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Film / Chariots of Fire

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"I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure."
Eric Liddell

Chariots of Fire is a 1981 British drama film directed by Hugh Hudson, starring Ben Cross and Ian Charleson.

Centering around Real Life track-and-field athletes Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who competed for Great Britain in the 1924 Olympic Games, the film does have a fairly large dash of Hollywood History, but it was nevertheless impressive enough to be nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning for Best Picture, Original Screenplay (Colin Welland), Costume Design (Milena Canonero), and Original Score (Vangelis).

The film is largely remembered today for its groundbreaking electronic title theme by Vangelis, which at the time was a bold departure from other period pieces which typically used orchestral scores.

This film provides examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny:
    Harold: Foreign as a frankfurter.
    Monty: And a kosher one, at that.
    (Harold laughs)
  • Artistic License – History: Several scenes were altered from Real Life to help the drama.
    • Film!Abrahams started his running career by successfully completing the Trinity Court Great Run, which requires the runner to complete the 341 metres around the court of Cambridge's Trinity College in the approximately 43 seconds it takes for the bells to chime 12.note  Real!Abrahams never attempted this feat. On top of that, the first successful Great Run didn't occur until 1927, after the events of the film.
    • Abrahams finished last in the 200 meters after winning gold in the 100. The movie puts the loss first to make the win more of a triumph.
    • Eric knew for months that a heat for the 100 meters was on a Sunday, and had long since arranged to run the 400 instead. This just wouldn't be that interesting to play out on film.
    • Sam Mussabini was allowed to train several runners for the Olympics.
    • Andrew Lindsay is a Composite Character of David Burghley and Douglas Lowe.
    • The American flag contains 50 stars, not the 48 it would have had in 1924. Likewise, a present-day Canadian flag is used rather than the Canadian Red Ensign as would've been the case in that year.
    • Abrahams's fiancée in the film is a Gilbert-and-Sullivan singer named Sybil Gordon, who in real life was never the lead singer for an opera company. The real Abrahams' fiancée was a completely different Gilbert-and-Sullivan singer named Sybil Evers, whom Abrahams didn't meet until 1934, a decade after the events of the film. The writer apparently confused the two women. The Screen-to-Stage Adaptation corrected this (at least the naming part).
    • The funeral of Harold at the beginning has Aubrey as an attendant. In reality, he predeceased Harold by several decades.
    • A minor example was Eric Liddell being tripped early in the 400 metres at a Scotland–France international athletics meet, recovering, and making up a 20-metre deficit to win. Liddell indeed won a race under these circumstances, but it was run at 440 yards during a Scotland–France–Ireland triangular meet. Making the real-life feat even more remarkable is a detail the film doesn't mention—Liddell had already won at 100 and 220 yards that day.
  • Artistic License – Sports: The Parade of Nations contains so many mistakes it’s actually easier to say what’s right with it - the teams came out according to their French name and the tradition of Greece coming out first had yet to start.
  • Assumed Win: Eric was used to always placing first in races. In one race, he started his victory pose, only to discover another racer got first place instead.
  • Avoid the Dreaded G Rating: Because there was literally nothing in the film to warrant a rating higher than G, a cricket match at the beginning was changed in the US release to a scene where Harold and Aubrey see some disfigured World War I veterans at a train station, with an utterance of the word "Shit".
  • Badass Preacher: Eric Liddell is a missionary as well as one of the best athletes in the world and a person with the nerve to stand up to the crown prince of England trying to shame him.
  • The Big Race: Several of them, in fact, as the film's climax is centered around the 1924 Summer Olympics.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Lindsay is implied to be this. He's a very talented athlete, but never shows the same kind of dedication and self-abandonment that Eric and Harold do. He points out that while Abrahams is driven, he's just having fun. Just look at him in the iconic group run scene: He's covered in mud and has a huge grin on his face.
  • British Stuffiness: With some of the old men of Cambridge.
  • Child of Two Worlds: Abrahams and Liddell, in their own ways:
    • Abrahams is the Jewish son of a Lithuanian immigrant. Despite the many ways this alienates him from the predominantly Christian English culture, he loves England dearly and strives to be the quintessential Englishman. He has a musical number about it.
    • Liddell is the son of Scottish missionaries, born and raised in China; the real-life Liddell regularly described himself as "Oriental". Ironically, his religion ends up alienating himself from other Britons as well, who don't share his intense devotion to the faith.
  • Cool Versus Awesome: Averted. Everything is seemingly set up to climax with Eric and Harold in the same race. But they never race each other.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mussabini at the Scottish Games.
    Colonel Kenny: Well, to battle. I hope you enjoy the games. (walks off)
    Mussabini: (after a few seconds) "Games"? You must be joking. I've seen better organized riots.
  • Determinator:
    • Harold: "I'll take them all on. One by one. And run them off their feet."
    • Eric: "Don't you believe it — his head's not back yet."
  • Determined Expression: Most of the runners look like this right before the starting pistol fires.
  • Dinner Order Flub: On their dinner date, Sybil, familiar with the restaurant and the staff, asks for her "favorite." Harold nervously asks to be served the same thing. When he asks what he just ordered, Sybil tells him only that it will be a surprise. Turns out, it's pork, which Harold won't eat due to religious reasons. They end up laughing off the misunderstanding.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Mussabini tells Abrahams that Liddell is better suited to longer races because of his temperment. Indeed, Liddell takes the gold in the 400 meter dash despite primarily training for the 100 meter.
    • In the same scene, Mussabini and Abrahams watch film reels of Jackson Scholz and Charley Paddock, and indeed the two Americans appear in the latter half of the film as the rivals to Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams (or rather, the two Britons are their rivals, as both of the Americans were already Gold Medalists.)
    • Lindsay is obviously talented, being able to stay neck-and-neck with Abrahams during the College Dash, but by his own admission he doesn't take the sport seriously. One scene even shows him practicing hurdles by placing glasses of champagne on them to show if he touches the hurdles. Naturally, he ends up losing his big race at the end, while Abrahams and Liddell both win theirs.
  • Framing Story: The film starts and ends with Lindsay presiding over the funeral of his friend Harold Abrahams, with "Young" Aubrey Montague being the only surviving member of their group of Olympic runners.
  • Heroic Resolve: Eric winning the race after being knocked down. This really happened, though the facts were slightly altered in the film (see "Artistic License – History").
  • Hero of Another Story: We hardly see the Americans until the second half of the film, and they get little focus of their own, but when we see either of them, they seem to be going through their own struggles. One line of dialogue between Scholz and another American runner near the end makes it clear he has been quite aware of Liddell's talents and holds him in high regard.
  • Historical Domain Character: Most of the main characters were based on Real Life athletes, to say nothing of several of the supporting characters such as the Prince of Wales.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Eric. In his case it is better handled than many, for he is also nice, friendly, and makes you think that Good Feels Good.
  • Irony: The Prince who urged Eric to put country before God was Edward VIII who later flirted with fascism, and also disdained his royal duties at a time when British Patriotic Fervor was really needed to fight Nazi Germany. For the full dose of Dramatic Irony, he would end up abdicating the throne to marry an American divorcée, Wallis Simpson.
  • Literary Allusion Title: Cribbed from William Blake, who in turn cribbed it from 2 Kings.
  • The Missionary: Eric Liddell, who happens to be the son of missionaries. He sees running as his own form of missionary work, encouraged by his father.
    Reverend. J.D. Liddell: Eric, you can praise the Lord by peeling a spud... if you peel it to perfection. Don't compromise. Compromise is a language of the Devil. Run in God's name... and let the world stand back in wonder.
  • Mission from God: Liddell describes running as a form of prayer, and believes he was gifted with his speed to inspire others. One of his big challenges is to pursue the one without neglecting his devotion to the other.
    Liddell: I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.
  • Oh, Crap!: Lindsay has a flash of panic after his teammates wish him luck and leave him alone at the starting line, staring down the track he's about to run. It's replaced by a Determined Expression as he prepares to race.
  • The Oner: When they first arrive at Cambridge, the Freshmen go to an event where societies have tables set up and solicit for new members. The camera cruises through and around a throng of students singing and chatting for well over a minute.
  • Opposing Sports Team: Averted. The American track team are reasonably decent people.
  • Parodies of Fire: The Trope Maker, obviously.
  • Patriotic Fervor: A notably amiable form in which everyone was greeting each other's flags, etc. and assuming that they and everyone else were part of a True Companionship of nations. Mostly Truth in Television, since this was soon after World War I and more vitriolic forms of patriotic fervor were frowned upon.
  • Period Piece
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Harold gives this to the Cambridge Masters.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Eric is red, Harold blue.
  • The Roaring '20s: Largely averted, even for a British film.
  • Rule of Cool: Why is Lindsay training on hurdles with glasses brimming with champagne sitting atop each one?
  • Serious Business: For different reasons, running is a matter of life and death for the two leads. Lindsay, by contrast, takes it much less seriously.
  • Spinning Paper: Surely one of the last films to play this trope dead straight, as Spinning Paper recounts Liddell's refusal to run the 100m.
  • Take a Third Option: Running on Sunday or missing the race? Just run a different race.
  • Technician Versus Performer: Harold is the technician, Eric the performer.
    • At a larger scale, the British runners are Performers, with many of them embracing the "Amateur" ideal, while the Americans are Technicians, with the team taking part in boot-camp style training drills closely supervised by coaches.
  • Training Montage: Showing both Abrahams and Liddell. Harold trains on the track in Cambridge and Eric runs in the highlands of Scotland.
  • Video Credits: The major players who were in the opening/closing running-on-the-beach sequence are credited on-screen during the closing version.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: A very simple version - the eventual fates of Eric and Harold are told via a text overlay during the final scene.
  • Writer on Board: One of the producers was a socialist, and didn't like that a lord had completed the quad race at Cambridge, so he changed it to Abrahams. This understandably didn't sit well with David Burghley, the real-life runner, so he didn't allow his name to be used in the film. The completely original character of Lord Lindsay was written instead.
  • The X of Y
  • Ye Goode Olde Days: Lots of nostalgia. Practically fuels the show.