Chariots of Fire is a 1981 British historical drama film. It tells the fact-based story of two athletes in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice.
The film was conceived and produced by David Puttnam, written by Colin Welland, and directed by Hugh Hudson. Ben Cross and Ian Charleson starred as Abrahams and Liddell, alongside Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Havers, Ian Holm, Lindsay Anderson, John Gielgud, Cheryl Campbell, and Alice Krige in supporting roles.
It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. It is ranked 19th in the British Film Institute's list of Top 100 British films. The film is also notable for its memorable electronic theme tune by Vangelis, who won the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
The film's title was inspired by the line, "Bring me my chariot of fire," from the William Blake poem adapted into the popular British hymn "Jerusalem"; the hymn is heard at the end of the film. The original phrase "chariot(s) of fire" is from 2 Kings 2:11 and 6:17 in the Bible.
In 1919, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) enters the University of Cambridge, where he experiences anti-Semitism from the staff, but enjoys participating in the Gilbert and Sullivan club. He becomes the first person to ever complete the Trinity Great Court Run – running around the college courtyard in the time it takes for the clock to strike 12. Abrahams achieves an undefeated string of victories in various national running competitions. Although focused on his running, he falls in love with a leading Gilbert and Sullivan soprano, Sybil (Alice Krige).
Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), born in China of Scottish missionary parents, is in Scotland. His devout sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell) disapproves of Liddell's plans to pursue competitive running. But Liddell sees running as a way of glorifying God before returning to China to work as a missionary.
When they first race against each other, Liddell beats Abrahams. Abrahams takes it poorly, but Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), a professional trainer whom he had approached earlier, offers to take him on to improve his technique. This attracts criticism from the Cambridge college masters (John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson), who allege it is not gentlemanly for an amateur to "play the tradesman" by employing a professional coach. Abrahams dismisses this concern, interpreting it as cover for anti-Semitic and class-based prejudice.
When Eric Liddell accidentally misses a church prayer meeting because of his running, his sister Jennie upbraids him and accuses him of no longer caring about God. Eric tells her that though he intends to eventually return to the China mission, he feels divinely inspired when running, and that not to run would be to dishonour God, saying, "I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure."
The two athletes, after years of training and racing, are accepted to represent Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Also accepted are Abrahams' Cambridge friends, Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell), and Henry Stallard (Daniel Gerroll). While boarding the boat to Paris for the Olympics, Liddell learns the news that the heat for his 100-metre race will be on a Sunday. He refuses to run the race – despite strong pressure from the Prince of Wales and the British Olympic committee – because his Christian convictions prevent him from running on the Sabbath.
Hope appears when Liddell's teammate Lindsay, having already won a silver medal in the 400 metres hurdles, proposes to yield his place in the 400-metre race on the following Thursday to Liddell, who gratefully agrees. His religious convictions in the face of national athletic pride make headlines around the world.
Liddell delivers a sermon at the Paris Church of Scotland that Sunday, and quotes from Isaiah 40, ending with:
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. Abrahams is badly beaten by the heavily favoured United States runners in the 200 metre race. He knows his last chance for a medal will be the 100 metres. He competes in the race, and wins. His coach Sam Mussabini is overcome that the years of dedication and training have paid off with an Olympic gold medal. Now Abrahams can get on with his life and reunite with his girlfriend Sybil, whom he had neglected for the sake of running. Before Liddell's race, the American coach remarks dismissively to his runners that Liddell has little chance of doing well in his now far longer 400 metre race. But one of the American runners, Jackson Scholz, hands Liddell a note of support for his convictions. Liddell defeats the American favourites and wins the gold medal.
The British team returns home triumphant. As the film ends, onscreen text explains that Abrahams married Sybil, and became the elder statesman of British athletics. Liddell went on to missionary work in China. All of Scotland mourned his death in 1945 in Japanese-occupied China.
- Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams, a Jewish student at Cambridge University
- Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell, the son of Scottish missionaries to China
- Nicholas Farrell as Aubrey Montague, a runner and friend of Harold Abrahams
- Nigel Havers as Lord Andrew Lindsay, a Cambridge student runner partially based on David Burghley and Douglas Lowe
- Ian Holm as Sam Mussabini, Abrahams's running coach
- John Gielgud as Master of Trinity College at Cambridge University
- Lindsay Anderson as Master of Caius College at Cambridge University
- Cheryl Campbell as Jennie Liddell, Eric's devout sister (Janet Lillian "Jenny" Liddell)
- Alice Krige as Sybil Gordon, Abrahams' fiancée (his actual fiancée was Sybil Evers)
- Struan Rodger as Sandy McGrath, Liddell's friend and running coach
- Nigel Davenport as Lord Birkenhead, member of the British Olympic Committee, who counsels the athletes
- Patrick Magee as Lord Cadogan, chairman of the British Olympics Committee, who is unsympathetic to Liddell's religious plight
- David Yelland as the Prince of Wales, who tries to get Liddell to change his mind about running on Sunday
- Peter Egan as the Duke of Sutherland, president of the British Olympic Committee, who is sympathetic to Liddell
- Daniel Gerroll as Henry Stallard, a Cambridge student and runner
- Dennis Christopher as Charley Paddock, American Olympic runner
- Brad Davis as Jackson Scholz, American Olympic runner
Personal inaccuracies at the Olympics
Script and direction
Revival for the 2012 Olympics
UK cinematic re-release, Blu-ray
Since its release Chariots of Fire has received generally positive reviews from critics. As of 2017 the film holds an 83% "Certified Fresh" rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes based on 64 reviews, accompanied by the summary "Decidedly slower and less limber than the Olympic runners at the center of its story, the film nevertheless manages to make effectively stirring use of its spiritual and patriotic themes." For its 2012 re-release, Kate Muir of The Times gave the film five stars, writing: "In a time when drug tests and synthetic fibres have replaced gumption and moral fibre, the tale of two runners competing against each other in the 1924 Olympics has a simple, undiminished power. From the opening scene of pale young men racing barefoot along the beach, full of hope and elation, backed by Vangelis's now famous anthem, the film is utterly compelling."
Awards and nominations
- This film was released by 20th Century Fox in international countries.