The recent passing of actor Ben Cross made me want to revisit the role which made his name; that of English sprinter Harold Abrahams in the seminal sports movie Chariots of Fire.
Watching this movie again for the first time in absolutely ages made me realise just how much has changed in moviemaking over the last 40 years! The most striking aspect is that it depicts only male competitors and largely only white athletes – even though women had been competing at the Olympics since 1900 and there were many non-white nations in Paris, including; Haiti, Japan and India. In the light of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements of recent times, it is absurd, if not impossible to imagine a movie being made in such a way today. Unless, of course, it was based on the works of Tolkien in some way!
Chariots of Fire also bogs down in wordy upper-class Britishness at times but, lest we forget, it did win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1981 – and deservedly so. For this is a movie that went boots and all into some pretty hot topics; religious prejudice, church vs state, class warfare, the futility of war and the role of professionalism in sport – to name just a few! The result is unarguably one of the greatest sports movies of all time and has inspired innumerable athletes (and even non-athletes!) over the decades to get out there and run.
Yet I am confident that if you handed over that very same 1980 script for Chariots of Fire to any movie executive today, it would come back covered in red pen rather than bathed in glorious green light. And that’s a shame, as the modern movie world’s obsession with perfection in script formula has ignored some of the lessons an enormously successful and obviously imperfect movie like Chariots of Fire has taught us:
Make it Iconic
To make your movie be remembered forever like Chariots include as many iconic moments as possible – and because pictures tell a thousand words; try to think up physical actions instead of lines. For every “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” and “Go ahead, make my day” in film history, there are ten Indiana Joneses taking a gun to a sword fight. Chariots of Fire has a few nice one-liners in it but I’ll bet you couldn’t recite any of them. Yet it also has no less than three classic visual scenes that absolutely everyone knows; the opening running scene along the beach is so iconic you cannot start running as a group without someone humming THAT Vangelis tune – 40 years later! There is also the Trinity courtyard race against the clock chimes and Lord Lindsay jumping the hurdles with a full champagne glass on each. Legendary stuff.
Well-done set-pieces rock!
Sorry screenwriter Colin Welland but your Oscar is undeserved, it should have gone to director Hugh Hudson. The best bits by far in this movie are when there is no dialogue at all – or when actor Ian Charleston rewrote Welland’s long-winded and condescending speeches to make them more lay preacher-like to suit his character. As well as the scenes mentioned above, Hudson manages to make every single running race different and memorable in its own way. An amazing effort considering each contest is just a bunch of guys running on some grass with a strip of tape at the end of it. No props, no words, no physical contact, just effort.
Similarly, he allows us to see Harold’s torment at being beaten by Liddell with no dialogue, just him sitting in a grandstand staring into space. By having a porter slamming seats up one-by-one and replaying the race result over and over from every conceivable angle, we get inside Harold’s head and understand just what it feels like to lose for the first time.
But my favourite bit in the whole movie has to be when coach Sam Mussabini is sitting alone in a hotel room and he hears the British anthem playing from the nearby stadium to signify that his charge had won the Olympic 100m Final. He just utters one word; Harold’s name, yet I find that scene the most emotional in the whole movie. For me, Hudson has given us the best-ever demonstration of restrained ‘Britishness’ I’ve seen.
Keep your characters laser-focused
Unlike most modern movies Chariots of Fire has a truckload of characters in it – it even has two main protagonists AND a story narrator to boot! Add in antagonists and love interests for each and you end up with an unholy mess that Chariots doesn’t really rise above to be honest and that is one of its failings. Yet Hudson and the actors do give us clues on how to deal with that many characters should we ever have to write a war movie or high school musical: Boil each character down to one action that sums them up and the audience will know where they are.
If that sounds cartoonish, just remember what the brilliant script coach Steven Cleary once said; ‘Don’t be afraid to be understood’. The Chariots alumni do this to perfection; Harold Abrahams is an intense guy so Ben Cross is often caught staring off into space; Eric Liddell is driven by the power from within so Ian Charleston’s head tips back and his mouth falls open whenever his soul takes over; Lord Lindsay is life-loving so a smile never leaves Nigel Havers’ lips. Meanwhile Dennis Christopher only had a handful of lines in the movie as the swaggering American Charley ‘Fastest Man Alive’ Paddock, yet the simple act of him putting on a pair of sunglasses told me more about his character than 30 pages of Welland script ever could. And made me want to see more of his story!
Truth be damned
Forget about the constant controversies about movies like Green Book, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and Argo being factually incorrect. Movies have always messed with the truth, usually to add drama and Chariots of Fire is no different – and all the better for it.
In real life, Eric Liddell knew months in advance that his Olympic race was scheduled for the Sabbath. But there’s no drama in that so the filmmakers changed it so he only learned about this news as he was boarding the boat for Paris. Instant drama to liven up a dull ferry ride across the Channel.
Lord Burghley – on whom the character of Lord Lindsay was based – did NOT win a medal at the 1924 Olympics; he got knocked out in the first round of the 110 metre hurdles. But he did win medals at the 1928 and 1932 Games, so it was only a ‘shifting’ of the truth to suit the plot – and an excellent solution to a very sticky situation indeed. Ironically Lord Burghley refused to allow his name to be used in the film due to this discrepancy with the truth – as did our own Arthur Porritt who won the bronze in the 100m Final. Hence the Kiwi athlete is referred to as ‘Tom Watson’ in the film.
Burghley was also the first to beat the clock chimes in the Cambridge Trinity Court Run although he didn’t achieve this feat until 1927 and the only other man to ever achieve the feat wasn’t Harold Abrahams. The Trinity courtyard also isn’t 700 years old, it’s 300-odd at best – but, outside of Lord Burghley, who really cares? It was great cinema.
On the other hand, don’t be sloppy with the truth! Getting Harold’s girlfriend’s (and later wife) name wrong because you mixed it up with some other actress from the time is inept to the point of contempt.
So, while Chariots of Fire may not be the greatest film of all time and its script certainly wouldn’t pass through the cookie cutters of today’s script consultants’ workshops but I’m sure people will still be watching – and being inspired by – it for decades to come. And certainly a lot longer than movies with higher-rated scripts like; Sideways or Lovely & Amazing. There’s definitely something to be learned from that.