Chariots of Fire

English Title: Chariots of Fire

Country of Origin: Britain

Studio: Enigma, Allied, Goldcrest/20th Century Fox

Director: Hugh Hudson

Producer(s): David Puttnam

Screenplay: Colin Welland

Cinematographer: David Watkin

Editor: Terry Rawlings

Runtime: 124 minutes

Genre: Heritage

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Nigel Havers, Nicholas Farrell, Ben Cross, Ian Charleson

Year: 1981

Volume: British


Chariots of Fire is the true story of a group of British sprinters at the 1924 Paris Olympics, told through the letters sent home by a Cambridge student, Aubrey Montague. Englishman Harold Abrahams and Scotsman Eric Liddell face deeply personal obstacles between them and the Olympic gold medal. Abrahams must confront anti-Semitism and judgements made because he uses a professional coach. Liddell, a devout missionary, must persuade his sister that he can best serve God by running as fast as possible and winning the medal. However, when the first heat of the 100m is set for a Sunday, Liddell has a difficult choice to make. 


It is a mistake to dismiss Chariots of Fire as just a 'sports film’, or to pigeon-hole it in the same category as the heritage films of, say, Merchant Ivory. The film is not an adaptation of a Forster, Dickens or Austen novel, but is an original screenplay based on a true story. This hint of realism serves to ameliorate the languid pleasures of heritage films such as A Room with a View (James Ivory, 1985) and provides something more irregular and nuanced.


Chariots of Fire must have exasperated sections of the British film community when it was released and subsequently won four Oscars and a BAFTA. Its storyline is decidedly populist; its main characters are upper-class products of public schools; its female characters are mere ciphers; and, despite some social-realist credentials on the part of its script-writer, Colin Welland, many of its themes seem to echo the individualistic and entrepreneur-led ethos of the new Thatcherite regime. The competitive nature of the Olympic Games narrative endorses patriotic fervour, and the rivalry between Liddell and Abrahams echoed that of British runners Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The film also deploys symbols of British patriotism and prestige – the Union Jack flag, the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ (from which the film takes its name), the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, etc. – that had been subverted by the previous generation of British film-makers. Equally, the use of the Scottish Highlands as the savage opposite to the civilized Cambridge college quad seemingly erases differing political and cultural identities across Britain's internal borders.


Yet the British iconography daubed over the film is gently subverted, as in Lindsay Anderson’s casting as Master of Caius, and the acknowledgement of pervading anti-Semitism within the period splendour. Despite the pre-eminence of the Abrahams story, the Liddell story prevails, shifting the narrative about acceptance into the British elite into a story about compromise and honour, as a bullying establishment makes way for Liddell's rapturous inspiration. Ian Charleson is said to have re-written the famously evangelical track-side speech to make it more believable, and his luminescent performance as Liddell manages to redeem the script from clichéd Scottish reel.


Another factor that makes Chariots of Fire so memorable is the soundtrack. The decision to use Vangelis Papathanassiou’s startlingly contemporary (for 1981) electronic soundtrack over the period façade accentuates the difference between this and other heritage films. The contemporary style of the soundtrack lends the film an action-based momentum that marks its out from more speech-laden or voluptuously-visual heritage films. And, with its use of replays and slow motion, the film's visual style subtly borrows from the look of contemporary sports television. Hudson’s frame often resembles that of the BBC’s Grandstand sports programme circa 1981, but populated with ‘amateur’ athletes played by well-known actors. It is this stylistic distinctiveness that manages to engage and make the story emotionally relevant for a wide audience.


At the time of the film's release, many people in the British film industry sought the same levels of public funding that was enjoyed in France. But the success of Chariots of Fire promised to usher in a new era of populist, commercial, Hollywood-facing film-making in Britain, summed up by Welland’s line in his Oscar acceptance speech, ‘the British are coming!’ 

Author of this review: Dafydd Sills-Jones

Peer reviewer: Dafydd Sills-Jones