Brian Henry Martin at the movies

The Greatest Olympic Movie

Published Thursday, 26 July 2012
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Is it possible to run in slow motion and not hear Vangelis? This is the signature of all great films, a classic scene forever imprinted in your imagination ...

So if any Olympic athletes need cinematic inspiration before the games, then it can only be one film, Chariots Of Fire.

Made in 1981, Chariots Of Fire tells the true story of two extraordinary athletes Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, both striving for success and grappling with their faith at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Jewish Cambridge University student Abrahams (played by Ben Cross) endures anti-Semitism from the establishment yet yearns for their acceptance. While Liddell (played by Ian Charleston) is a devout Scottish Christian who runs not for himself or his country but for the glory of God.

The film begins with a truly beautiful sequence. A determined group of barefooted runners emblazoned in white, sprint through the surf at St Andrews strand. This is the British athletics team racing towards their destiny with wings on their heels and hope in their hearts. What is startling here is a wonderful contradiction in sound and vision.

When watching a period film set at the heart of the roaring twenties, you would expect to hear a jazz age soundtrack? No, well, then surely you would hear the great British composers of the day like Elgar or Vaughan Williams? The scintillating soundtrack to Chariots Of Fire is neither jazz nor classical but a radical synthesiser score by Greek composer Evanghelos Odyssey Papathanassiou, better known as Vangelis. This was a bold and brilliant decision. The uplifting title track is one of cinemas greatest ever themes which even topped the US pop charts.

But how do you capture the short sharp sprints of these first rate athletes? You would expect the film to become faster, accelerate after the action on the track. Chariots Of Fire reverses this by using slow motion for speed; the faster our boy racers run the slower the film becomes. A remarkable master stroke which makes every race on screen one to savour.

Like all great sporting events Chariots Of Fire has both triumph and tragedy. The triumph is undoubtedly director Hugh Hudson's exquisite visual eye. Hudson was one of those dynamic young directors from the ad agency. Commercials hotshots like Ridley Scott, Adrian Lyne and Alan Parker who would change the look of British cinema.

The tragedy is sadly the talented lives cut short of both actor Ian Charleston and the character he portrays, Eric Liddell. After the 1924 Olympics Liddell returned to missionary work in China but died aged just 43 in a Japanese Prison Camp at the end of WWII. Charleston, who portrays his fellow Scot with such sincerity and passion, died aged just 40 in 1990 of AIDS.

Chariots Of Fire went on to achieve gold at the 1982 Academy Awards including Best Film, Best Soundtrack and Best Screenplay. Writer Colin Welland famously declared from the Oscar stage "The British are coming!". Well, the British are coming as the London Olympics are finally upon us. Appropriately Chariots Of Fire has been digitally remastered for the occasion. Let the games begin.

Chariots Of Fire (Cert U) is screening in a special short run at the QFT this weekend.

© UTV News
B. H. Martin
B. H. Martin

Brian Henry Martin is an accomplished documentary filmmaker and UTV's resident film critic, appearing regularly on UTV Live Tonight.

No matter what the film, there's a good chance Brian has seen it.


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