Director: Hugh Hudson
Screenwriter: Colin Welland
In Memoriam: Hugh Hudson (1936-2023) / Vangelis (1943-2022) / Ben Cross (1947-2020) / Ian Charleson (1949-1990) / Brad Davis (1949-1991)
By Roderick Heath
Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire can still be called a beloved and iconic work, even as it’s suffered a precipitous decline in stature since its release in 1981. At the time it was an uncontroversial winner of the Best Picture Oscar, marked by many as the official moment of resurgence for British cinema at a moment when the New Hollywood era had been decisively declared dead following Heaven’s Gate (1980). Actor turned screenwriter Colin Welland also gained an Oscar for the script, as did the Greek prog rocker turned electronica composer Vangelis. As if the film’s themes of patriotic toil and achievement were bleeding out into real life, entrepreneurial producer David Puttnam gained the climax to his and others’ efforts to foster that British film renaissance after the long, hard winter of the 1970s. That sentiment was famously summarised by Welland’s declaration upon receiving his Oscar, “The British are coming!”, and David Attenborough’s Gandhi would repeat the feat the following year. For years after its release, tributes, pastiches, and lampoons playing on its opening images of men running set to the shimmering electronic tones of Vangelis’ glorifying theme were all over the place.
With time however Chariots of Fire seems to have fallen away from attention, now often dismissed as the prototypical piece of Oscar bait that unfairly beat out Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) in the ultimate prestige-versus-pop movie clash, and a flagship of 1980s conservative resurgence in moviegoing taste: Ronald Reagan reportedly loved it. Puttnam would piss off myriad players and onlookers with his brief period running Columbia Pictures a few years later. Hudson’s career would suffer a similarly jarring switchback of fortune. Hudson was one of a cadre of directors fostered by Puttnam, following Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, and Adrian Lyne, who had cut their teeth making TV commercials. Like Parker, Hudson had worked for Scott for a time, with Hudson’s signature talent, as evinced on a famous ad for Fiat showing cars being robotically assembled set to music from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, being interesting fusions of sound and vision. He had also demonstrated his interest in sporting subjects with his documentary on racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio, Fangio, A life at 300 km/h, and worked as a second unit director on Parker and Puttnam’s breakthrough collaboration Midnight Express (1978). Chariots of Fire was his feature debut, and for a follow-up Hudson made Greystoke – The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), and Revolution (1985): the latter proved a disaster both commercially and critically. Hudson was pushed to the margins, only returning sporadically for relatively straitlaced and classy fare no-one watched, with Lost Angels (1989), My Life So Far (1999), I Dreamed of Africa (2000), and Altamira (2016), although as his feature career broke down he kept up making much-admired commercials. His recent passing at the age of 86 was barely noted by many cineastes.
Despite the train wreck his once-dazzling career became, I retain admiration and interest in Hudson’s prime, when he seemed the least flashy but also most quietly experimental of the directors Puttnam fostered. Greystoke tried to reiterate the Tarzan tale in a fastidiously realistic manner, drawing on a script that was a long-time passion project for writer Robert Towne. The result was uneven but fascinating and, in its early portions, uniquely vivid. But it was also the first case of one of Hudson’s film being tinkered with, as would happen more destructively on Revolution, a film which certainly didn’t work but was also a product of authentic artistic ambition. In keeping with his fascination with culture clashes and boldness in risking elements of anachronism, Hudson tried to explore the American Revolution in a manner that nodded to both punk and new wave-era pop culture – notably casting singer Annie Lennox as a revolutionary maiden – and art cinema, particularly Mikhail Kalatozov and Miklos Jancso, with his rolling, flowing staging of communal events, whilst engaging seriously with the theme of an angry and vehement underclass emerging from revolt, as embodied by Al Pacino’s lead character. The film gained some reappraisal when Hudson reedited it in 2008.
Indeed, the singular thread connecting Hudson’s films despite their wildly varying reception was an interest in clashes between and within cultures, as experienced and embodied by individuals. Hudson himself came from an officially privileged background, having attended Eton as a lad – he notably filmed the other famous scene of Chariots of Fire, the Great Court Run, on location at his almer mater – but also developing a visceral hatred for the prejudice he often found espoused in such circles. As a consequence Chariots of Fire is far from being straightforward in its attitudes to patriotic endeavour and identity, revolving as it does around two core protagonists who become champions and national heroes but nonetheless do so in highly ironic ways and upholding vehemently different motives that somehow still mark them as perpetual outsiders, if only in their own minds. In the late 1970s Puttnam was explicitly looking for a story reminiscent of A Man For All Seasons (1966) as a study of a hero obeying their conscience, and discovered the story of Eric Liddell, 400m champion at the 1924 Paris Olympics, in an Olympic history book. He commissioned the former actor Welland to write the script, and Welland talked to everyone he could still alive and able to remember the 1924 Olympic Games where Liddell had competed, but he just missed interviewing Liddell’s teammate and rival Harold Abrahams, the 100m champion at the same games, as Abrahams passed in 1978. Welland nonetheless attended his funeral service, inspiring his script’s flashback structure and anchoring a story of the past in the then-present.
Stories about the British upper crust had been officially unfashionable for decades when Chariots of Fire emerged, around the same time as the hugely successful TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which similarly worked with serious purpose to convey the flavour and meaning of a bygone era’s mores on their own terms, whilst also noting the birth pains of the more recent epoch. If films like David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Joseph Losey’s King and Country (1963) explored the breakdown of the old British character in the face of the Twentieth century’s charnel house, Chariots of Fire evoked it from a safe distance, noting an age when it wasn’t considered absurd to put God before fame or when the idea of patriotic duty as a transcendental virtue was still a still-lit if flickering flame. Chariots of Fire didn’t just set the scene for other posh British dramas to start proliferating again on movie and TV screens, and lurk as an influence behind other ambitious sports films like Ford v Ferrari (2019), but perhaps also opened a door leading to Harry Potter films, which depended on a similarly elastic push and pull between nostalgic yearning and anxiety and rebellion in the face of haughty tradition.
Chariots of Fire has been described as a rare sports movie that even people who don’t like sports movies like. That could be whilst, as movie stories go, Chariots of Fire contains all the stuff of a heroic sporting drama, it also avoids the usual – by historical necessity of course but also but dint of focus and method. The film charts the rivalry, and mutual admiration, of the two standout champions of the British team at the ’24 Olympics: Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who nonetheless are fated not to compete head-to-head, but instead find separate paths towards their eventual reckonings with victory. Eric (Ian Charleson) is a China-born Scottish missionary and Rugby Union player turned runner. Harold (Ben Cross) is the son of a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant turned successful English banker. For both men faith defines them as individuals and in relation to the world about them, but in disparate ways: for Liddell his religion supersedes worldly cares and values, whilst Abrahams is driven by angry resentment. Eric muses with love on the Scottish landscape that is nonetheless new and foreign to him after years of hearing about it from his father, whilst Harold chafes at constantly feeling, despite ardent sense of loyalty and English identity, like others still consider him an alien. The title of course is comes from William Blake’s beloved poem “Jerusalem,” a relevant choice not just in the dashingly poetic lilt it lends but in evoking the centrality of religious faith to the drama as well as Blake’s anxious questioning of the changes befalling his beloved England, and desire to rebuild it as something finer and cleansed: in much the same way the film notes the enlargement of the idea and ideal of British identity.
The film’s flashback structure nods to Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) (also relentlessly mimicked by Attenborough on Gandhi, at a time when Lean still couldn’t get a film financed to save his life) as it commences with a funeral service for Harold, with a eulogy given by his former teammate and pal from Cambridge Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), and attended by some other old comrades including Aubrey ‘Monty’ Montague (Nicholas Farrell). Hudson dissolves from the sight of the old, withered men mourning one of their own to the spectacle of them in all the glory of their youth, dashing as a team through the surf at Broadstairs in Kent (although the scene was actually shot at West Sands, next to St Andrews Golf Club, in Scotland), both physical strain and sheer joyful pleasure in pushing their abilities to the limit apparent on their faces. Hudson returns to this vision at the film’s very end, partly in sustaining the motif of fluid time and restoration of glory days, and also with an old ad man’s knowledge he has a killer hook: it’s this vision, with Vangelis’ music over the top, that became an instant pop culture landmark. A brief vignette follows of Harold’s competitive and brattish streak on full display as he becomes frustrated at failing to bowl Liddell out during a game of cricket, staged with amusing bohemian verve within the plush environs of a seaside hotel’s ballroom, as well as Harold’s final ability to laugh at himself for all his concerted passion.
Loose framing narration comes from Monty in writing a letter home as he muses on Abrahams’ customary intensity, and thinks back to their first meeting three years earlier when first coming to Cambridge, setting the scene for stepping back again in time, as several of the future track and field stars meet whilst signing up for clubs during their induction at the university. Harold, a law student, also immediately makes his declaration of intent when he takes on a standing challenge that hasn’t been beaten in 700 years: the Great Court Run, referred to in the movie as the College Dash, sprinting around the courtyard of Trinity College in the time it takes for the school clock to strike noon. He unexpectedly gains a fellow challenger when the dashing young aristocrat Lindsay decides to try too: still, Harold manages to not just beat him but the clock too, making history. Truth be told, Abrahams never even tried to take on the Great Court Run (which was actually first beaten by Lord Burlegh, one of the two real men Lindsay is based on, a few years after this), but it makes a great scene in first evincing Harold’s blistering ability in the context of this capital of an eminent but hidebound establishment he’s clawing his way into, and its description of the essence of a certain British kind of exceptionalism blending schoolboy larkishness and fearsome ability, the spirit of eternal renewal and limit-stretching amidst echoes of hallowed tradition.
Soon Harold tells his fast friend Monty that he’s determined to avenge the many slights and insults turned his way by the British upper class, to “run them off their feet” literally and figuratively. Meanwhile, the more serenely modest and pious, if also hearty and good-humoured Eric is being feted in Scotland for his success as a footballer, and courted by coach Sandy McGrath (Struan Rodger) to turn his hand to running: encouraged to give a show of his speed during a sporting carnival he’s giving out trophies at, Eric demonstrates his astounding talent, complete with his signature move as he zeroes in on the finish line of leaning back with his mouth yawing wide in ecstatic effort. He soon decides to take up Sandy on his offer. On the one occasion Eric and Harold race against each-other in the 100m, at a meet at Stamford Bridge, Eric handily beats Harold, sparking a momentary crisis for Harold who’s built his entire identity around being unbeatable. He gains solace when a professional coach he’s approached, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), assures him he can make him a better runner, whereas he thinks Eric has reached his limit as a sprinter and is a better fit for longer runs.
The story of the two runners is presented against the backdrop of a Britain recovering in the aftermath of the Great War, with both men competing unawares to be salves for, as one character puts it, “a guilty national pride.” Harold, first signing into Caius, deals with the patronising Head Porter Rogers (Richard Griffiths) in explaining that he only just missed fighting in the war and comments, “I ceased to be called laddie when I took the King’s commission – is that clear?” Harold’s habitual pugnacity and chip-on-the-shoulder attitude is both a reaction to various manifestations of anti-Semitism and taken by others as a justification for it, particularly the Masters of Caius and Trinity Colleges (Lindsay Anderson and John Gielgud), who observe the courtyard race with languid interest, two old trolls inhabiting the high reaches of this otherwise romantic world of blazers and boaters. They later put Harold on the spot for violating their purely amateur ethos by hiring Mussabini, which they worry will besmirch the honour of the university. “I take the future with me,” Harold ripostes, provoked to tension but also perhaps just a little thrilled to have put the old guard’s noses out of joint, to one Master’s exchange with the other once he’s gone, “There goes your Semite, Hugh.”
The two Master are played with snooty verve by the obviously cast Gielgud and the more mischievously cast, famously antiestablishment director Anderson, maker of what could be described as this film’s antithesis, If… (1968). The inevitable punchline that when informed of Harold’s eventual victory one Master notes to the other with satisfaction, “Just as I expected,” lends a more sardonic hue to the theme of the establishment making room. Some have expressed qualms over what Harold’s bucking of the Masters means over the years, considering that the Harold future claims as his own is the one we’re familiar with today, of professional sportspeople and the invasion of sporting endeavour by overriding commercial concerns and an attendant competitiveness that often manifests in drug cheating. More immediately, it also points to a subtext of Chariots of Fire wound in with its own making. Financing for the film was taken over by immigrant entrepreneur Mohammed Al-Fayed and his son Dodi: Harold’s expressions of a multigenerational intent to carve a path into the heart of the British establishment by immigrant outsiders against all headwinds of prejudice might well have caught Al-Fayed’s attention, as it could well have spoken to so many who had come to Britain in the post-Imperial age. He extends this to Mussabini, a man with a strong midlands accent who nonetheless is Arab-Italian in heritage, further exacerbating the complicating sense of national identity.
This theme is starkly at odds with the film’s reputation as being a conservative statement, although it could also be said to rhyme to a certain extent with the Thatcher-Reagan era’s mixture of embraced traditionalism and narrowly defined and channelled rule-breaking: the outsiders want to be insiders. The film is also cunning in offsetting its antagonist figures. If the Cambridge Masters represent a hidebound old guard, Lord Lindsay is presented as a gentleman bohemian who could also stand in for the Thatcher era Tory’s ideal self-projection, enjoying the fruits of his privilege, merrily practising his hurdling technique in the grounds of his country house with champagne used an actual training tool, but entirely open-minded and breezily reassuring to all in his circle.
The nominal enemies on the running track are the Americans, the flashy Charlie Paddock (Dennis Christopher) and the muscular, intimidating Jackson Scholz (Brad Davis), who have a rivalry not unlike that of Harold and Eric. Whilst Paddock is a figure ripe for a takedown, Scholz proves a serious person who feels unexpected kinship for Eric, eventually giving him a note that suggests equally serious religious feelings, which Eric then carries into the race. Davis had played the lead in the Puttnam-produced, Parker-directed Midnight Express (1978), the film that established the potency of Puttnam’s production approach if with a safe appeal to the US market; Christopher meanwhile was cast with some wit after his lead role in Peter Yates’ Breaking Away (1979) as another sportsman, albeit this one lean and mean, casually accepting a passionate kiss from a random woman when first setting foot in France. Scholz himself, who actually beat both Liddell and Abrahams in the 200m, was still alive when the film was made, as was Jennie Liddell, both thanked in the end credits.
The film’s deeper theme is the way an athlete – perhaps anybody, really – is obliged to find strength and motive within, in wellsprings distinct from and even perhaps alien to the society they represent, even as they’re expected to share out whatever success and glory they win in collective terms. In both Harold and Eric those wellsprings are apparent, Harold’s driving need to prove himself the best participating in a constant roundelay of pride and shame, versus Eric’s triumphal sense of spirituality expressed through physicality, and whichever compels one as an individual viewer the most perhaps says much about one’s own inner drives. Eric’s awesome talent is illustrated to both Mussabini and Harold’s profound wonder when they watch him in a race at a Scots vs English track meet: a fellow runner shoves Eric at the first turn and he falls down at the trackside, gets back up, chases down the other runners and wins, at the cost of collapsing as a breathless mess at the end. Here in particular Eric’s speed seems the purest expression of something beyond the merely human, a vitality of mind and body springing from a conviction so total as to be reflexive: whereas Harold needs the society he feels at odds with in a peculiar way, Eric is beyond it.
In much less airy terms, Eric’s talent has long been honed in active competition as a footballer, the furore of actual struggle a realm he’s been trained to be indifferent amongst, where Harold for all his bloodymindedness competes as the gentleman amateur, and he needs Mussabini’s keen sense of technique to help him improve. Whilst he never does get to race Eric again after losing to him, leaving a tantalising ambiguity in the air, Harold gains something that lets him take on the rest of the best in the world and win. “Short sprinters run on nerves,” Mussabini tells Harold when assessing his and Eric’s differing capacities, “It’s tailor-made for neurotics.” He and Mussabini develop an almost paternal relationship during the course of their labours, with Mussabini finally crying, “My son!” when Harold triumphs. Harold’s friendship with Monty sees him praising him as a “complete man” even as Monty is hurting after grievous failure, even as Harold despairs that he himself might be too scared to win after a life of being scared to fail.
Welland’s script was rife with historical and dramatic licence, including the actual circumstances of Abrahams’ race(s) against Liddell and of Liddell’s quandary at the Olympics, Jennie’s age and attitude to Liddell’s running, the timing of Abrahams’ meeting of his future wife Sybil, and inventing the character of Lindsay as a concatenation of two real historical figures, one of whom didn’t want to be involved with the film and the other competed at a later Olympics. Montague was actually a student at Oxford, although the narration his letters provides is practically verbatim from his real missives. But Abrahams’ authentic musical talent – and Cross’s – and love of Gilbert and Sullivan in particular, was smartly tapped as one of the running motifs of the film, as songs from the G&S catalogue provide jaunty leitmotifs for Harold and the other Cambridge adventurers. After his self-explaining soliloquy to Monty, Hudson shifts into a spry and witty montage of Harold’s training regimens and running victories, scored to his own singing in the Cambridge G&S Society’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore: his signing the anthemic “He Is An Englishman” is a gesture laced with both spry sarcasm and perfect earnestness given Harold’s mission.
Later Harold is distracted from his pure dedication when he’s dragged by his friends to see a production of The Mikado, where he he’s instantly smitten with Sybil Gordon (Alice Krige), playing the role of Num-Yum, belting out “Three Little Maids From School Are We.” Much to Monty’s heartache given his own long-nursed crush Harold successfully asks her out on a date, in part because Sybil’s younger brother is athletics mad, and the two have immediate chemistry even as Sybil tries awkwardly to reassure Harold as he explains his position as Jewish: “I’m what they call semi-deprived…It means that lead me to water but they won’t let me drink.” A moment of crisis seems to arrive when the special of the restaurant Sybil ordered for them both proves to be pig’s trotters, only for this to set them both laughing. Later, as they’ve become a firm couple, Sybil tries with mixed sympathy, irritation, and frustration to coax Harold through his crisis after losing, a moment where despite the jaggedness of emotion it’s plain that Sybil has become along with Mussabini a person Harold can show his deepest, most inchoate vulnerability to.
Eric and his sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell) have a similarly fraught and close relationship, both being predestined to take up their father’s work in China. Jennie becomes worried that his new passion for running is drawing him away from his habits of faith and their duty, and Jennie is particularly upset when Eric is late from a training session for a prayer meeting, making anxious appeals that he remember what their ultimate purpose it. As he walks with her up Arthur’s Seat outside Edinburgh, Eric explains patiently but firmly that he’s already committed to becoming a missionary but is also determined to take his running as far as he can, feeling that his talent is god-given, that when he runs he “feels His pleasure,” and so must honour it to the upmost. This attempt to balance faith with passion will of course be strongly tested, foreshadowed early in the film when he chides a boy for playing football on a Sunday, although he also makes sure to play a game with the lad and his family the next morning so he doesn’t think “God’s a spoilsport.” Just as Eric and the rest of the team selected for the ’24 Olympic embark on a Channel ferry for their great venture, he learns from an inquisitive reporter’s questions that the heats for the 100m will be held on a Sunday.
When Eric soon declares he can’t participate in the heats, he’s soon taken before number of British Olympic Committee bigwigs including Lord Birkenhead (Nigel Davenport), Lord Cadogan (Patrick Magee), the Duke of Sutherland (Peter Egan), and Edward the Prince of Wales (David Yelland), in a scene that becomes, in Eric’s words, a form of inquisition in the pointed test of loyalties. Eric stands up for himself effectively against Cadogan’s stern espousal of patriotic duty above all and Birkenhead and the Prince’s smoother espousals of the same, whilst the Duke has more sympathy, retorting to Cadogan’s comment “In my day it was King first, God after,” with, “Yes, and the war to end wars bitterly proved your point.” Eric’s steadfastness places them all at loggerheads until Lindsay intervenes: having already won a silver medal in the hurdles, he suggests that Eric take his slot in the 400m, to be held on a different day, and the offer ends the impasse. Meanwhile Harold is obliged to install Mussabini in a hotel room a safe distance away from the Olympic stadium lest he taint it with his professionalism (“I’ve seen better-organised riots,” he quips earlier on regarding a different meet).
Holm’s expert supporting performance was invaluable, presenting the worldly professional flipside to all the toffee-caked youth, whilst Cross and Charleson’s effective performances went oddly ignored even in Oscar nominations. Hudson lost the Best Director Oscar to Warren Beatty’s work on Reds (1981), an ironic win given that whilst both directors paid homage to Lean in their elliptical approaches to stories set in the same period if contending with highly divergent social perspectives, and because Beatty’s work was generally much more traditional than Hudson’s. Hudson’s exacting recreation of the period milieu, and equally exacting feel for the classically British virtues and foibles at play in the drama, blends throughout Chariots of Fire with an aggressively modern film aesthetic. This is most obviously keyed to the boldly anachronistic electronic textures of Vangelis’s score (which made so much impact that Peter Weir pinched the idea for his Gallipoli, 1982, as did Michael Mann for The Keep, 1983, whilst Vangelis was immediately hired by Scott for Blade Runner, 1982), but is also apparent in Hudson’s restless camerawork and innovative editing. Not that Hudson was being entirely original. Slow motion, freeze frames, and replays were already an accepted part of the average TV sports broadcast by this point, and films like Grand Prix (1966) and Le Mans (1972) had played with fracturing time in filming sporting contests.
Hudson still went a step further in trying to use it all for dramatic, even poetic emphasis, balancing the relentlessly fleeting nature of sporting competition, in which entire lives and fates can be decided in a few brief seconds of perfect physical expression, clashing with the mind’s capacity to experience it in expanses of dilation and distillation, the surging physical effort of racing glimpsed in contorting slow motion that turns events into arias of motion and character. Harold’s loss to Eric in their one race is a blink-and-miss-it affair where the difference between the two men seems trifling and yet means everything, and Harold’s obsessing over it is illustrated in constant, drawn-out flash-cut returns to it, each moment and gesture turned over with agonising meaning, punctuated by Vangelis’ moody electronic stings. Harold’s climactic race is filmed first in a deadpan shot looking down the track, the race that has obsessed the runners and become the focal point of the drama disposed of in a few seconds, the winner hard to make out because of the angle – the event of such grand drama is also a mere blip in movie time, never mind the history of the world, but then is revisited in glorifying slow motion, becoming a dream of individual will translated into speed.
Other innovative touches are more subtle, including Hudson’s use of steadicam shots not just for flashy effects but subtle unity that emphasises more communal moments, in the induction day scene, as he moves through the crowd with and around Cross, and then with more intense effect when he films the American Olympic team training fiercely for the contest, set to pulsing music from Vangelis. Later Hudson’s clever feel for making sound and vision interact manifests as he turns a scene of Eric giving a sermon on the Sunday into a study in contrasts, Eric’s meditative words spoken over footage of the athletes who are racing in various states of pain and effort, including Monty who suffers falls during a steeplechase, and Harold loses to Scholz in their heat, rendered studies in slightly absurd pathos as their efforts crash to earth in dreamy slow-motion. Hudson also honours more familiar and hallowed flourishes, like a montage of spinning newspapers used to communicate the furore Eric’s refusal to run sets off in a battle of religion versus patriotism.
Hudson’s direction has weathered better than Welland’s script in some regards – as intelligent and well-layered as it is, not all Welland’s dialogue is crisp and convincing, as he uses Sutherland to deliver a brief, annoyingly essayistic note on the dangers of severing Eric’s strength from his motives, or when Scholz, after the American coach (Philip O’Brien) dismisses Eric to one of his American competitors, notes, in clunky cliché, “He’s got something to prove, something personal – something guys like Coach’ll never understand in a million years.” Nonetheless, the essence of Chariots of Fire that drives it well beyond the usual kind of sports drama never goes out of focus, even as the film ratchets up tension in building to Harold and Eric’s climactic races. That we usually expect a certain outcome in following the story of a sportsperson in a movie is factored into the viewing experience, in the way Hudson presents Harold’s victory with that deadpan long shot, cutting briefly to Eric cheering him on before returning to a slow motion shot of Harold lunging through the finish tape in exact obedience to Mussabini’s instruction. The coach himself is forced to wait until he can hear the strains of “God Save the King” until he knows his protégé has won.
The more interesting point, reiterating the essence of the entire film, is how he wins, and how it affects him: reeling after the effort of his lifetime, Harold doubles up as if in mortal pain, again in slow-motion, whilst the race flashes once more in his head, this time with his sheer and perfect focus on display. The music on the soundtrack is plaintive and eerie even as Eric comes over to shake Harold’s hand in a gesture of great meaning. Here Hudson captures something profound about victory even whilst resisting the usual movie language for conveying it: for Harold it is a purgation, an emptying out indeed, of his previous identity. Harold afterwards shirks out of the changing room as Lindsay counsels the worried Monty to leave him along: “Now one of these days Monty, you’re going to win yourself, and it’s pretty difficult to swallow.” Eric’s subsequent win is a more traditional kind of heroic payoff, if still one filmed and conveyed in an unusual manner. Eric’s earlier conversation with Jennie is heard over his run, emphasising the vitality of his words as part and parcel with his deeds. He charges home to victory with his signature wide mouth and back-flung head, watched with knowing joy by Sandy and Jennie, and Harold with blazing intensity. The heroes’ return to England sees some further irony in the way Eric readily accepts adulation with the others whilst Harold quietly waits to slip off the train and meet with Sybil, his private war over at last, and his victory that of simply becoming a fully functional man.
The film offers title notes on the Harold and Eric’s different ends, with Harold living to a ripe old age whilst Eric’s air of being a little too good for the world is confirmed in the report of his death at the end of World War II (he died of a brain tumor whilst in a Japanese POW camp), which suggests a whole other, equally interesting story in itself. “He did it,” the aged Monty notes to Lindsay as they leave the church in a brief return to Harold’s 1978 funeral service, “He ran them off their feet.” Whereupon Hudson returns to the opening vision of the athletes running on the beach, restored again to their youthful glory. This encore is particularly cunning in the way it lingers on the men for a few moments after a performance of the hymn version of “Jerusalem” ends, with only the sound of their feet splashing in foam and went sand, nailing a plaintive sense of the ephemeral and immediately physical before Vangelis’ theme returns. Sure, Chariots of Fire might indeed not be as great as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it is a movie in the top echelon of its kind, a properly mature spectacle that represents a rare melding of dramatic intelligence and stylistic vigour. Tragic lustre has been imbued upon Chariots of Fire’s meditations on the dimming of golden youth and sadly exulting nostalgia in the time since its release, by the sheer fact that several of its stars died young, with both Charleson and Davis claimed by the AIDS epidemic, and whilst Cross lived to be an august character actor, even he departed too early. Still, they’re always young in this movie.
4 thoughts on “Chariots Of Fire (1981)”
I remember at the time I thought it was the least likely of the nominees to win, but I’ve also watched it more than all the other nominees that year except for Raiders. It’s aged well and your review says a lot about why it has. I can see them running through the surf even now.
Hi Syd. Commentaries I’ve read from the time didn’t seem at all surprised — one said it felt like the inevitable winner, and indeed looking over the other choices says why, given that Reds was too thematically edgy for the Academy, Atlantic City too arty, On Golden Pond too mid, and Raiders too Raiders. But yes, it’s aged very well.
I have always been a bit annoyed with CHARIOTS OF FIRE, but your in-depth analysis of it made me curious to see if my feelings about it have changed. I watched it today and find a great deal to admire in it, including the way, as you point out, the old guard makes way for the new. Indeed, one of the things I still find annoying about it is how accurately it tracks the two trends that went on to wreak utter havoc on society: religion and the go-go ambition of the 1980s. At least CHARIOTS stands with the angels, literally, in preferring a higher power and higher purpose to the win-at-any-cost ethos that have destroyed any chance at a level playing field for the whole of society. In that sense, the film is indeed conservative. There are few films that channeled the zeitgeist as well. And I still get a chuckle out of the marriage of (modern) commerce and religion in the restaurant scene between Sybil and Harold – the stained-glass image of a cricketer!
Having no personal memory of the zeitgeist of the early ’80s I feel little urge to buy into how it struck people at the time. It’s interesting in that regard as I said that whichever one identifies most with, Liddell or Abrahams, says interesting things about how one approaches the world — I tend to identify far more with Abrahams, for instance, where Liddell’s steadfastness is admirable but also entirely remote to me, and his lack of doubt makes him a fairly dull hero to me. The way the film ends, with Abrahams shying away from any sense of lording over others and bathing in revelery that might anoint him at last as a national hero, having instead found he was trying to appease himself, gives a very moving and meaningful capstone to that theme of competition that’s quite different to the uglier aspects of ’80s culture (that great line about winning being as hard to take as losing always fascinates me), just as Liddell’s very personal sense of religious duty as something over and above duty to the state also cuts against religious right jazz.