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Chariots of Fire (1981)

Footage courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Main image of Chariots of Fire (1981)
DirectorHugh Hudson
Production CompanyEnigma Productions
 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
 Allied Stars
ProducerDavid Puttnam
ScriptColin Welland
PhotographyDavid Watkin

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Cast: Ben Cross (Harold Abrahams); Ian Charleson (Eric Liddell); Nigel Havers (Lord Andrew Lindsay); Alice Krige (Sybil Gordon); Ian Holm (Sam Mussabini)

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The story of two British athletes, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who ran in the 1924 Olympic Games.

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"Films should be used to show what's best in society, or what can be so, given the exceptional man or woman with vision and will-power." So says David Puttnam, producer of Chariots of Fire (1981). While some found the film unduly patriotic and emotionally manipulative, its reception by audiences and critics at home and overseas has made it one of Britain's most enduringly popular and successful films.

Based on a true story, Hugh Hudson's first feature won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Screenplay (by Colin Welland), Best Score (by Vangelis) and Best Costume Design (by Milena Canonero).

Ian Charleson plays Scottish missionary Eric Liddell and Ben Cross plays Jewish Cambridge student Harold Abrahams. Both men - and it is a film about male energy and aspiration - overcome great odds to run and triumph in the 1924 Olympics.

Even the film's detractors concede the performances are powerful. Charleson, particularly, exudes tremendous agony and ecstacy as the zealous preacher who, having devoted his life to serving God, must reconcile this with his earthly promise. Cross is equally compelling as the talented student driven to prove himself in bigoted English society.

One of the film's strengths is its truly cinematic storytelling - from the early shots of feet pounding the ground, to the slow-motion races, the soaring music supports a truly stirring story, almost in the tradition of the biblical epics.

Relationships with the film's female characters - Liddell's equally religious sister, Mary (Cheryl Campbell), and the non-Jewish actress whom Abraham courts (Alice Krige) - don't quite hit the notes of authenticity as the men's relationships with each other. But the evocation of a post-WWI society in the throes of great change is engrossing and entertaining.

Welland's vainglorious "The British are coming" speech at the Oscar ceremony claimed a new dawn for British cinema. Soon after, Puttnam became the first (and last) Brit to run a Hollywood studio. But his brief tenure as head of Columbia Pictures (he retired from filmmaking shortly after) didn't make for major change.

"Let us praise great men," a line from an earlier draft of Chariots of Fire, suggests one reason why. The heroic, inspirational theme and message of the film - and Puttnam's philosophy of cinema - is perhaps out of sync with an era which worships anti-heroes: self-centred, material men and woman who strive for personal gain, not the greater good.

Ade Solanke

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Video Clips
Original poster
Production stills
Topical Budget 862-2: Just a Splash! (1928)
Topical Budget 868-2: London to Brighton (1928)
Charleson, Ian (1949-1990)
Davenport, Nigel (1928-2013)
Griffiths, Richard (1947-2013)
Havers, Nigel (1949-)
Holm, Sir Ian (1931-)
Hudson, Hugh (1936-)
Magee, Patrick (1922-1982)
Puttnam, Lord David (1941-)
Rawlings, Terry (1933-)
Wax, Ruby (1953-)
Welland, Colin (1934-)