Chariots of Fire keeps going the distance

The film may be over 30 years old, but Vangelis’s iconic theme has been played during every London 2012 Olympics medal ceremony… and rightly so, says Barry Norman

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Music isn’t really my thing. I have a tin ear and can’t carry a tune, but even with those handicaps I understand the importance of music to a movie. Sometimes it’s the music as much as anything else that makes the film memorable.

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I mean, where would The Third Man be without Anton Karas and his zither? Or Jaws without John Williams’s thumping, chilling shark music? The spectacular opening of Star Wars would not be half so spectacular without the stirring theme (Williams again) that accompanies it. And I remember Woody Allen’s Love and Death as much for his use of the Troika movement from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kij Suite as I do for Allen’s wit.

What brought all this to mind was a particular sequence in Chariots of Fire, the bit where the British Olympic athletes go for a training run on the beach, with Vangelis’s music [he’s a guest on Private Passions, Sunday 12 noon Radio 3] urging them on. Stirring stuff, this. But play the scene without the music and it’s almost comical – just a bunch of blokes stumbling along the wet sand with the sea lapping at their ankles.

Without the music, the sequence simply doesn’t work. An extreme example, perhaps, but it underlines Vangelis’s contribution, one so significant throughout that he won an Oscar.

In fact the film, centring on two British triumphs at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games, won four Oscars in 1981 and is now rightly regarded as a classic, whose reappearance in cinemas and on TV could hardly be more appropriate in this current season of Olympic dreams.

The protagonists Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) are very different people driven by similar motives – faith and self-belief.

Abrahams, son of a Lithuanian immigrant, is a Cambridge-educated Jew, derided by his college masters (John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson) ostensibly for “ungentlemanly conduct” in employing a professional trainer (Ian Holm). But it’s clear that their scorn is deeply rooted in anti-Semitism.

Liddell is a devout Scot, the son of missionaries in China, who races for the glory of God. “When I run,” he says, “I feel His pleasure.” In the Games he should have competed with Abrahams in the 100 metres but, Chariots tells us, he withdrew belatedly when he learned the heats would be run on the Sabbath, and instead opted for the 400 metres.

To these men, running is far more than a simple athletic pursuit: it’s a way of establishing their individuality and asserting their dignity and – both being in different ways outsiders – their pride in their antecedents and their backgrounds.

Their stories are fascinating enough but the film, produced by David Puttnam and directed by Hugh Hudson, includes a wider view of Britain in the 1920s, its snobbery, its class distinctions and its flag-waving patriotism.

Colin Welland’s screenplay doesn’t always let the facts get in the way of a good yarn. Liddell knew some time before the Games began that the 100 metres were to be run on a Sunday and switched to the 400 then. (He also, by the way, won the bronze medal in the 200 metres but we don’t see that.)

Then, too, the film has Abrahams finishing nowhere in the 200 metres and realising that the shorter sprint is his last chance to triumph. In reality, the 200 metres came after the 100 but no movie wants to finish on an anticlimax, and anyway Welland’s juggling with the facts can easily be forgiven as dramatic licence.

Chariots beautifully creates the feel and look of the time. You know perfectly well that Abrahams and Liddell, faces distorted with effort, could not today get within 20 metres of the sleekly professional Usain Bolt. But they look exactly like the Olympic athletes of the era – amateurs doing their very best for the glory of their country.

Of course in the film they had Vangelis’s music to inspire them, so here’s a thought: why not have every British athlete at the current Games accompanied onto the track by the Vangelis theme instead of waiting for the medal ceremony? And at the same time let the screens around the stadium show that clip from Welland’s Oscar acceptance speech: “The British are coming!”


TOP TUNES THAT MADE THE MOVIES

1.The Dam Busters (1954) Those bouncing bombs just wouldn’t have the same impact without Eric Coates’s march.

2 Psycho (1960) Hitchcock wasn’t planning to use music in Janet Leigh’s shower scene, but it became the stuff of nightmares accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s strings.

3 Jaws (1975) You just can’t think of the film without John Williams’s theme… he also gave us ET, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark and many more.

4 Rocky (1976) Bill Conti’s uplifting Gonna Fly Now as Sylvester Stallone run’s up those steps makes a memorable moment truly iconic.


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Chariots of Fire is on tonight at 6.35pm on Film4