Posted July 4, 2012 by Jack Watkins in Features
 
 

Chariots Of Fire


In the early 1980s, British cinema was in the midst of one of its periodic creative and commercial highs, with films such as The Long Good Friday, Gregory’s Girl, The Killing Fields and Gandhi noted as critical successes and box office breakers.

In the early 1980s, British
cinema was in the midst of one of its periodic creative and commercial highs,
with films such as The Long Good Friday, Gregory’s Girl, The Killing Fields and
Gandhi noted as critical successes and box office breakers.
Yet, no film
embodied the proud, chest-beating optimism of the time more than Chariots of Fire. With Chariots of Fire
celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year and not to mention the obvious
Olympic re-releases in cinemas from 13 July, Jack Watkins explores what makes
Chariots of Fire a British movie to love even thirty years on.

It
went into the Academy Awards ceremony of 1982 having received seven Oscar
nominations and was handsomely rewarded with four gongs on the night. One of
these was for the screenwriter and the author, Colin Welland, who crowned the occasion by striding up to the
podium and declaring to the astounded throng of Hollywood greats: “The British
are coming!”

In subsequent years, Chariots of Fire, an uplifting tale of two outsiders in
the world of British amateur athletics – a Scottish Christian and an English
Jew – who successfully competed at the 1924 Paris Olympics, became a victim of
its instant glorification. With its memorable Vangelis score – electronics
modishly pulsing in time to lyrical footage of runners pounding across sodden
beaches – it would be endlessly parodied. Similarly, its supposed patriotic
subtext of self-sacrifice for the mother country was seized upon by the
right-wing press and a Tory government trying to drum up support for the
Falklands War.

As such, many came to regard it as a reactionary and sentimental monument to
British pre-war imperialism, much to the horror of its left-leaning makers,
producer David Puttnam, director Hugh Hudson and Welland himself.
Stripped of the hysterics and polemics thirty years on, however, the film
deserves to be recognised as a classic, one of the finest films about sport
ever made, and an example of British film directing, story-telling and acting
at its understated best. And rather than offering comfort to head-banging
nationalists it can actually be seen to administer them a well-deserved poke in
the eye.

A good yarn

Chariots
of Fire is a good story, well told and acted. Ben Cross is suitably gaunt as the Jewish outsider, acutely
sensitive to prejudice. He is so contemptuous of amateur traditions that he
takes on a professional coach, the Turk Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), to give his preparations a professional edge. This
inevitably incurs the disapproval of the snobbish Oxbridge elite (personified
by John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson), who are smugly
self-congratulatory when he ultimately proves to be a medal winner (thus
underscoring the timeless double-standards of the English public school elite).

Ian Charleson is similarly fine as
the Scottish minister who refuses to compromise his beliefs by running on a
Sunday. Sadly, Charleson would achieve greater fame a few years later by
becoming the first major British show business figure to die from AIDS in 1990.

Exceptional directing, photography,
music

This was a stunningly impressive feature film debut for Hugh Hudson, a
maker of epic-scale commercials in the 1970s, as well as stylish documentaries
such as Fangio, about the Argentine
motor racing driver, which has achieved a small cult following overseas. Hudson
had been second-unit director for Alan
Parker
on Midnight Express
before David Puttnam stepped in to hand him his big break with Chariots of
Fire. The film offers hints of his sensitivity to pictorial effects and the
ability to deploy grand landscapes to underscore character and atmosphere.
These he would put to more telling use in Greystoke:
The Legend of Tarzan
, Lord of the
Apes
and the much misunderstood Revolution.

The cinematographer was David Watkin,
a veteran of Ken Russell and Richard Lester films of the 1960s and
1970s. The Greek composer Vangelis’ anachronistic use of synthesizers for the
accompanying musical soundtrack was a mixed blessing. It made the film seem
modish at the time, as did the use of slow-motion photography. However,
although it now rather dates the film, it retains undoubted emotional force,
underscoring the most dramatic moments of action.

Directors motivations

Interviewing
Hugh Hudson two years ago, it was put it to him that rather than being, as it
was read by many at the time, a film about patriotism and sacrifice for the
flag, Chariots of Fire was actually about the pursuit of excellence, and
persistence in the face of the hypocrisy of the establishment.

Mr Hudson replied: “That’s exactly what it was about, but Thatcher and a lot of
people jumped on the bandwagon and used it for the Falklands War. Churchill did
that with Olivier’s Henry V, again as a way of stirring up national pride at a
time of difficulty. Bizarrely though, during the conflict, it was playing in
Buenos Aries with people queuing round the block to see it. Because really it’s
a film about standing up for oneself, so maybe they didn’t see it as a sort of
British achievement, but as a personal human achievement – and the Argentineans’
at that time, attacking Britain and being counter-attacked, felt like that. Ben
Cross’s character, who is a Jew, isn’t very appreciated in his Cambridge
College, so when he wins he celebrates with his coach, who is a Turk. And the
Scot [Ian Charleson] wasn’t going to compromise his beliefs for anybody, not
even for the Olympic Committee.”

Chariots Of Fire returns to cinemas 13th July Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.


Jack Watkins