This article appeared on the South China Morning Post’s Rewind page
Even if you’ve never seen Chariots of Fire, you will have heard its theme: the one that goes “da na na na nah nah” and is usually accompanied on television by footage of people doing things in slow motion. (Come to think of it, the way it has been used as a de facto anthem for British athletics may help to explain why the country’s sprinters no longer win the same quantity of medals as they did, say, at the 1924 Olympic Games, which provide the setting for much of this film.)
Along with The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Chariots of Fire is one of two very fine British films about running and in truth is no more about fire than Slap Her, She’s French. Fire does feature in a number of indirect ways, however.
For one there is a lot of smoking, clearly an aid to sporting achievement in the olden days. Secondly, it features two young men fired up, each in his own way, by zeal or ambition, one of whom, the Scotsman Eric Liddell, has more than a touch of Calvinist fire and brimstone in his makeup. In his unorthodox running style, he also often appears to have a rocket warming his bottom.
Where Liddell is running for God (he even refuses to compete on the Sabbath), Harold Abrahams – the son of a financier who happens to have been a Lithuanian immigrant – is motivated by a desire for acceptance among the echelons of an Establishment, exemplified by the dons at his Cambridge college, that is distinctly sniffy about his Jewishness.
Both are exceptional figures, plucked from real sporting history and held to embody certain virtues – honour, dedication, personal integrity – that infuse the film with a twilit poignance. That theme (composed by Vangelis) and the framing of the flashback narrative with scenes from a 1978 memorial service for Abrahams, add to an overall sense of nostalgia for gifts vanished, lives gone, the flame of camaraderie and love now sputtering or extinguished.
Besides excellent performances from Charleson and Ben Cross (as Abrahams), the supporting credits are chock full with British acting talent, including Sir John Gielgud as one of the dons and a young Nigel Havers in the role of Lord Lindsay, another Cambridge athlete.
There is also much delight to be had from what scholars call the “diegetic” music, i.e that which has a part to play in the narrative itself: plenty of Gilbert and Sullivan (Abrahams’ falls in love with a soprano from The Mikado) and, at the end, a rousing rendition of Jerusalem, the hymn adapted from the William Blake poem which inspires the film’s title with the line “Bring me my chariot of fire”.
The phrase in turn comes from the Old Testament and is taken as a byword for divine energy. Whether or not that idea moves you, Hugh Hudson’s film probably will.