Analysis: 40 years after its release and with the Olympics in full swing, it's time to reassess the film with the iconic theme tune

By Ruth Barton, TCD

If ever there was a film for a sporting occasion, Chariots of Fire is it. As we conclude the final lap of the marathon that is 2021's delayed Olympic Games, it is to the tune of Vangelis’ iconic soundtrack that the IOC must surely move as they take their places looking down over the (empty) stands.

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Directed by Hugh Hudson, produced by David Puttnam and written by Colin Welland, Chariots of Fire is routinely nominated as Best Olympic Film Ever 40 years after its release. More than that, it is also Joe Biden's favourite film. He referenced it in his 2008 run for the White House and again in his first address as president-elect. This, after all, is a story of good men and heroes who stick by their principles and win.

Even the history of its making is a triumph of faith over cynicism. Puttnam fought long and hard to realise his dream of bringing this tale of two very different men, Eric Liddell (played by Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), united in their determination to win golds at the Paris Olympics of 1924, to the screen. In the end, it was co-financed by the House of Fayed and it comes as a lurch to see Dodi Fayed, who was to die alongside Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris, listed as Executive Producer in the credits.

With a largely unknown cast and filmed on the tightest of budgets, Chariots of Fire was a triumph for all those involved. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, it took four, with Welland famously brandishing his statuette aloft and pronouncing "the British are coming!"

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Chariots of Fire’s most famous sequence tells us much about why it is so loved, but also hints at the unresolved contradictions that occasionally disturb its surface. Close to the start of the film, we cut from the memorial service for Abrahams in 1978 to the beach at Broadstairs where the British Olympic team is training. "We remember those few young men," the now elderly Lord Andrew Lindsay (played by Nigel Havers) addresses the congregation, "with hope in our hearts and wings on our heels."

As he speaks, we hear the first strains of the Vangelis score. A dissolve takes us to the men running in the shallow waters of the tide. Mud sprays up onto their white shorts and we see, in slow motion, the laughter on their faces as one-by-one the story’s main characters enter the frame, caught in an exhilarating celebration of youth, masculinity and collective endeavour. The sequence is repeated at the film’s end as if to lock the moment into an endless cycle of perfect harmony. This is a film drenched in nostalgia, not just for youth and heroism, but for the myth of national unity.

Liddell and Abrahams, we learn, are outsiders in their own ways. Liddell comes from a Scottish missionary background and, although his sister thinks that racing is distracting him from his calling, he is convinced that: "God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure." His principles will bring him into conflict with the authorities when he refuses to compete on a Sunday (the situation is resolved when Lord Lindsay has him take his place in a Saturday race).

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Damien O'Meara looks at how the Olympics is represented in film

Abrahams' Jewishness marks him out for disdain at Cambridge, while the authorities don't think much of his breaking the code of amateurism by hiring a professional trainer, Italian-Egyptian Sam Mussabini (played by Ian Holm). "If I can’t win," Abrahams insists, "I won’t run." In the end, in victory, differences of faith, creed and origin fall away. As the strains of the English national anthem announce his protegee’s victory, Mussabini punches his hat in triumph, and then, softly, says "Harold … my son."

In many ways, with its idealisation of individualism, Chariots of Fire speaks to the Thatcherite era into which it was released. Sequences such as the fictional Lord Lindsay practicing the hurdles by having his butler place a glass of champagne on each frame might have come directly from its contemporary of 1981, Brideshead Revisited, or any of the heritage films that were to dominate British filmmaking in this era. The sequences at Cambridge (shot at Eton), at Lord Lindsay’s stately home, even in the Highlands where Liddell is treated as a laird, conjure up a vision not just of ‘England’s green and pleasant land’, but of a wider British society where privilege has its own rewards and the plain people know their place.

For some contemporary audiences, Chariots of Fire is a quaint hangover from the age of empire

For some contemporary audiences, such as many of my students, Chariots of Fire is a quaint hangover from the age of empire. It may take shots at the establishment, but it never suggests that change is the solution. Despite occasional lapses of esprit de corps, the athletes are all admirably committed to college, king and flag. Their victory is acceptance into the hierarchy not its dismantling.

More than that, with its insistence on the purity of physical perfection, it is eerily prescient of the rise of fascism (extras on the set were required to die their hair blonde). With that ecstatic conclusion, Chariots of Fire delivers the emotional high that cinema shares with great sporting victories. National unity? It’s an illusion, of course.

Professor Ruth Barton is Head of Film Studies and Deputy Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub at TCD. She is a former Irish Research Council awardee.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ