Director: Hugh Hudson
Producer: David Puttnam
Script: Colin Welland
Cinematography: David Watkin
Editing: Terry Rawlings
Art Direction: Roger Hall
Costume Design: Milena Canonero and Louise Frogley
Sound: Clive Winter
Original Music: Vangelis
Taking its title from a line in a well known poem by William Blake, which was put to music by Sir Hubert Parry as "Jerusalem", Chariots of Fire is set in the England of the 1920's, and examines the life of young runners, the Jewish Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and the Christian Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), and the events which led to the highlight of their careers, the Paris Olympic Games of 1924.
Sporting events today have become rancorous, angry affairs where the motto, more frequently than not, is ‘win at all costs’. Exhibitions of good sportsmanship are about as rare as selflessness. So it's refreshing to look back at an era when victory didn't demand isolation, bitterness and hatred of one's rivals. Chariots of Fire highlights such commendable qualities as commitment, perseverance, and fraternity.
This film tells the story of the British triumphs at the 1924 Olympics, where the UK representatives took a number of medals over the heavily favoured Americans. With Abrahams and Lidell leading the way, the British track team had one of their best ever showings. This film traces the two principal athletes' paths to the Paris games, where their on field successes form a surprisingly low-key climax. Chariots of Fire doesn't rely on worn-out sports film clichés; it's more interested in motivation and character development. Yes, it's important to know that Abrahams and Lidell win, but the real meat of the story is contained in what leads up to the races.
Apart from the competent performances by the main actors, there are three elements which can explain the success of Chariots of Fire. The first is Colin Welland's screenplay, which is well-structured except towards the end, where it seems a little rushed. The second is the careful period recreation, with all elements looking authentic, from the venerable Cambridge University to the sports stadium in Paris. The third element which made the film a success was the one least likely to succeed: Vangelis's score. Considering that Chariots of Fire is a period piece, it was uncertain what a synthetizer score could have as impact. Yet the score works perfectly, drawing particular attention to the nostalgic angle of the film and enhancing the heroic moments. While Chariots of Fire was a critically-acclaimed film which won, as its crowning achievement, the Academy Award for Best Picture for 1981, its most memorable aspect is not the story itself, but the Vangelis music score, which became a classic and which also earned its composer an Oscar.
Chariots of Fire touches nationalism only slightly with a friendly Brits and Yanks rivalry at the games, but its main objective is to try to determine the relationship between sport and religion. While Abrahams's religion leads to his rejection by his comrades, his faith only slightly affects his sport, and the film's message is instead carried through Liddell's religious convictions and how the athlete must react when forced to choose between glory on the field and the glory of God. Liddell, who would later become a missionary, objected to running on Sunday as planned by the Olympic Games schedule, even after a meeting with the Prince of Wales where he was encouraged to run on Sunday for his King and country. Eventually running and winning in another event, Liddell clearly decides to choose God first and then King and country.
Chariots of Fire may not be a perfect film, but the audacity of its topic, the careful treatment of the period, the deeper-than-usual characterizations, and, its music, make it truly one of the greats. Furthermore, the nostalgia is increased by having the film told through an extended flashback, the present being Abrahams's own funeral in 1978. In this respect, the film's structure is similar to Lawrence of Arabia, but the latter film had little of the celebration of the human body which can be found in Chariots of Fire.