Soaring on the Wings of Eagles: Chariots of Fire at 40



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The Academy Awards are no stranger to controversy, as this year’s ceremony attests, generating heated think-pieces (such as this one, or this one) about the ceremony itself, its cultural relevance, and the worthiness and woke-ness of the nominees and recipients. Ostensibly a recognition of technical and artistic accomplishment from industry peers, an Oscar can also be a poisoned goblet: they grant a film cultural longevity, but can also taint its legacy when that film is popularly perceived as the inferior contender in its year’s race, whether at the time or in hindsight. Though the Best Picture history is long and chequered, the late 1970s and early 80s loom large in my mind as an especially maligned period within movie geek circles: the stretch where Annie Hall beat Star Wars for Best Picture, Kramer vs. Kramer beat Apocalypse Now, Ordinary People beat Raging Bull, Chariots of Fire beat Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Gandhi beat E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

To be clear, in this list I see ten very fine films, all deservedly acclaimed. However, also evident is a clash between the pessimistic, testosterone-driven 70s New Hollywood (Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull) and emerging commercial paradigm of 80s Hollywood (Star Wars, Raiders, E.T) on the one hand, and the “safer” humanist fare that traditionally dominated the Oscars on the other, as well as a host of other ideological, geographical, and generational oppositions: Britain (Chariots, Gandhi) versus America (the rest), boy’s flicks (Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, Raiders) versus “women’s pictures” (Annie Hall, Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People), upper (Ordinary People, Chariots) versus middle and lower class (Raging Bull, E.T.), urban (Annie Hall, Kramer vs. Kramer) versus suburbia (E.T.), “art” (Annie Hall, Raging Bull, Apocalypse Now) versus commerce (Star Wars, Raiders, E.T.), high-minded (Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, Chariots, Gandhi) versus high-concept (Star Wars, Raiders, E.T.), and so on.

With the gift of hindsight and under the various yardsticks — aesthetic, commercial, industrial, populist — by which a film’s worth is measured, Raiders would appear to have been robbed, so the argument goes, of its Oscar glory by Chariots of Fire. Under the logic of capitalism — a motivating factor in Oscar campaignsRaiders, the most successful film of 1981 and 22nd most successful of all time adjusted for inflation, was the more profitable feature, boasting an ascendant superstar (Harrison Ford) in a signature role. Under the logic of auteurism, Raiders was steered by the most recognisable commercial artisan of the late 20th century in Steven Spielberg, and was a formative entry in his filmography. Using the measure of cultural impact, Raiders has shown greater longevity, spawning imitators, sequels, and offshoots in other media, with quotes and images from the film continually circulating in popular culture, though this intersects with the logic of capitalism, given the film is a commodity that’s been resold and repackaged umpteen times over its lifetime. By the yardstick of artistry and filmmaking, both Raiders and Chariots are very well made, though there’s certainly “more” (and more overt) filmmaking going on in Raiders’ bravura set pieces. Good taste may well be the one yardstick where Raiders falls short: it’s hard to argue with punching, shooting, and melting Nazis, but using the Old Testament and the Holocaust as backdrops to a rip-roaring, rip-snorting pulp adventure perhaps warrants some shade.

The matter of good taste, then, brings us to the classic argument levelled against Chariots and those other maligned winners of that period, one epitomised by Clarence Whorley in an impassioned speech to a Joel Silver-esque movie producer in the Tarantino-scripted True Romance:

You know, most of these movies that win a lot of Oscars, I can’t stand them. They’re all safe, geriatric coffee-table dogshit… Mad Max, that’s a movie! The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, that’s a movie! Rio Bravo, that’s a movie!

The argument goes that Chariots won Oscar gold because it was safe, conservative, pedestrian, prosaic, and tastefully made; because it was not daring, feather-ruffling, or rabble-rousing, but the sort of repressed British cadaver parodied in this witty Eddie Izzard clip; and because its subject matter was boring, repressed, upper crust, stiff upper lip, Union Jack-waving, ‘God save the King’-caterwauling, high tea-drinking, cucumber sandwich-munching, Shakespeare-quoting, white-as-snow Anglo elites prance-jogging along the beach for Albion, Blighty, and Empire. And this Oscar gold is supposedly the only thing that has kept the film alive in the cultural conversation, and without it the film would have faded from memory, its Olympic torch long extinguished, remembered nowhere near as fondly as scrappier British productions of the day like Time Bandits and The Long Good Friday.

This argument is absolutely, positively dead wrong. Chariots of Fire was great, remains great, and will continue to be great.

The film dramatises the intertwined journeys of several young British athletes from 1919 through to the 1924 Olympic Games. In particular, it focuses on Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson). Abrahams is a Briton of Jewish descent who, worn down by the subtle anti-Semitism around him, carries a perpetual chip on his shoulder. Envious of Liddell’s talent after losing a race to him, Abrahams recruits a professional coach of mixed ethnicity, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), for which he receives flak from his Cambridge house masters (John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson) as conduct unbecoming of a gentleman. Liddell, meanwhile, is a devout Christian Scotsman who has undertaken missionary work in China but, to his sister’s (Cheryl Campbell) chagrin, adores racing and sees his athletic gift as part of God’s plan for him. At the Olympics, both Abrahams and Liddell face obstacles: the former suffers a blow in confidence after losing his initial competitions, while the latter refuses to race on the Sabbath due to his religious conviction.

Chariots of Fire is something of an odd duck, feeling at once both impeccably burnished and imperfectly crafted. By conventional rules, a number of supporting characters are either underdeveloped or ciphers, and certain relationships are unclear. For this particular viewer, it wasn’t obvious on first viewing whether Liddell’s sister was his sibling or wife — perhaps symptomatic of a film where women’s experiences are largely peripheral to men’s — and the opening future-set scenes of the film — a eulogy delivered by Lord Lindsay (Nigel Havers) at Abrahams’ funeral in 1978, then epistolary narration by Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell) before the 1924 Olympics — suggest those characters will be more prominent in the feature than they ultimately are. Are these imperfections actually legitimate flaws, or simply disinterest in certain narrative mechanics? If the latter, is this in itself a shortcoming, or merely indicative of different priorities? It’s feasible that Hudson, making his narrative feature debut, was more interested in tone and feel — much like Ridley Scott, his predecessor in the leap from advertising to feature films — and that screenwriter Colin Welland, penning only his second feature after a career writing for television, was more invested in ideas than form and flow.

As a sports movie, Chariots of Fire is similarly disinterested in confirming to tropes: though established as competitors, Abrahams and Liddell do not compete at film’s end in the 100 metres; though established as enemies, the American athletes at the Olympics turn out to be more frenemies; though ostensibly a team sport, the racers perform independently of each other, so there’s no ‘working together’; and where a conventional sports biopic might foreground Liddell’s refusal to race and its resolution for much of the running time, in Chariots it is ultimately resolved in a rather gentlemanly manner without significant compromise. The races themselves — frantic sprints across short distances — also don’t engage spectators the same way as, say, a boxing match in a Rocky film with all its narrative turns and climactic moments, though Hudson lengthens these scenes using techniques like slow-motion and repetition. Perhaps the most affecting moment in any of the races is Montague, post-race, sitting on the track, spent and welling with emotions after losing his race. In these respects, the film goes against the grain of traditional sports flicks and viewers’ expectations. It does, however, correspond to the genre convention of sport as a means of self-definition and expression, of securing respect and value: a theme pervasive in other films of the era such as Rocky and The Karate Kid, though those films have more conventional arcs of undergoing training to take down concrete nemeses. Although competing for Britain, the protagonists have very personal reasons for racing that have little to do with national glory: Abrahams, to the disgruntlement of Cambridge’s upper echelon, runs not for the sport of it, but “to win”, for self-validation, while Liddell, to the disgruntlement of his sister, runs as a form of worship. He tells her that “God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure. To give it up would be to hold Him in contempt … To win is to honour Him”.

Despite its weird rough edges, the world of the film is richly evoked, and as the synopsis above suggests, themes of race, class, and faith permeate the film. Race is a recurring theme across Best Picture Oscar winners over the decades that followed. In Chariots of Fire, Abrahams’ Jewishness sets him apart from his Anglo peers. Indeed, his very name — evoking the Biblical father of the Jewish nation — sets him apart: a minor character sneers early in the film that “With a name like Abrahams, he won’t be in the chapel choir now will he?” Lindsay Anderson’s Cambridge elder describes Abrahams as “academically sound, arrogant, defensive to the point of pugnacity”, to which Gielgud’s fellow house master replies “As they invariably are”. Such remarks are expressed only a handful of times in the film, yet Abrahams discerns anti-Semitism everywhere. This is certainly the point, depicting the pervasiveness and insidiousness of covert racism in post-World War I England, though at times the film is guilty, dramatically speaking, of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’: we know Abrahams is on the receiving end of unspoken racism because he pointedly tells us he is. Nonetheless, I’ll take Chariots’level-headed treatment of racism over subsequent Best Picture winners like Crash and Green Book and their sensationalist and/or thudding approaches. Of course, the Jewish Briton and African-American experiences of racism are by no means interchangeable, and the affluent Abrahams’ prejudiced treatment feels less pressing today than the racism and oppression depicted in films like 12 Years a Slave, or the Holocaust drama of Schindler’s List. Yet the intertext of history looms large over Chariots: the distance between the 1924 Olympics and the Second World War was only 15 years; that between 1924 and the Berlin Summer Olympics, chronicled in Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda work Olympia, was a mere 12 years; and the gulf between World War II and Chariots of Fire itself was just 36 years. Viewers today are twice as removed from the events of World War II, and almost a century removed from the 1924 Olympics, but historical hindsight of the imminent and fatal escalation of anti-Semitic actions in Europe gives Abrahams’ treatment additional weight. 

Class is another recurring theme across Best Picture winners of recent decades — especially so in the most recent victors, Parasite and Nomadland — and a theme closely intertwined with race in many of the winning films. Lower socio-economic or impoverished African-American characters, often oppressed or in servitude, headline Best Picture winners like Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave, Crash, and Driving Miss Daisy, while the heroic leads of Braveheart and Titanic occupy different culture and class spheres to their antagonists. The British, famously or notoriously (depending on your mileage), know an awful lot about class, and Chariots of Fire is preoccupied with class in that manner intensely peculiar to British art and culture, from the novels of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to class-conscious television like The Good Life, Upstairs Downstairs, and Fawlty Towers. In this respect, the post-World War I elite class represented in Chariots of Fire — a class to which Abrahams’ family’s wealth makes him a member, but which his Jewishness inherently separates him from — is thoughtfully presented, but I suspect not especially fashionable to modern viewers. Post-#OscarsSoWhite, there are few films that are quite as damning evidence of that hashtag as Chariots, and post-#Occupy, Lord Lyndsay’s hurdle practice routine — which involves placing glasses of expensive champagne atop hurdles to gauge contact with the hurdles through spillage — seems a rather extravagant exercise of privilege. Ironically, Lyndsay — a composite of several figures who participated in the 1924 Olympics — may be the most innately likeable of the ensemble, and it is his graciousness in giving Liddell his place in the 400 metre event which enables the latter to run without compromising his faith; however, it is precisely his privilege as one of the manor-born that enables him to perform this benevolent gesture. Similarly, when Abrahams’ Cambridge elders caution him against employing a professional coach — of Italian and Arabian extraction no less — because the “way of the amateur is the only way to provide satisfactory results” and he is “elite, and therefore expected to behave as such”, his rejection of these “archaic values” echoes modern sentiments, but he rejects them from a position of economic security.

While race and class are usual suspects, Chariots of Fire’s earnest, heart-on-its sleeve depiction of Eric Liddell’s faith makes it noteworthy and quite anomalous alongside typically secular Best Picture victors of subsequent decades, although a handful of films in competition (The Mission, Tree of Life, Hacksaw Ridge) have mined this terrain. Though he compares running a race to faith — each is “hard, requires concentration of will, energy and soul” — Liddell is especially anointed in this regard: early in the film, when he stumbles in a race and makes an extraordinary bounce back to win, it is presented as a miraculous moment. Abrahams also senses something supernatural in his speed and skill, stating with edgy admiration that Liddell “runs like a wild animal … he unnerves me”. While his sister is lukewarm on his athletic pursuits, Liddell deems it his “sacred duty” to use this gift, and a spiritual mentor implores him to “Run in God’s name and make the world stand back in wonder”. But when faced with the quandary of racing on the Sabbath, Liddell cannot bring himself to do so, as “To run would be against God’s law”. As noted above, Lindsay, having already won a medal in an earlier race, offers Liddell his place in the 400 metres, allowing him to compete on another day, which he does to victorious ends. While a gentlemanly gesture, it can also be read as God’s provision, as can another gentlemanly gesture: American athlete Jackson Scholz (Brad Davis) hands Liddell a note before he races reading “It says in the old book, ‘He that honours Me I will honour’. Good luck, Jackson Scholz”, signifying a kinship transcending earthly national borders. The film’s Christian themes are also signified in its title, with the phrase “chariots of fire” lifted from 2 Kings 6. Another verse spoken in the film — “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings of eagles” from Isaiah 40 — would be adapted for the title of not just this article, but a sequel of sorts to Chariots of Fire, On Wings of Eagles, released 35 years later and depicting Liddell’s (here Joseph Fiennes) World War Two experiences.

Given its period setting, exploration of the class and cultural trappings of a bygone era, and relative disinterest in playing the sports movie game, Chariots of Fire is typically labelled as a “heritage film” in the same vein as, say, a Merchant-Ivory production, a film about a monarch, or a UK-produced adaptation of Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare, or some other noted purveyor of British culture. However, like the Merchant-Ivory films, Chariots is more nuanced in its relationship to its British heritage than the label suggests. As discussed, Liddell and Abrahams’ motivations are personal rather than patriotic. The former races not for his country but as an expression of worship, and not even the Prince of Wales can persuade Liddell to race on Sabbath: he tells the heir to the throne that “God made countries, God made kings and the rules by which they govern. And those rules say the Sabbath is His”. Abrahams, meanwhile, is chastised for racing in “pursuit of individual glory”. Scholar Ellis Cashmore, in an excellent article situating the film in both the 1920s and 1980s, highlights a Thatcher-esque entrepreneurialism to his individualist pursuits, noting that Abrahams’ competitive manner puts him “outside the parameters of true sportsmanship. Competition was conceived in a way that permitted honour amid defeat: there was no disgrace in losing, but shame in no trying”.[1] The spectre of defeat is a source of shame and dishonour for Abrahams, and though he protests that he races for “my family, my university, and my country”, that’s only part of it. Bristling at the anti-Semitic side-eye of the era, Abrahams confesses to Montague that he’s never known contentment, and it’s clear racing is a means of overcoming his own fear of inferiority: to Liddell, to his Cambridge brethren, to the Anglo community. In this respect, he’s a cousin of sorts to the angry, anti-authoritarian young men of British cinema and theatre of the 1950s and 60s, discontent with their station and perpetually miffed with someone, anyone, and everyone.

Ultimately, these personal rather than national stakes mean Chariots of Fire isn’t just about commemorating Albion, as its reputation suggests. Having said that, much as the impending Second World War looms over the film’s depiction of anti-Semitism — not to mention Liddell’s story, given he died in a Japanese internment camp towards the end of the war — the first World War casts a similar shadow over the film. Those Cambridge alumni who gave their lives in the Great War are mourned at the freshman’s dinner early in the film, and their successors are implored to “discover where your true chance of greatness lies. For their sakes, for the sake of your college and your country, seize this chance, rejoice in it, and let no power or persuasion deter you”. In this respect, in pursuing Olympic victory, Abrahams, Montague, Lindsay, and Liddell are honouring the fallen by carrying the (Olympic) torch and performing another type of patriotic duty on the world stage. It’s noteworthy that Chariots was released a few months before Gallipoli, another film celebrating white male athletic prowess and lamenting the fallen of the First World War.

Chariots of Fire was Hugh Hudson’s debut feature, after working in documentaries, short films, and advertising. Though often left out of conversations about the British visual stylists who helped define the look of Hollywood films in the late 1970s and particularly the 1980s — Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker, and their Antipodean brethren Russell Mulcahy — Hudson is absolutely of that class. His advertising director’s knack for synthesising image and sound to sell emotion, drama, narrative, and of course product is most obvious in the film’s major set pieces, namely its racing scenes. As mentioned, the brevity of these sprints means they’re over by the time equivalent set pieces in other sports films are just getting warmed up, but these sequences are crisp, tense, and elegantly shot, with Hudson, cinematographer David Watkin, and editor Terry Rawlings finding ways to stretch and heighten the drama. In her excellent chapter on Chariots in her book National Pastimes: Cinema, Sports, and Nation, Katharina Bonzel notes that Liddell and Abrahams, though minor figures in sport history at the time of production, are elevated to mythic status by the film.[2] This is attributable not only to their narrative arcs — they possess qualities and undergo trials similar to mythical heroes — but the filmmaking. Considerable credit on this front is also due to Vangelis’ otherworldly and instantly recognisable synthesiser score, which made the film’s opening and closing scenes in particular — of the British team training on the beach—immediately iconic and lampoon-able, in parodies ranging from a scene in Mr Mom to Al Bundy racing seniors in Married … with Children to Rowan Atkinson’s performance at the British Olympics opening ceremony.

Hudson and company find ways to make non-racing scenes visually interesting as well, such as a sustained tracking shot around a hall in Cambridge where freshmen are signing up for extra-curricular activities: it’s the sort of shot De Palma and Scorsese would get a lot of credit for, but goes largely unnoticed here. He also elicits strong work from his cast in dramatic scenes shorn of visual ostentation, and is perhaps a better actor’s director than some of his fellow stylists, though was not afforded as many opportunities later to work with high calibre casts. There’s a British understatement pervading much of Chariots of Fire, meaning individual characters and actors aren’t licensed to do big, barnstorming Master Thespian business, but the cast is uniformly good. Cross and Charleson are solid, thoughtful anchors in the nominal lead roles, as are Havers and Farrell as the unobtrusive narrators chronicling history in their orbit (the endearingly rumple-faced Farrell would later play Horatio, the ultimate offsider and observer of the elites, in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet). Gielgud and Anderson are suitably elitist in their small roles, and Alice Krige is sympathetic as Abrahams’ girlfriend and future wife (pinch yourself Star Trek fans: the Borg Queen and Spock’s dad share screen-time). Two cast members deserve special mention. Firstly, the recently deceased Ian Holm, nominated for his (shockingly) sole Oscar for Supporting Actor as Abrahams’ trainer (losing to Gielgud for his comedic turn in Arthur). While not the most recognisable or substantial work in his spectacular character actor career, Holm’s role is perhaps the juiciest, and he plays it with spunk and vinegar. Secondly, Brad Davis — who delivered one of the greatest out-of-the-gate-swinging performances in Midnight Express, but never received as meaty a role again and died far too early of AIDS (as, sadly, did Charleson) — does nice work as American frenemy Jackson Scholz, making a strong impression in limited screen-time.

Chariots of Fire was a critical and commercial success, earning ten times its budget and scoring Oscars for Best Costume Design, Score, Screenplay, and Picture. Hudson did not win Best Director, nor did wunderkind Spielberg for Raiders; the gong went to Warren Beatty for Reds, and deservedly so in this author’s opinion, given the scale, ambition, and tonal dexterity of that film (also, my appreciation of Beatty is well-documented). Producer David Puttnam thought otherwise; though victorious over Reds for Best Picture he would enact revenge later that decade as chief of Columbia Pictures, sabotaging the commercial prospects of Beatty vehicle Ishtar, one of the biggest flops — undeservedly so — of the decade. On receiving his screenwriting gong, Colin Welland proudly declared “The British are coming!” That didn’t quite pan out: though Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi would dominate the next year’s Oscars, A Private Function didn’t outgross Beverly Hills Cop, Biggles didn’t outgross Back to the Future, and the Carry On … series didn’t come roaring back to leering life. But the decade yielded some major British arthouse, historical, and cult film successes (several produced by Puttnam), Terry Gilliam violently wrestled Brazil into the mainstream, and the abovementioned British visual stylists would mould the look and rhythm of Hollywood film for that decade and beyond through films like Blade Runner, Legend, Top Gun, Fame, Flashdance, and 9 ½ Weeks. None of Hudson’s subsequent work would generate the same acclaim as Chariots of Fire, though there are things to appreciate about the likes of Greystoke, Revolution, and I Dreamed of Africa.

Though cynics would label it a minor and forgotten Oscar victor, Chariots of Fire has been peculiarly newsworthy this year, and not just because it turns 40: Joe Biden cites it as his favourite film, and Israeli athlete Beatie Deutsch’s hesitance to run on Sabbath at the impending Tokyo Olympics generated obvious echoes of the film and Eric Liddell’s campaign almost a century earlier. Topical news aside, and bearing in mind that Awards don’t matter, the film remains thoughtful, fascinating, and immensely watchable.

Director: Hugh Hudson

Cast: Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Havers, Ben Cross

Writer: Colin Welland


[1] Ellis Cashmore, ‘Chariots of Fire: Bigotry, manhood, and moral certitude in an age of individualism’, Sport in Society, vol. 11, no. 2-3, 2008, p.162.

[2] Katharina Bonzel, ‘“Let us praise famous men”: Creating myth and memory in Chariots of Fire’, National Pastimes: Cinema, Sports and Nation, University of Nebraska Press, 2020, pp. 23-48.

  1.  Ellis Cashmore, ‘Chariots of Fire: Bigotry, manhood, and moral certitude in an age of individualism’, Sport in Society, vol. 11, no. 2-3, 2008, p.162.
  2. Katharina Bonzel, ‘“Let us praise famous men”: Creating myth and memory in Chariots of Fire’, National Pastimes: Cinema, Sports and Nation, University of Nebraska Press, 2020, pp. 23-48.
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