Aside from having won the Best Picture Oscar in 1981,Chariots of Fire is known primarily for one thing: Its very much of-its-time musical score by the Greek composer Vangelis Papathanassíou. It’s hard to think of another non-musical film in which the score is the best-known element. Until a recent rewatch, my only memory of the film was of men running on a beach, as that theme played.
The film, while it’s known for coming as part of a run in which the Best Picture winners were decided non-classics — when was the last time you watched or thought of, Out of Africa or The Last Emperor? — still holds up as an inspiring story of friendship, athleticism, honor, and Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s known today as perhaps the best fiction film ever made about the Olympic Games.
It’s hard to think of another non-musical film in which the score is the best-known element
The film was released in the U.S. in October of 1981, 40 years ago this week. It can be watched now on HBO Max.
Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson, is the (mostly) true story of a pair of friends who met at the University of Cambridge in 1919, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell (played, respectively, by Ben Cross and Ian Charleston). Abrahams was Jewish, while Liddell was the son of Scottish missionaries in China. This made them outsiders, both to each other and to the upper-class monoculture of the time.
The two end up becoming runners, leading them to the 1924 Olympic Games, where they both won gold medals. It’s all scored to Vangelis’ inspired theme song, as well as a suite of Gilbert and Sullivan songs: “With Hope In Our Hearts And Wings On Our Heels.” The film begins with one of the best movie openings ever:
The film has been criticized for numerous factual liberties, and for its fudging of names, dates, and characters. But the pure essence of the film, of friendship and competition, is true. Describing its plot makes it sound like a traditional sports movie, but it isn’t really that.
In addition to the two main actors, the supporting cast is led by Ian Holm, in one of his finest turns on-screen as coach Sam Mussabini, whose success was unheralded.
Its (Not So) Enduring Legacy
Chariots of Fire won that Best Picture Oscar, as well as another Oscar for Vangelis’ score, and for its screenplay. In the Best Picture category, it beat out one movie that’s clearly much more consequential, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as Warren Beatty’s much more ambitious movie, Reds. Atlantic City and On Golden Pond were the other nominees that year.
As a British story, Chariots of Fire has a much more substantial legacy on that side of the pond, although it’s not been completely ignored in America. In fact, in 2000, when Al Gore ran for president with Joseph Lieberman as his running mate, their speeches at the Democratic National Convention were played off by that Vangelis score; it was, after all, a Jew and a gentile running together. Gore, in the years since, has been known to quote the movie in interviews.
It turned out I wasn’t the only person who watched Chariots of Fire that day. Eugenicist author Charles Murray did too:
I’d say the reason Chariots of Fire wouldn’t be touched these days is more than there’s not much of a call in the 2020s for movies about track and field, nor ones with synth scores. But luckily for all of us, Chariots of Fire was already made, back in 1981.