Bring me my Chariot of Fire
Composer Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou, or more commonly known as Vangelis, died only a couple of months ago. A Greek composer mostly of electronic orchestral music, he was most prolific in the scoring of movies. His most best known score, and arguably his most beloved, was for the wonderful 1981 historical sports drama Chariots Of Fire.
On first appearances, it was certainly an unusual choice of scoring for this film, but it instantly hit a nerve with the public and has become an instant classic, likewise the film, which for me still resonants to this day in its depiction of two amazing British athletes – Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell – who both overcame major impediments in achieving their Olympic success in winning Gold medals at the 1924 Olympics in Paris.
The film chronicles their rise to prominence in British athletics in the early 1920s with Abrahams running to overcome prejudice as he was Jewish, and Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God.
I have to admit that back in 1981 I had only heard of Harold Abrahams before due to his statesman like role in British athletics and Eric Liddell was a complete unknown to me. Subsequently I’ve read a lot about this remarkable and Godly man who became a missionary teacher in China where he eventually died in 1945 in a Japanese civilian internment camp.
Ian Charleson’s performance as Liddell is for me the standout performance in a film that is splendidly acted across the board. He perfectly captures the essence of a deeply religious man who can run fast, and, for want of a better word, a good man in the truest sense of the word.
The film’s depiction of their gold medal races is quite starkly different in tone, which is tremendously emphasised by Vangelis’ music in both scenes.
Abrahams triumph in the 100 metres is shown as methodical in its build up with the music ceasing with the firing of the starters gun and not resuming again until after Abraham’s has won followed by a montage of the race again in slow motion intercut with Abrahams accepting the congratulations of his win.
Then we have Liddell’s triumph in the 400 metres, where the scene commences without music as the runners prepare for the race, and where American runner Jackson Scholz hands Liddell a note of support quoting 1 Samuel 2:30 “In the old book it says: ‘He that honours me I will honour” – although in reality it was handed to Liddell by one of the teams masseurs.
As the race begins we hear Liddell’s thoughts as he says he runs as “He feels His pleasure” which then merges into Vangelis triumphant music which is marvellously stirring and emotional.
I have always viewed the film as one of those that celebrates the innate goodness of individual people which triumphs over adversities, in a time which seems to be less complicated than today. It also raises the issue of faith, of refusal to compromise and standing up for one’s beliefs, achieving something for the sake of it, with passion, and not just for fame or financial gain.
And to quote Kate Muir’s review of the 2012 re-release: “In a time when drug tests and synthetic fibres have replaced gumption and moral fibre, the tale of two runners competing against each other in the 1924 Olympics has a simple, undiminished power. From the opening scene of pale young men racing barefoot along the beach, full of hope and elation, backed by Vangelis’s now famous anthem, the film is utterly compelling.”
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