Chariots of Fire
The problem with Chariot of Fire, a slight but likeable tale of overcoming hurdles (ahem) in order to bask in glory (your classic sports movie, basically), is not the film itself but its success. Garlanded with Oscars and hexed by the pronouncement “The British are coming!” (surely one of the most ill-advised acceptance speeches ever, perhaps topped by “I’m king of the world!”), Chariots became forever entwined with the Conservative nostalgia of Thatcher’s Britain. The juxtaposition of Vangelis’ sublime electronica with post-WWI period trappings was undeniably effective and evocative, but it lent itself all-too easily to artificially bolstered national pride and “British is best” sentiments. Indeed, while the film makes some counterarguments against the arrogance of public school Englishness and unfiltered patriotism, ultimately these defer to rose-tinted imagery of a triumphant island nation.
Colin Welland appropriated his title (originally the entirely banal Running) from William Blake’s Jerusalem, which is sung at the film’s 1978 bookend. I don’t think there was any irony in his choice, since he was reportedly inspired to use it after seeing it sung on Songs of Praise. Jerusalem (the hymn) has become a virtual national anthem, but Blake’s verses are most certainly not a paean to Britain; rather, he recognises its dire state and that a monumental effort is necessary to right the land. So, not through a spot of jolly running then.
Welland’s script ensures that the principles, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) must face trials and tribulations. Abrahams, a Jew at Cambridge who encounters both thinly veiled and undisguised anti-Semitism wherever he goes, could be argued to represent proto-Thatcherite values. He is focused only on success and willing to trample over others to achieve it. He loves his country, but personal ambition comes first. There is some attempt to temper this, to furnish Abrahams with a learning curve through his relationship with soprano Sybil (a pre-Borg queen Alice Krige) and his straight-talking trainer Sam Mussabini (a typically virtuoso Ian Holm), and his silent departure from the changing rooms after taking the Gold is surely intended to reflect inner contemplation (or is it just being overwhelmed?)
But even Abrahams’ clash with his Cambridge masters (John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson) forwards a capitalist/Tory ethic; traditional values (the prep school pride in the achievement of the amateur at loggerheads with Abrahams taking on a trainer) are only to be upheld as long as they are no impediment to making money (or winning races). Abrahams is too self-involved to be truly sympathetic, but this scene does much to redress the balance; his correction of the suggestion that Sam is Italian with “He’s half Arab” is one of the few moments of humour this character is allowed. Gielgud’s character resorts to blatant anti-Semitism once Abrahams is out of the room, but has an “I always knew he’d do it” response when he wins the race. The college is quite happy to reap the acclaim that comes with a Cambridge man (even a Jewish, plebian Cambridge man) taking the medal. But isn’t dragging yourself up by your bootstraps what Thatcher was all about; regardless of your background, the greenbacks are what count (that it was Abrahams’ father who had made all the money is beside the point)?
Chariots is that rare film; it throws a sop to those with faith, particularly those of the Christian persuasion. Eric Liddell is nothing short of the hero who risks public disapprobation when he puts God before country (standing up to the monarchy) and refuses to run on Sunday. That he comes out on top makes him an ideal poster boy for the church (the film is slightly coy about this aspect, no doubt astutely reckoning that your audience will be wider if you hedge your bets).
But Liddell is so self-effacing, so guileless (in a fine performance from Charleson, who died very young at the age of 40) that you can’t help but be on his side. There is no air of “holier than thou” to him. He’s a man who is utterly sincere when he shakes the hand of each competitor and wishes him best of luck. Even his brand of Christianity is announced as the “Kingdom of Heaven is within” variety (suggesting personal discovery of God rather than the trappings and regalia of the organised church). So his bristling defence against the contempt-filled Lord Cadogan (Patrick Magee) is naturally the high watermark of the film, more so than his victory in the race itself.
Eric’s sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell) provides a contrast to his positive piety, doing all she can to guilt trip him over his running (which she sees as supplanting his call to the church); apparently, this tension was created by Welland, as the real Jennie was fully behind Eric. It’s an understandable decision (as are many of the creative licences), as the film’s version of struggle is a very genteel one, and needs cajoling to exert any kind of grip. At the climax, though, Eric is nevertheless there with the other winners (Abrahams aside), waving the flag. It’s a neat visual trick, that God is allied with state in this moment.
But this is the “cake and eat it” approach that Welland and director Hugh Hudson take throughout. The Daily Telegraph put it at Number One in a list of top Conservative films, and it’s easy to see why. The most likeable character is the cobbled-together louche Lord Nigel Havers (based loosely on Lord David Burghley), a thoroughly spiffy sort who’s having a smoke just before high-tailing it round the Trinity Great Court Run and is later seen practicing for his event with glasses of champagne placed atop each hurdle. He’s so dashed decent he gives up a race (he’s got his medal, the good egg) so Liddell can take part in the Olympics (complete invention, of course). So really, this is the true spirit of England the film is promoting; the fairy tale toff, racing just to take part and for the lark (rather than for personal glory) and blessed with good manners and generosity of spirit such that he’ll give anyone a leg up. It’s a gift of a part, and Havers has rarely been so good since; he quickly descended into a holding pattern of annoyingly posh, but here he is witty and vibrant (he does seem strangely content with being splattered with mud during the slow motion introduction, however).
The rest of the cast is filled out memorably. Holm wasn’t the most prolific of film actors at the time, but nearly every (supporting) role showed his sure touch (Alien, Time Bandits, Brazil, Dreamchild). Gielgud brings an imperious disdain to his ivory tower superiority that speaks volumes in just a couple of well-place scenes. Dennis Christopher (recently given a role of some profile in Tarantino’s Django Unchained) and Brad Davis (like Charleson, he died of AIDS at a young age) both make an impression in very brief appearances as American athletes. But the reliable Peter Egan comes slightly unstuck when asked to deliver the most indigestible of dialogue, stating overtly the thematic underpinning of Liddell’s beliefs.
There can be little doubt that Chariots wouldn’t have attained the success it did without Vangelis’s score. It is the film, preceding it and informing its triumphalism. Even more so than Rocky’s (also a Best Picture Oscar winner), the theme inflates and emotionally propels the proceedings. I have to admit that I’d forgotten that it isn’t used for the main races (more discordant and uncertain, but no less charged, themes are used for Abrahams and Liddell). To the ears of those newly discovering Chariots, the electronica may seem out of place and jarring (although the nostalgia for such sounds should not be underestimated). The actual images of the runners on the beach, even given the slow motion, are only made epic by the theme. They linger in the mind with more resonance than the rather mundane manner in which Hudson has shot them. It’s this alchemical combination of sound and image that got Academy members ticking the box for the film; it evokes a memory of a more expansive, substantial piece than the one experienced. It prods the emotions, and one can’t help but respond approvingly.
I emphasise Vangelis, because Hudson’s contributions, although vital in several key areas, are generally not nearly so extraordinary as his composer’s (of course, he must be credited for bringing Vangelis on board in the first place). After all, we are used to seeing slow motion replays of sports events, it’s not as if he came up with something startling. Aside from the training and events, Hudson’s set-ups and shooting style are simple and straightforward. He doesn’t draw attention to the camera or technique; he saves the “rush” for the competition. David Watkin’s cinematography is similarly unobtrusive (he worked on a number of films I have revisited recently, including Gibson’s Hamlet and Robin and Marian).
Did Hudson just get lucky with Chariots, given his later failures? He tells the story with confidence, and the occasional touch of inspiration (Abrahams’ Gold-winning race is played in real time, before being repeated in slow motion) but his light seems to have risen and dimmed with that of Goldcrest (the fledgling studio that seemed on the cusp of greatness with Chariots; the film was co-financed by 20th Century Fox). Greystoke, his follow-up, succeeded in spite of being a botch from the casting down to the execution. Then came Revolution, which spelled the beginning of the end for the studio and saw Hudson vanish into semi-obscurity. Hudson had experienced considerable success as a director of documentaries and adverts before Chariots came along. As with other directors who rose during the ‘80s (such as Ridley Scott), he was approaching or into his 40s when fame happened. Perhaps the problem was suddenly being offered the world on a plate. He hasn’t come near to the quality of Chariots subsequently.
The film garnered four wins (Picture, Original Screenplay, Costume Design and, obviously, Score) out of seven nominations (in contrast, it only took home three BAFTAs). Producer David Puttnam, much given to pronouncements concerning (lack of) quality in cinema, went on to fall flat on his arse when he became chairman of Columbia Pictures. Like many an Oscar winner, it isn’t held in quite the esteem it was at the time (although many are seen as unjustly rewarded immediately). Welland’s speech has done much to tarnish it, but it lives on through its score (which still gets used as a quick reference point; evidence of how The Grinch was running on empty).
It’s unfortunate that the success of Chariots of Fire will forever inform its retrospective appreciation. On its own terms, it’s a solid, enjoyable little pocket of British nostalgia. Puttnam’s conception concerned a man who follows his conscience, and that remains intact, but along the way it has become an emblem for all that is British – a status that at times borders on the jingoistic. I don’t think the film itself has a particularly staunch position. Rather, it is happy to play the field, inviting felicitations from those of any predilection. The point at which it becomes cynical is difficult to discern, however; one gets the feeling it took form in post-production, when its overtures to the “Great” Britain that was past (perhaps not quite the unmentioned Empire, but not far off) solidified.
Chariots of Fire is, essentially, an enjoyable film in spite of such trappings. It succeeds on the basis of an irresistible premise, one that sports-themed movies really have to struggle to make a hash of; the journey of the underdog, his triumph over adversity. One can at least console oneself that the conflated hubris of the pronouncement of the great British coming was but a pipedream, and reality soon dawned.