely forgotten if not for this movie. In particular, Liddell’s story of refusing to run the 100 meters because the heats were on a Sunday is basically true, though this movie has him finding out just before the Olympics when in reality the schedule had been set for months, allowing him time to adjust his training to the longer 400 meter race. After his Gold Medal win, Liddell did quit running to become a missionary in China, where he became caught up in World War II and died in a Japanese Internment Camp. Another movie, On Wings of Eagles, was released in 2016 depicting his later life, with Joseph Fiennes in the role of the older Liddell.

The movie became a big upset Best Picture winner, with some speculating that other popular movies including Reds, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and On Golden Pond, all of which had more total nominations, split the vote. In the years since, it has gained a reputation as the sort of movie the Oscars award without stopping too much to think if it’s good or not, sort of the 1980s version of The King’s Speech. But really, unless the Oscars did something completely out of character and gave a Best Picture award to Indiana Jones, I think we might think something similar about any of the movies up that year, and Chariots of Fire has turned out to be much more watched today than Reds or On Golden Pond.

For the film’s director, Hugh Hudson, and much of the main cast, Chariots of Fire remains their best-known work. Ben Cross and Alice Krige, who play a romantic couple here, both went on to have prominent roles in the Star Trek franchise, her as the Borg Queen and him as Spock’s dad in the more recent Trek movies. Ian Charleson tragically died of AIDS in 1990, at only 40 years old. He specifically requested that the cause of his death be publicly announced in order to bring public attention to the disease. This step, highly unusual for the time, made Charleson possibly the first well-known public figure in the UK whose death was openly attributed to AIDS. He died only eight weeks after an acclaimed performance in his last role, in a stage production of Hamlet. His close friend and fellow cast member Ian McKellen said it was, “as if he had been rehearsing for the role all his life.”

I think the one other thing you should know about Chariots of Fire is that there’s a lot of ugly running. I suppose most humans are ugly runners, if you put them in slow motion. One of the few negative reviews when the movie came out said that “once you’ve seen one race in slow motion, you don’t need eight more.” All I mean is, pretty much everyone in this movie looks super weird when they run. In spite of (or because of?) this, the actual race scenes work really well for me. While Jim Thorpe: All-American just pointed the camera at the sky while Burt Lancaster hurled a discus, Chariots of Fire meticulously recreates every period detail it possible can. The 1924 Paris Olympic stadium still exists, allowing the races to be shot on the original track where they were run. There are apparently plans to hold the Field Hockey events at the stadium in 2024, when the Olympics are set to return to Paris.

Slow-motion running aside, I really do think that how much you’ll enjoy Chariots of Fire comes down to your reaction to that description: the most British sports movie ever made. I eat this stuff up with a spoon, and so Chariots of Fire feels like an old friend. But I don’t blame anyone who watches this thing and finds that they completely can’t connect with it. It doesn’t reach out and grab you, you have to be in the right space for it or it’s not going to come find you. For people wanting a rousing, Hoosiers-style underdog story, this is probably not your movie. But I think maybe it is mine, and I’m in pretty good company. In a 2008 interview, current-President Joe Biden cited Chariots of Fire as his all-time favorite movie, drawing attention to the scene where Liddell tells the Prince of Wales that he loves his country but he will always put God first. He went on to say, “I also like the part where they’re running on the beach.”

Thanks to everyone for coming along with us for our 2021 Summer Games Virtual Film Festival. I hoped you enjoyed the movies, and have a great time watching the upcoming Olympics. Maybe someday there will be a movie about some of the things that happen in Japan over the next few weeks, you never know.

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