Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1981, and also three others, Best Original Screenplay (Colin Welland), Best Costume Design and Best Original Score. Raiders of the Lost Ark, which also won that year’s Hugo, won five Oscars (one of which was a special award) to Chariots of Fire‘s four.
The other Oscar-nominated films were Raiders of the Lost Ark and three I haven’t seen, Atlantic City, On Golden Pond and Reds. IMDB users rank Chariots of Fire astonishingly low, 14th on one list and 29th on the other, lower than last year’s Ordinary People which itself was the lowest agrregate rating since Tom Jones. Apart from Chariots and Raiders, I seem to have seen only four other films from that year, An American Werewolf in London, Time Bandits, Tarzan the Ape Man (the one with Richard Harris and Bo Derek, where the actor originally hired in the title role was fried and replaced by his stunt double, with dismal results) and Diva. For once, I am in profound disagreement with IMDB users, and total agreement with Oscar voters; I’d put Chariots of Fire firmly at the top of that list. Here’s a trailer, with a very annoying American voice-over.
In case you don’t know, it’s the story of two British runners at the 1924 Olympic Games, one Jewish and one deeply Christian, who both find themselves struggling against the English establishment as well as against their notional international competitors. I was surprised by how emotionally I reacted to it. To an extent it’s the film’s associations for me – I remember going to the cinema with my father to see it, when he would have been exactly the same age that I am now; and a few years later watching it again with Shirley Hart and Colin Wilkie, who died earlier this month. Since then, of course, it has extra nostalgia for me because of the Cambridge scenes. My college was Clare, not Gonville and Caius, but I knew enough people there to have happy memories of the courts. Also one could occasionally see Stephen Hawking trundling in or out. Even putting all of that aside, it’s a beautiful film, it looks good, it sounds good, and I felt better after having watched it.
I did not find any actors in Chariots of Fire who had previously been in other Oscar-winning films, which is a bit astonishing. I found two who had been in a previous Hugo winners. More obviously, Ian Holm, who is the coach Sam Mussabini here and was the android Ash in Alien two years ago.
Less obviously, Jeremy Sinden, here the President of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society but also the rebel pilot Gold Two in Star Wars.
Less astonishingly there are several crossovers with the Whoniverse (though the last of these may surprise you). To start with two appearances in Who, Peter Cellier, the snooty head waiter at the Savoy, was also to play Andrews, the head of security at Heathrow Airport, in the 1982 Fifth Doctor story Time-Flight.
More obscurely and with a much longer gap, Eric Liddell’s friend Sandy McGrath is played by Struan Rodger, who went on to provide the voice of the Face of Boe in the Tenth Doctor stories Gridlock (2006) and New Earth (2007), the voice of Kasaavin in the Thrteenth Doctor story Spyfall (2020) and appeared on screen as Ashildr’s butler Clayton in the Twelfth Doctor story The Woman Who Lived (2015).
Nicholas Farrell is of course Aubrey Montague here. In Torchwood: Children of Earth (2009), he plays the British prime minister, Brian Green.
Cheryl Campbell plays Eric Liddell’s sister Jennie here, and in 2010 played alien conspiracy theorist Ocean Waters in Vault of Secrets, a Sarah Jane Adventures story.
And last but definitely not least, Nigel Havers is of course Lord Andrew Lindsay here and appeared as Peter Dalton, manipulated by the sinister Trickster into marrying the title character in The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith (2009) and still looking good.
OK, to start with the usual: one black person is visible in the entire film, an American athlete who does not speak, is not named and doesn’t appear to be credited.
And the women’s roles are clearly second rank to the men’s: Eric’s sister and mother, Harold’s girlfriend and her fellow performers. Having said that, both Jennie and Sybil are anchors to the real world, with all its flaws, for Eric and Harold; their presence makes it clear that while their commitment to their athletic pursuits comes at a cost. (Er, let’s not mention the Mikado.)
All right. But there’s some interesting stuff going on here all the same. Harold is constantly dealing with microaggressions about his Jewishness; I think Chariots of Fire presents this more effectively in a quarter of the story line than Gentleman’s Agreement did in an entire film.
It’s also interesting that Eric’s commitment to religion is shown almost entirely positively. It’s actually rather rare to have a film that shows religion in a positive light. The only other Oscar-winner where it is a really important theme is the otherwise forgettable Going My Way (1944) (with maybe half a point for The Sound of Music). I must say I was particularly moved by Eric’s first race, knowing as I now do that he would die in a prisoner of war camp aged 45, and that Ian Charleson who plays him would die even younger, at 40, the first British celebrity to make it public that his death was due to AIDS.
And anyway the film looks and sounds just fantastic. In case you need to be reminded, here’s the main theme. It is amazing how the 1980s tehcno synth almost always matches and carries the 1920s setting.
With famous interweaving by Mr Bean and Sebastian Coe for the Olympics opening ceremony in 2012:
And look, here’s the B side of the original single, Eric’s theme again.
Next year’s Oscar winner was Gandhi, but the Hugo winner is more popular on IMDB, so it’s Blade Runner next.
1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)