Chariots of Fire is a 1981 film heavily inspired by the true events revolving around two runners in the United Kingdom. The iconic story, top-notch performances, strong directing, and indelible soundtrack make for an enduring, memorable experience. It is deserving of its place in people’s minds as a significant piece of film history.
The plot is twofold. It focuses on both Cambridge University runner Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, a Scottish missionary, who happens to be a talented runner himself. The characters are polar opposites in their way of life and approach to the sport.
Abrahams has a chip on his shoulder as he has had to endure anti-Semitism throughout his life, including his time at Cambridge. He is out to prove himself to those who view him as an “other.” Though Liddell is Scottish, he was born in China to missionary parents and has decided to continue the mission. Being a gifted runner, he decides to use his God-given talent to compete with the hopes of making it to the Olympics. He then plans to return to China resume working in ministry. The road to the Olympics results in Abrahams and Liddell crossing paths and competing under the British flag, where personal reputation and religious perseverance and conviction will be tested.
The film’s pacing is handled nicely. The cohesive way in which the concurrent plot lines are communicated and intersect is well done. It is enjoyable to watch Abrahams and his friends Aubrey Montague and Lord Andrew Linsday at Cambridge.
Smooth transitions are used to transfer viewers to Liddell’s story and struggle with running versus using that time to further his religious calling. By the time the British team journeys to the Olympics, audiences will feel as though they are well-acquainted with the characters and their perspectives.
Tonally, Chariots of Fire pertains to religious perseverance and conviction, especially in the face of dissent, racism and anti-Semitism, and exerting hard work and determination toward reaching a goal. Liddell is a great example of standing firm in the faith regardless of what others think. Abrahams wants others to see him for who he is and what he can accomplish, not merely for his heritage. Both men establish their own respective goals and set out to accomplish them. Though they journey on different paths, the journey of each athlete is fascinating to watch.
The film’s performances are marvelous. Ben Cross’ arrogant, callow, and sharp tongued Harold Abrahams is initially abrasive, but when audiences understand that he has had to contend with anti-Semitism, he becomes more likable. Cross conveys Abrahams’ complexities with ease. His athletic acumen is respectable and his penchant for Gilbert and Sullivan adds a nice character flare.
Ian Charleson’s Eric Liddell is terrific. The way in which Charleson portrays Liddell’s grounded, steadfast persona, coupled with his struggle concerning running and missions, is brilliant to watch. In short, both performances are exemplary.
Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Havers, Ian Holm, and Alice Krige provide outstanding supporting performances as Aubrey Montague, Lord Andrew Lindsay, Sam Mussabini, and Sybil Gordon, respectively. Farrell and Havers are great in showing the 1920s Cambridge spirit and optimism. It is especially nice to see that Abrahams, Montague, and Linsday – all Cambridge men – are not simply copy and pasted versions of the same character model. Each are very distinct and contribute their own charm to the film.
Ian Holm and Alice Krige offer impressive performances in roles pertaining to Abrahams, his running coach and girlfriend to be precise. Each of these characters provides the immature and proud Abrahams with doses of reality and grounded advice.
John Gielgud’s Master of Trinity and Lindsay Anderson’s Master of Caius are well acted. Though disheartening, both actors effectively illustrate the racism and anti-Semitism of the time, particularly as it relates to one’s pedigree and genetic stock and the opportunities that, in their minds, should or should not be afforded to people of certain origin. Though surprising and cold in their viewpoints, it does reveal the noxious nature of racism, particularly at that time in history.
The film’s cinematography and production design are excellent. The mixture of shots during running sequences is extraordinary. From tracking shots to full shots to medium shots and close-ups, the running is varied and looks great each time. The idyllic establishing shots in Scotland and Cambridge are beautiful and effectively set their scenes.
The production design is strong. From the tweed clothing in the Scottish Highlands to the “Oxbridge preppy style,” the wardrobe is fantastic. The set design, featuring wood paneled academic buildings and period-themed athletic stadiums, looks great on camera and fuels the suspension of disbelief.
Vangelis’ original score is phenomenal. The catchy theme song will likely be recognized by those who have not seen the movie. The entire score intensifies the film’s emotion and helps round out the film’s technical strengths. Although I often do not like modern-styled music in period pieces, Vangelis’ work is an exception.
Hugh Hudson’s direction of Chariots of Fire is wonderful. The way in which he is able to concisely and effectively convey the story is remarkable. The emotional pull of the film is ever-present. Having seen this film numerous times, I still get choked up several times whenever I watch it. The palpable tension Hudson and the actors create in the pre-race scenes is striking. Not only should Hudson be lauded for communicating the story, but also for extracting such enthralling performances from the entire cast and managing the project’s technical aspects.
The Academy took note of Chariots of Fire as it won the following Oscars: Costume Design – Milena Canonero, Music (Original Score) – Vangelis, Writing (Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen) – Colin Welland, and Best Picture – David Puttnam. Additionally, it received the following nominations: Actor in a Supporting Role – Ian Holm, Directing – Hugh Hudson, and Film Editing – Terry Rawlings. The nominations and wins demonstrate the diverse strengths of the film, from performances to directing and producing to technicality. Its wins are well-deserved.
In the end, Chariots of Fire is a film that absolutely should not be missed. Even if you have seen, it is probably time to watch it again. For those who have yet to watch it, you are in for an extremely strong piece of cinema.
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox Film Company; The Ladd Company; Warner Bros. Pictures
Production: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; Allied Stars; Enigma Productions
Director: Hugh Hudson
Producer: David Puttnam
Screenwriter: Colin Welland
Director of Photography: David Watkin
Editor: Terry Rawlings
Art Direction: Jonathan Amberston; Len Huntingford; Anna Ridley; Andrew Sanders
Costume Design: Milena Canonero
Music: Vangelis (Vangelis Papathanassiou)
Budget: ca. $5,500,000
Release Date: April 9, 1981 (USA); May 15, 1981 (UK)
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Laboratory: Kay Laboratories
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Copyright Holder: Enigma Productions, Limited
Cast: Ben Cross; Ian Charleson; Nicholas Farrell; Nigel Havers; Daniel Gerroll; Ian Holm; Alice Krige; John Gielgud; Lindsay Anderson; Nigel Davenport; Cheryl Campbell; Dennis Christopher; Brad Davis; Patrick Magee; Struan Rodger; Peter Egan; David Yelland; Richard Griffiths
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Rating: PG; Descriptors: N/A
Running Time: 2 hours and 5 minutes (125 mins.)