Chariots of Fire
Chariots of Fire

Film poster
Directed by Hugh Hudson
Produced by David Puttnam
Dodi Fayed
(executive producer)
Written by Colin Welland
Starring Ben Cross
Ian Charleson
Nigel Havers
Cheryl Campbell
Alice Krige
Ian Holm
Music by Vangelis
Cinematography David Watkin
Editing by Terry Rawlings
Distributed by North America:
Warner Bros.
The Ladd Company
International:
20th Century Fox
Release date(s) March 1981 (1981-03)
Running time 118 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
French
Budget $5,500,000
Box office $58,972,904 (USA)

Chariots of Fire is a 1981 British film. It tells the fact-based story of two athletes in the 1924 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.

The film was written by Colin Welland and directed by Hugh Hudson. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture. It is ranked 19th in the British Film Institute's list of Top 100 British films.

The film's title was inspired by the line, "Bring me my chariot of fire," from the William Blake poem adapted into the popular British hymn "Jerusalem"; the hymn is heard at the end of the film.[1] The original phrase "chariot(s) of fire" is from 2 Kings 2:11 and 6:17 in the Bible.[2][3]

Contents

Plot

In 1919, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) enters Cambridge University, 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 extremely badly, 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 ungentlemanly 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.

When Eric Liddell accidentally misses a church prayer meeting because of his running, his sister Jennie upbraids him and accuses him of no longer caring about God. Eric tells her that though he intends to eventually return to the China mission, he feels divinely inspired when running, and that not to run would be to dishonour God: "I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure."

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 – despite strong pressure from the Prince of Wales and the British Olympic committee – because his Christian convictions prevent him from running on the Sabbath.

Hope appears in the form of Liddell's teammate Lord Andrew Lindsay. Having already won a silver medal in the 400 metre hurdles, Lindsay 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, and quotes from Isaiah 40, verse 31: "But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and be not weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."

Abrahams is badly beaten by the heavily favoured 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 American favourites 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. Eric Liddell went on to missionary work in China. All of Scotland mourned his death in 1945 in Japanese-occupied China.

Cast

Historical accuracy

Characters

The film depicts Abrahams as attending Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge with three other Olympic athletes: Henry Stallard, Aubrey Montague, and Lord Andrew Lindsay. Abrahams and Stallard were in fact students there and competed in the 1924 Olympics. Montague also competed in the Olympics as depicted, but he attended Oxford, not Cambridge.[4] Aubrey Montague sent daily letters to his mother about his time at Oxford and the Olympics; these letters were the basis of Montague's narration in the film.

The character of Lindsay was based on David Burghley (Lord Burghley), a significant figure in the history of British athletics. Although Burghley did attend Cambridge, he was not a contemporary of Harold Abrahams, as Abrahams was an undergraduate from 1919 to 1923 and Burghley was at Cambridge from 1923 to 1927. One scene in the film depicts the Burghley-based "Lindsay" as practicing hurdles on his estate with full champagne glasses placed on each hurdle – this was in fact something the wealthy Burghley did.[5]

Abrahams (left) and the Burghley-based Lindsay (right) attempt the Great Court Run.

Another scene in the film recreates the Great Court Run, in which the runners attempt to run around the perimeter of the Great Court at Trinity College, Cambridge in the time it takes the clock to strike 12 at midday. The film shows Abrahams performing the feat for the first time in history. In fact, at the time of filming the only person on record known to have succeeded was David Burghley, in 1927. In Chariots of Fire, Lindsay, who is based on David Burghley, runs the Great Court Run with Abrahams in order to spur him on, and crosses the finish line just a moment too late. Since the film, the Great Court Run has also been successfully run by Trinity undergraduate Sam Dobin, in October 2007.[6]

In the film, Eric Liddell is tripped up by a Frenchman in the 400 metre event of a Scotland–France international athletic meeting. He recovers, makes up a 20 metre deficit, and wins. This was based on fact; the actual race was during a Triangular Contest meet between Scotland, England, and Ireland at Stoke-on-Trent in England in July 1923. His achievement was remarkable as he had already won the 100- and 220-yard events that day.[7] Also unmentioned with regard to Liddell is that it was he who introduced Abrahams to Sam Mussabini.[8] This is alluded to: In the film Abrahams first encounters Mussabini while he is watching Liddell race. The film, however, suggests that Abrahams himself sought Mussabini's assistance.

Abrahams' fiancee is misidentified as Sybil Gordon, a soprano at the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. In fact, in 1936, Abrahams married Sybil Evers, a mezzo-soprano in the D'Oyly Carte, but they did not meet until 1935.[9] Also, in the film, Sybil is depicted as singing the role of Yum-Yum in The Mikado, but neither Sybil Gordon nor Sybil Evers ever sang that role with D'Oyly Carte.[10][11] Harold Abrahams' love of and heavy involvement with Gilbert and Sullivan, as depicted in the film, is factual.[5]

Liddell's sister was several years younger than she was portrayed in the film. Her disapproval of Liddell's track career was creative licence; she actually fully supported his sporting work. Jenny Liddell Somerville cooperated fully with the making of the film and has a brief cameo in the Paris Church of Scotland during Liddell's sermon.[12]

At the memorial service for Harold Abrahams, which opens the film, Lord Lindsay mentions that he and Aubrey Montague are the only members of the 1924 Olympic team still alive. Montague had died in 1948, 30 years before Abrahams' death.

1924 Olympics

The film takes some liberties with the events at the 1924 Olympics, including the events surrounding Liddell's refusal to race on a Sunday. In the film, he doesn't learn that the 100 metre heat is to be held on the Christian "Sabbath" until he is boarding the boat to Paris. In fact, the schedule was made public several months in advance. Liddell did however face immense pressure to run on that Sunday and to compete in the 100 metres, getting called before a grilling by the British Olympic Committee, the Prince of Wales, and other grandees;[5] and his refusal to run made headlines around the world.[13] The decision to change races was, even so, made well before embarking to Paris, and Liddell spent the intervening months training for the 400 metres, an event in which he had previously excelled. It is true, nonetheless, that Liddell's success in the Olympic 400m was largely unexpected.

The film depicts Lindsay, having already won a medal in the 400 metre hurdles, giving up his place in the 400 metre race for Liddell. In fact Burghley, on whom Lindsay is loosely based, was eliminated in the heats of the 110 hurdles (he would go on to win a gold medal in the 1928 Olympics), and Lindsay's deference to Liddell in the 400 was fabricated.

The film reverses the order of Abrahams' 100m and 200m races at the Olympics. In reality, after winning the 100 metres race, Abrahams ran the 200 metres but finished last, Jackson Scholz taking the gold medal. In the film, before his triumph in the 100m, Abrahams is shown losing the 200m and being scolded by Mussabini. And during the following scene in which Abrahams speaks with his friend Montague while receiving a massage from Mussabini, there is a French newspaper clipping showing Scholz and Charlie Paddock with a headline which states that the 200 metres was a triumph for the United States. In the same conversation, Abrahams laments getting "beaten out of sight" in the 200. The film thus has Abrahams overcoming the disappointment of losing the 200 by going on to win the 100, a reversal of the real order.

Eric Liddell actually also ran in the 200m race, and finished third, behind Paddock and Scholz. This was the only time in reality that Liddell and Abrahams competed in the same race. Their meeting in the 1923 AAA Championship in the film was fictitious, though Liddell's record win in that race did spur Abrahams to train even harder.[14]

Abrahams also won a silver medal as an opening runner for the 4 x 100 metres relay team, not shown in the film. Aubrey Montague placed sixth in the steeplechase, as depicted.[4]

Personal inaccuracies at the Olympics

In the film, the 100m bronze medallist is a character called "Tom Watson"; the real medallist was Arthur Porritt of New Zealand, who refused permission for his name to be used in the film, allegedly out of modesty. His wish was accepted by the film's producers, even though his permission was not necessary.[15] However, the brief back-story given for Watson, who is called up to the New Zealand team from Oxford University, substantially matches Porritt's history. With the exception of Porritt, all the runners in the 100m final are identified correctly when they line up for inspection by the Prince of Wales.

Jackson Scholz is depicted as handing Liddell an inspirational Bible-quotation message before the 400 metres final: "It says in the good Book, 'He that honors me, I will honor.' Good luck." In reality, it was an American team masseur who handed Liddell the note. For dramatic purposes, screenwriter Welland asked Scholz if he could be depicted handing the note, and Scholz readily agreed, saying "Yes, great, as long as it makes me look good."[5][16]

Production details

Script

Ian Charleson, who studied the Bible intensively for his role, wrote Eric Liddell's inspirational speech to the post-race workingmen's crowd.

Producer David Puttnam was looking for a story in the mold of A Man for All Seasons (1966), regarding someone who follows their conscience, and felt sports provided clear situations in this sense.[17] He discovered Eric Liddell's story by accident in 1978, when he happened upon a reference book on the Olympics while housebound from the flu in a rented house in Los Angeles.[18][19]

Screenwriter Colin Welland did an enormous amount of research for his Academy Award-winning script. Among other things, he took out advertisements in London newspapers seeking memories of the 1924 Olympics, and interviewed everyone involved who was still alive. Aubrey Montague's son sent him copies of the letters his father had sent home – which gave Welland something to use as a narrative bridge in the film. Except for changes in the greetings of the letters from "Darling Mummy" to "Dear Mum" and the change from Oxford to Cambridge, all of the readings from Montague's letters are from the originals.[5]

Ian Charleson himself wrote Eric Liddell's speech to the post-race workingmen's crowd at the Scotland v. Ireland races. Charleson, who had been studying the Bible intensively in preparation for the role, told director Hugh Hudson that he didn't feel the portentous and sanctimonious scripted speech was either authentic or inspiring. Hudson and Welland allowed him to write words he personally found inspirational instead.[20]

The film was slightly altered for the U.S. audience. A brief scene depicting a pre-Olympics cricket game between Abrahams, Liddell, Montague, and the rest of the British track team appears shortly after the beginning of the original film. For the American audience, this brief scene was deleted. In the U.S., to avoid the initial child's G rating, which might have hindered box office sales, a different scene was used – one depicting Abrahams and Montague arriving at a Cambridge railway station and encountering two World War I veterans who use an obscenity – in order to be given a PG rating.[21]

Music

Ian Charleson (foreground) and Ben Cross (left) running in the "Chariots of Fire" music scene which bookends the film.

Although the film is a period piece, set in the 1920s, the Academy Award-winning original soundtrack composed by Vangelis uses a modern 1980s electronic sound, with a strong use of synthesizer and piano among other instruments. This was a bold and significant departure from earlier period films, which employed sweeping orchestral instrumentals. The title theme of the film has become iconic, and has been used in subsequent films and television shows during slow-motion segments.

Director Hugh Hudson originally wanted Vangelis's 1977 tune "L'Enfant",[22] from his 1979 Opera Sauvage album, to be the title theme of the film, and the beach running sequence was actually filmed with "L'Enfant" playing on loudspeakers for the runners to pace to. Vangelis finally convinced Hudson he could create a new and better piece for the film's main theme – and when he played the now-iconic "Chariots of Fire" theme for Hudson, it was agreed the new tune was unquestionably better.[23] But the "L'Enfant" melody still made it into the film: When the athletes reach Paris and enter the stadium, a brass band marches through the field, and first plays a modified, acoustic performance of "L'Enfant".[24] Vangelis's electronic "L'Enfant" track eventually was used prominently in the 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously.

Some pieces of Vangelis's music in the film did not end up on the film's soundtrack album. One of them is the background music to the race Eric Liddell runs in the Scottish highlands. This piece is a version of "Hymn", the original version of which appears on Vangelis's 1979 album, Opéra sauvage. Various versions are also included on Vangelis's compilation albums Themes, Portraits, and Odyssey: The Definitive Collection, though none of these include the version used in the film.

Five lively Gilbert and Sullivan tunes also appear in the soundtrack, and serve as jaunty period music which nicely counterpoints Vangelis's modern electronic score. These are: "He is an Englishman" from H.M.S. Pinafore, "Three Little Maids from School Are We" from The Mikado, "With Catlike Tread" from The Pirates of Penzance, "The Soldiers of Our Queen" from Patience, and "There Lived a King" from The Gondoliers.

The film also incorporates a major traditional work: "Jerusalem", sung by a British choir at the 1978 funeral of Harold Abrahams. The hymn, which was written during World War I as a celebration of England and which has become "England's unofficial national anthem",[25] concludes the film and inspired its title.[26] A handful of other traditional anthems and hymns, and period-appropriate waltz music, round out the film's soundtrack.

Casting

Director Hugh Hudson was determined to cast young, unknown actors in all the major roles of the film, and to back them up by using veterans like John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson, and Ian Holm as their supporting cast. Hudson and producer David Puttnam did months of fruitless searching for the perfect actor to play Eric Liddell. They then saw Scottish stage actor Ian Charleson performing the role of Pierre in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Piaf, and knew immediately they had found their man. Unbeknownst to them, Charleson had heard about the film from his father, and desperately wanted to play the part, feeling it would "fit like a kid glove".[27]

Ben Cross, who plays Harold Abrahams, was discovered while playing Billy Flynn in Chicago. In addition to having a natural pugnaciousness, he had the desired ability to sing and play the piano.[5][28] Cross was thrilled to be cast, and said he was moved to tears by the film's script.[29]

20th Century Fox, which raised half the money for the film,[19] insisted on having a couple of notable American names in the cast, to ensure audience attendance in the U.S. Thus the small parts of the two American champion runners, Jackson Scholz and Charlie Paddock, were cast with recent headliners: Brad Davis had recently starred in Midnight Express, and Dennis Christopher had recently starred, as a young bicycle racer, in the popular indie film Breaking Away.[29]

All of the actors portraying runners underwent a gruelling three-month training intensive, with renowned running coach Tom McNab. This training and isolation of the actors also created a strong bond and sense of camaraderie among them.[29]

Filming locations

The famous beach running scene.

The famous beach scenes associated with the theme tune were filmed at West Sands, St. Andrews. A plaque commemorating the filming can be found there today. The very last scene of the opening titles crosses the 1st and 18th holes of the Old Course at St. Andrews Golf Course.[30][31]

All of the Cambridge scenes were actually filmed at Hugh Hudson's alma mater Eton College, because Cambridge refused filming rights, fearing depictions of anti-Semitism. This was a decision the Cambridge administration greatly regretted after the film's enormous success.[5]

Liverpool Town Hall was the setting for the scenes depicting the British Embassy in Paris.[5] The Colombes Olympic Stadium in Paris was represented by The Oval Sports Centre, Bebington, Merseyside.[32] The nearby Woodside ferry terminal was used to represent the embarcation scenes set in Dover.[32] The railway station scenes were filmed at the National Railway Museum in York.[5] The scene depicting a performance of The Mikado was filmed in the Savoy Theatre with members of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.[33] The dinner scene between Harold and Sybil was filmed at the Café Royal Oyster Bar in Edinburgh.[34]

Awards and recognition

Academy Awards (1981)

Chariots of Fire was very successful at the Academy Awards. When he accepted his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay Colin Welland famously announced "The British are coming".

Cannes Film Festival (1981)

At the 1981 Cannes Film Festival the film won two awards and competed for the Palme d'Or.[35]

  • Best Supporting Actor – Ian Holm – won
  • Prize of the Ecumenical Jury – Special Mention – Hugh Hudson – won
  • Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) – Hugh Hudson – nominated

BAFTA Awards (1981)

Popular lists

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Dans, Peter E. Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. p. 223.
  2. ^ 2 Kings 2:11
  3. ^ 2 Kings 6:17
  4. ^ a b Aubrey Montague biography at SportsReference.com
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hugh Hudson's commentary to the 2005 Chariots of Fire DVD
  6. ^ "Modern-day hero runs away with Chariots of Fire challenge." Daily Mail 27 October 2007.
  7. ^ Ramsey, Russell W. (1987). God's Joyful Runner. Bridge Publishing, Inc. p. 54. ISBN 0882706241. 
  8. ^ "Bio of Liddell". Bbc.co.uk. 1902-01-16. http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/sportscotland/asportingnation/article/0019/print.shtml. Retrieved 2009-04-28. 
  9. ^ Rosen, Karen. "The Real Chariots of Fire: Hollywood Took Liberties with Gold Medalist's Life." Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 13, 1995.
  10. ^ Stone, David. Sybil Gordon at the Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company website, 11 July 2002, accessed 8 November 2009
  11. ^ Stone, David. Sybil Evers at the Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company website, 28 January 2002, accessed 8 November 2009
  12. ^ Ramsey, Russell W. A Lady – A Peacemaker. Boston: Branden Publishing Company, 1988.
  13. ^ Murray, Feg. "DID YOU KNOW THAT ...". Los Angeles Times. 24 June 1924. Full headline reads, "Did You Know That Famous Scotch Sprinter Will Not Run In The Olympic 100 Metres Because The Trials Are Run On Sunday".
  14. ^ "Recollections by Sir Arthur Marshall". Content.ericliddell.org. http://content.ericliddell.org/ericliddell/recollections/content/arthurmarshall.htm. Retrieved 2009-04-28. [dead link]
  15. ^ Arthur Espie Porritt 1900–1994. "Reference to Porritt's modesty". Library.otago.ac.nz. http://www.library.otago.ac.nz/exhibitions/rhodes_scholars/arthur_espie_porritt.html. Retrieved 2009-04-28. 
  16. ^ "Britain's 1924 Olympic Champs Live Again in 'Chariots of Fire'—and Run Away with the Oscars". People 17 (18). May 10, 1982. http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20082112,00.html. Retrieved 2009-08-22. 
  17. ^ Goodell, Gregory. Independent Feature Film Production: A Complete Guide from Concept Through Distribution. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982. p. xvii.
  18. ^ Nichols, Peter M. The New York Times Essential Library, Children's Movies: A Critic's Guide to the Best Films Available on Video and DVD. New York: Times Books, 2003. p. 59.
  19. ^ a b Hugh Hudson in Chariots of Fire – The Reunion (2005 video; featurette on 2005 Chariots of Fire DVD)
  20. ^ Ian McKellen, Hugh Hudson, Alan Bates, et al. For Ian Charleson: A Tribute. London: Constable and Company, 1990. pp. 37–39. ISBN 0-09-470250-0
  21. ^ Puttnam interviewed in BBC Radio obituary of Jack Valenti.
  22. ^ "L'Enfant", from Opera Sauvage
  23. ^ Vangelis in Chariots of Fire – The Reunion (2005 video; featurette on 2005 Chariots of Fire DVD)
  24. ^ Trivia about Vangelis
  25. ^ Sanderson, Blair. Hubert Parry. AllMusic Guide, reprinted in Answers.com.
  26. ^ Manchel, Frank. Film Study: An Analytical Bibliography. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. p. 1013
  27. ^ Ian McKellen, Hugh Hudson, Alan Bates, et al. For Ian Charleson: A Tribute. London: Constable and Company, 1990. pp. xix, 9, 76.
  28. ^ Ben Cross – Bio on Official site
  29. ^ a b c Wings on Their Heels: The Making of Chariots of Fire. (2005 video; featurette on 2005 DVD).
  30. ^ Chariots of Fire – St Andrews Scotland: The Movie Location Guide
  31. ^ Tours: St Andrews Gray Line Tours. Describes Grannie Clark’s Wynd, a public right-of-way over the 1st and the 18th of the Old Course, which was where the athletes were filmed running for the final titles shot.
  32. ^ a b Chariots of Fire. Where Did They Film That?. http://www.wheredidtheyfilmthat.co.uk/film.php?film_id=60. Retrieved 18 February 2007 
  33. ^ Bradley, Ian, ed.The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan. Oxford University Press, 2005. p. 576.
  34. ^ Chariots of Fire – Filming locations at the Internet Movie Database
  35. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Chariots of Fire". festival-cannes.com. http://www.festival-cannes.com/en/archives/ficheFilm/id/1732/year/1981.html. Retrieved 2009-05-31. 

External links


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