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Everybody knows the image of running in the surf to Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire”. Certainly, if you have attended or watched any sporting event. But that is also all I knew of the movie behind this image before now. Probably a mistake on my side.
“Chariots of Fire” is a movie about a group of British athletes preparing for and competing at the Paris Olympics in 1924. The two main characters are Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) with a rivalry implied between them.
Abrahams is a Cambridge student and a son of a wealthy Jew of Lithuanian origin. This has placed a chip on Abrahams’ shoulder and he feels everything he does is to prove the prejudice of others wrong. A sentiment that is both motivating him and threatening to push him over the edge, both in terms of his own mental health and other people’s acceptance of him.
Motivation is something Liddell has plenty of as well. Liddell is strictly religious, born in China of missionary parents and destined to take over the mission eventually. Liddell is also very fast and when he runs, he is convinced he is doing God’s will and honor him by winning. The upshot is that Liddell fights and exerts himself 120%, making him extremely fast, even in adversity.
Abrahams sees Liddell as his only real competition in Britain and during a race in Scotland where Abrahams lose to Liddell, he takes on his coach, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) to give him that extra edge, something frowned upon by the elitist Cambridge board who do not like professionalism.
At the Paris Olympics the expected duel on 100 m between Abrahams and Liddell is cancelled when Liddell refuses to run on a Sunday and instead runs the 400 m race. The personal duel instead becomes a transatlantic duel where the British runners are pitted against American runners.
The classic sports movie is about setting a team, practicing and then competing (to win, understood) and “Chariots of Fire” does follow this formular, even if the team is only understood as the runners picked for the Olympics. The thing that makes “Chariots of Fire” interesting is the motivation of the athletes. As the character, Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), remarks, for the others, running is a fun hobby, for Abrahams it is an obsession. Lindsay is a good hurdles runner, but without that extra motivation he will not be more than good. Abrahams and Liddell are fueled by something else, and this is what is explored and the reason for watching this movie.
Another element, which at least for me, makes the movie interesting, is that it is largely a true story. Abrahams and Liddell are real characters and the portrait of them is quite faithful. Some details are modified (Liddell found out he was running on a Sunday and changed to 400 m already before departure for Paris), but the essence is true. This makes it a window into another age where sports were considered a bit differently than today with athletics being a gentlemen’s sport, well dressed at all events and a code of conduct which already in 1924 was becoming antiquated. To see these British athletes in suits next to their American counterparts in tracksuits is like watching the past and the future in a single image. The List has had movies from the 36 and the 64 Olympics and while the style of them are very different, they serve to demonstrate a development in the attitude towards sports.
Then of course there is the famous scoring by Vangelis. I am constantly reminded of his scoring for “Bladerunner”, as different a movie to “Chariots of Fire” as it is possible to make them, and a part of me is thinking that so similar a score cannot possibly fit so different movies. In “Gallipoli” the electronic score was definitely a clash, but there is something about the patos in Vangelis score that against odds actually makes it work here. Or maybe the theme song has just become so associated with sports, particularly athletics, that intuitively it works. I may just have become conditioned to think that this is the sound of a sprinter in slow motion.
I liked “Chariots of Fire” more than I thought I would. It is an interesting watch even if the drama element is kept at a minimum, but I am wondering what made the Academy award it four Oscars, including Best Picture? This is the year of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Das Boot”. Still, I do recommend it.