“This true story soars beyond sports to embrace some of the deepest and most powerful drives in all human beings.”
The title is inspired from William Blake’s poem “Bring me my chariot of fire,” adapted into the popular British hymn “Jerusalem”. You can hear this hymn at the end of the film
Chariots of Fire is a 1981 British historical drama film directed by Hugh Hudson. David Puttnam who produced also conceived the story, which is an inspirational act of two British athletes in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay. It is ranked 19th in the British Film Institute’s list of Top 100 British films. The film has a memorable instrumental theme tune by Vangelis, who won the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
This film largely is a celebration of numerous things- it’s an encouraging rouse against the personal challenges living up to one’s Olympic dream and so long as we run against time, thriving the inch of the track, so do the human spirits and Vangelis’s score in its breath taking form gives this movie an remarkable experience and expressive visual delight. The film also introduces more than half-dozen talents, mostly English, and celebrates the British film industry, which, with ”The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and now ”Chariots of Fire,” is quite evidently in the best form once again
The movie begins with the funeral of Harold Abrahams in the year of 1978. Among those in the congregation is Aubrey Montague (Nick Farrell), a journalist, who recalls first meeting Harold at Cambridge and thus takes us to the flashback of 1919 the year after WWI. Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) enters the University of Cambridge, where he experiences anti-Semitism from the staff, but enjoys participating in the Gilbert and Sullivan club. He becomes the first person to ever complete the Trinity Great Court Run – running around the college courtyard in the time it takes for the clock to strike 12. Abrahams achieves an undefeated string of victories in various national running competitions. Although focused on his running, he falls in love with a leading Gilbert and Sullivan soprano, Sybil (Alice Krige).
Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), born in China of Scottish missionary parents, is in Scotland. His devout sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell) disapproves of Liddell’s plans to pursue competitive running. But Liddell sees running as a way of glorifying God before returning to China to work as a missionary. When they first race against each other, Liddell beats Abrahams. Abrahams takes it poorly, but Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), a professional trainer whom he had approached earlier, offers to take him on to improve his technique. This attracts criticism from the Cambridge college masters (John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson). They allege it is not gentlemanly for an amateur to “play the tradesman” by employing a professional coach. Abrahams realizes this is a cover for their anti-Semitism and class-based sense of superiority, and dismisses their concern.
We see Eric Liddell accidentally misses a church prayer meeting because of his running, his sister Jennie reprimands him of no longer caring about God. Eric tells her that thou he intends to eventually return to the China mission, he feels divinely inspired when running, and that not to run would be to dishonor God, saying, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
The interesting phase of movie sets in with the two athletes, after years of training and racing, are accepted to represent Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Also accepted are Abrahams’ Cambridge friends, Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell), and Henry Stallard (Daniel Gerroll). While boarding the boat to Paris for the Olympics, Liddell learns the news that the heat for his 100 metre race will be on a Sunday. He refuses to run the race, notwithstanding strong pressure from the Prince of Wales and the British Olympic committee, and being a Christian, the reasons are his convictions prevent him from running on the Sabbath.
There we see the hope appears when Liddell’s teammate Lindsay, having already won a silver medal in the 400 metres hurdles, proposes to yield his place in the 400 metre race on the following Thursday to Liddell, who gratefully agrees. His religious convictions in the face of national athletic pride make headlines around the world. Liddell delivers a sermon at the Paris Church of Scotland that Sunday.
Abrahams is badly beaten by the heavily favored United States runners in the 200 metre race. He knows his last chance for a medal will be the 100 metres. He competes in the race, and wins. His coach Sam Mussabini is overcome that the years of dedication and training have paid off with an Olympic gold medal. Now Abrahams can get on with his life and reunite with his girlfriend Sybil, whom he had neglected for the sake of running. Before Liddell’s race, the American coach remarks dismissively to his runners that Liddell has little chance of doing well in his now far longer 400 metre race. But one of the American runners, Jackson Scholz, hands Liddell a note of support for his convictions. Liddell defeats the favorite American and wins the gold medal.
The British team returns home triumphant. As the film ends, onscreen text explains that Abrahams married Sybil, and became the elder statesman of British athletics. Liddell went on to missionary work in China. All of Scotland mourned his death in 1945 in Japanese-occupied China.
Unavoidably the film has some bit of errors and omissions, altering facts to fit the narrative. Although Harold Abrahams’ romance with opera singer Sybil Evers features in the film, it did not in fact begin until nine years after the Olympics. It was not Abrahams who won the legendary ‘college dash’ but his friend Lord Burghley (fictionalized in the film as Lord Andrew Lindsay, played by Nigel Havers).
None of this matters that much in the face of a moving and inspiring story of two very different athletes pushing themselves to the limit. The film remarkably stages the agony and the ecstasy of young men running ‘with hope in their hearts and wings on their heels’…….and watching those running sequences, in the most awe-inspiring music by Greek composer Vangelis’s extraordinary- a rare achievement of this poetry in motion, embarking the cinema into a colossal symphony……….
- Directed by Hugh Hudson
- Produced by David Puttnam
- Written by Colin Welland
- Cast: Ben Cross; Ian Charleson; Nigel Havers; Cheryl Campbell; Alice Krige; Ian Holm
- Music by Vangelis
- Cinematography David Watkins
- Edited by Terry Rawlings
- Production company: Allied Stars Ltd; Goldcrest Films & Enigma Productions
- Distributed by 20th Century Fox (International); The Ladd Company & Warner Bros (US)
- Release dates: 30 March 1981
- Run time of 124 minutes
- Country: United Kingdom
- Language: English