Twenty-five years ago, the most discussed and highly touted film in the world was Reds, an epic paean to the life of Jack Reed, an enthusiastic witness to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent co-founder of the American Communist Party. The film had been shot in four countries with a budget of $35 million (a huge amount at the time), and featured such stars as Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Warren Beatty. Set against the Bolshevik coup and its turbulent aftermath in both the United States and Russia, this sprawling leftist film, which lasted over three hours, seemed an absolute lock for the 1981 Oscars. What could possibly derail the communist valentine in a sympathetic Hollywood? Surely not a little independent film from England about two British runners who competed in the 1924 Olympics.
On the surface, Chariots of Fire had very little going for it. It featured unknown actors, a first-time director, a mix of electronic music and old-fashioned Gilbert and Sullivan tunes, and was full of montages and slow-motion photography. It was also made on the cheap for $5 million in under two months. The film’s experienced and well-respected producer, David Puttnam, had an extremely difficult time raising money for the film, and not a single American studio expressed interest in either financing or releasing it. As well-known American film agent Stuart Robinson put it, “Who wants to watch a film about two young men running around in their underwear?” On top of all this, and certainly the most potentially damaging in secular Hollywood, Chariots of Fire was unabashedly religious and patriotic.
The idea for the film was born when Puttnam was browsing through a history of the Olympics and learned that Eric Liddell, the Scottish sprinter who’d been Britain’s best hope in the 100 meters at the 1924 Olympics, had withdrawn from the race because the preliminary heats were scheduled for a Sunday. Liddell, the son of devout Protestant missionaries, steadfastly refused, despite tremendous pressure, even from the royal court, to compete on the Lord’s day. Then Puttnam learned about Liddell’s Olympic rivals: two famous Americans (Charles Paddock and Jackson Scholz) and Harold Abrahams, a Jewish student at Cambridge who competed as a way to respond to the anti-Semitism he encountered in Edwardian England. Intrigued by the story, Puttnam hired the talented English screenwriter Colin Welland to research the story and attempt a script.
Many years later, the director, Hugh Hudson, claimed that Welland’s script and Puttnam’s casting had made his job easy. Nevertheless, Welland wrote a very unusual screenplay that broke many of the accepted Hollywood conventions. First, it featured two heroes, Liddell and Abrahams, which is difficult to manage outside of a romance. Second, and even worse, the anticipated showdown (“the shootout,” as Hudson described it) between the two principal characters never materializes as the audience anticipates. Third, there were factors that might confuse the audience, especially the number of characters and different races. Other potential confusions resulted when Welland decided to use Aubrey Montague, a Cambridge friend of Abrahams and a member of the British Olympic team, as the film’s narrator, and to begin the picture with two successive flashbacks.
Despite these structural handicaps, Welland wove a masterful script that moved seamlessly from Cambridge to the Scottish highlands, creating tension, anticipation, and depth of character. The film is especially noted for Welland’s apt and powerful dialogue sequences, as in Liddell’s explanation to his sister Jenny about why he needs to compete in the upcoming Olympics: “I believe God made me for a purpose [to be a missionary]. But He also made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure. To win is to honor Him.”
Then, of course, there was the film’s impeccable casting, done mostly by Puttnam. Both Puttnam and Hudson felt that the film’s young characters should all be portrayed by unknown actors, and the casting of the large ensemble cast proved remarkably fortuitous. Ian Charleson, who was plucked from the Royal Shakespeare Company, gave a stunning performance as Eric Liddell, and even Liddell’s widow claimed that he got it exactly right. As Hudson has often pointed out, the portrayal of a good man is always the hardest challenge in acting, but Charleson breathed such life and personality into Liddell that he seemed not only believable and appealing but, like the real Liddell, charismatic as well. Ben Cross, another British stage actor who’d never been in a film, was also perfectly cast as the driven, defiant, yet still likeable Abrahams. Charleson and Cross were surrounded by an exuberant cast of young British actors, along with several notable British icons such as John Gielgud, who plays an arrogant Cambridge don, and Ian Holm as Abrahams’s personal coach.
All the actors cast as athletes were trained rigorously for three months before the shooting began. Then, within 56 days, at 15 locations, without a single studio shot, the film was miraculously completed on time. Puttnam always claimed that the production was “watched over” by the spirit of Eric Liddell, who had died in Japanese-occupied China in 1945. Despite such “guidance,” the American studios rejected the film, and it was even turned down as a network “movie of the week.” But Puttnam eventually prevailed, persuading Warner Brothers to distribute the film before he took it to Cannes. Unfortunately, the French audiences were enraged by a remark made in the film by Lord Birkenhead, the head of the British Olympic Team, who claimed that the “Frogs” were “not a very principled lot.” But Roger Ebert, who admitted having no interest in either running or the “British class system,” decided that Chariots of Fire was the best film at Cannes that year, and he later called it “one of the best films of recent years” in his review in the Chicago Sun-Times. So the buzz began, and the film was a tremendous success at the influential Toronto Film Festival before opening the New York Film Festival.
When Chariots of Fire was finally released in American theaters, the little inspirational film found an eager audience, and it did extraordinary business at the box office. It was equally well-received by the critics for its affecting performances, engaging narrative, and rousing electronic score by Vangelis Papathanassiou. Its subsequent eight Oscar nominations, including one for best picture, were seen as a polite pat on the back for the nice little independent film from across the pond. Nothing, everyone agreed, could upset the Reds juggernaut, not even its disappointing box-office numbers.
But everyone was wrong. Even cynical Hollywood was apparently smitten with the masterfully told story of the two British sprinters. In the biggest upset in the history of the Academy Awards, Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for best picture—and for music (Papathanassiou), screenwriting (Welland), and costume design. In his acceptance speech, Welland famously announced, “The British are coming!” The film subsequently opened up opportunities for everyone involved with the picture—especially Puttnam, who ended up as studio head at Columbia. But no one involved with the picture ever enjoyed such a success again, and Hudson’s unsatisfying subsequent films—Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, and the dreadful Revolution—only highlighted the uniqueness of his first feature.
Now, 25 years later, Chariots of Fire is a classic that still inspires audiences with its tale of religious commitment. Meanwhile, the dreary, propagandish Reds has, quite appropriately, been forgotten.