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In 1981, the British motion picture industry released a film based on a story everyone considered too dated, a project no production company would back, with unknown actors as leads, and a one-man synthesizer band to provide all the music . . . and it was a massive hit. Chariots of Fire (1981) triumphed at the Oscars with wins in Best Picture, Costume Design, Music, and Writing categories. It was the opening film at the New York Film Festival, the British entry at the Cannes Film Festival, and ultimately grossed just under sixty million worldwide. As the English might say, that's a bit of an all right.
Producer David Puttnam first conceived the idea for the film when reading an Olympic record book. In it, he learned of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, two track stars that ran for England in the 1924 Olympics. Both were social outcasts of a kind: Liddell was a Scottish Christian supremely devout in his faith, and Abrahams was an English Jew relentless in his quest for social acceptance. Both, however, used running as the means to their goals: Liddell sought to honor God, while Abrahams wanted to destroy class elitism. Inspired by the history, Puttnam sought to bring the story to celluloid; as he explains, "sport is such a clean simple metaphor."
He enlisted the writing skills of Colin Welland to script the project. Through newspaper advertisements seeking information on the men, Welland tapped into a network of athletes and graduates with memories, news clippings, and letters about the 1924 Olympics and the two runners. The letters became the narrating backdrop for the film. Connections with a studio president garnered three million towards the financing, and a few months later Allied Stars, a production company headed up by Dodi Fayed, matched the amount. Fayed would gain his greatest exposure, however, with the tragic 1997 Paris auto accident that killed him and his companion Princess Diana. Puttnam hired novice director Hugh Hudson to helm the picture, a man whose previous experience was mainly television commercials. Nevertheless, Hudson pulled off the whole thing for six million.
In order to maintain a strong sense of realism, the filmmakers wanted to use unknown actors as the leads. Ian Charleson was cast as Liddell. Although he had had limited exposure in some BBC productions, he was chosen for his calm demeanor and the ability to project a sense of grace under fire. Ben Cross, with considerable experience from the Royal Shakespeare Company, was cast for his sensitivity and boundless energy, qualities exemplified by his character Abrahams. More notable actors were cast in supporting roles: Ian Holm plays Abrahams' Italian-Arabic running coach, and Sir John Gielgud appears as a crusty, anti-Semitic Cambridge master. Holm was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but in a twist, Gielgud won for his performance as Hobson the butler in Arthur (1981). On a random note, Ruby Wax shows up in a bit part 0 she would later achieve English celebrity with a popular talk show series.
Vangelis, who used a single moniker (probably for the best, his last name was Papathanassiou), composed, arranged, and performed the entire soundtrack using only a keyboard. Although some critics denounced the inequity of a period piece punctuated by synthesized sound, Vangelis collected an Academy Award for Best Score for Chariots of Fire and the soundtrack has endured as one of the most popular soundtracks of all time. The first few bars of the opening pieces invariably bring to mind the slow motion shot of the men running on St. Andrew's beach.
William Blake's Milton is credited for inspiring the film's title; in it he asks, "And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green?" Two stanzas down he urges:
Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.
As if stirred by these powerful words, a group of underdog filmmakers exploded out of the blocks and onto the screen for a sprint no one could quite believe until the race was over and the victors declared. Chariots of Fire is a lesson in the spirit of human perseverance, both on and off screen.
Producer: David Puttnam
Director: Hugh Hudson
Screenplay: Colin Welland
Cinematography: David Watkin
Costume Design: Milena Canonero
Film Editing: Terry Rawlings
Original Music: Vangelis
Principal Cast: Ben Cross (Harold Abrahams), Ian Charleson (Eric Liddell), Nigel Havers (Lord Andrew Lindsay), Nicholas Farrell (Aubrey Montague), Alice Krige (Sybil Gordon), Daniel Gerroll (Henry Stallard),Ian Holm (Sam Mussabini), John Gielgud (Master of Trinity), Nigel Davenport (Lord Birkenhead), Dennis Christopher (Charles Paddock), Brad Davis (Jackson Scholz).
C-125m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Eleanor Quin