Words by Yazen Al Samen
Chariots of Fire opens in 1978, as a memorial service is being held for Harold Abrahams, a British Jew who won the gold medal for track running in the Paris Olympics of 1924. The film goes back over half a century to the early 1920s, to a Britain reeling from World War I, and divided by class and race. We meet Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), as a young man, a freshman in Cambridge, whose parents are Jewish emigrants from Europe. And we also meet the movie’s other hero, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleston), a devout young protestant who wants to work as a missionary in China.
And from here starts one of the best sports films of all time, because like most great films, it’s not about what it’s about, but about, first of all, human nature and human interaction. Based on a true story, the film was released in 1981 and was the first feature narrative film for director Hugh Hudson, and surprised many by winning four Oscars, including Best Picture over favourites like Reds and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s a film of immense power. You don’t need to know, or care, about running. It takes the inspirational story of two men and turns it into a statement about determination and fight against discrimination and class differences, and generally about British society at the time.
Harold Abrahams is looked down upon by his anti-Semitic professors (John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson), and he takes to running to try and prove his worth. Eric Liddell is a good Christian, who doesn’t work, or run, on Sundays. He has to explain to the Prince of Wales why he can’t run on Sundays. His faith is his life but he doesn’t know how to utilize it within his family and society. His sister gets angry when she knows he wants to run for gold medals. This is not what Christians do.
It’s quite remarkable how a film about so many details in a time so far away can release its power and meaning through running races. It is more than just a sports film,the two men take to running as a way to prove themselves to society, Abrahams to beat the racist tension he suffers and Liddell as a way to glorify his faith in God. And the movie takes it from there, plunging us into their loves and struggles.
The film simply can’t be expressed entirely into words. It needs to be seen to be understood and felt. So much of it is metaphors, and so much of it is in the little details (the movie’s use of Ian Holm’s character, as the coach Mussabini, is excellent). It’s quite a moving film as well, because yet again it uses one of the most effective ways to emotionally move audiences, Nostalgia. The film looks back at the 1920’s society of Britain with fondness, trying to understand it and learn from it. It’s a hugely patriotic film. It has great love for Britain and its people.
And it uses all of that and is able summarizes it in some truly inspirational and uplifting scenes. One of the best things about the film is its musical score, by Greek composer Vangelis. It is a contender for the greatest film score ever. At least very few, if any, music scores fit a film as much as this. And it’s not better used than in the opening, and ending, scene, featuring a band of British athletes running on the beach, with the camera capturing the emotions on their faces. It has become such an iconic movie scene, and it’s kind of encompasses the movie’s idea, about young people making a difference in a rigid society.
The film was recently restored and re-released in time for the summer Olympics in London. It has become one of the most loved British films, one of the most loved of all films. I have no association to Olympic track running or British social class, yet every time I watch this film I find myself enveloped in its story. With the Olympics in its first stages, and with director Danny Boyle reliving the final scene with Mr Bean, treat yourself to a true classic.