Wednesday, 1 December 2010

With wings on our heels – The rediscovery of 'Chariots of Fire'

Writer and Actor Colin Welland once famously said in an American interview for the 1982 Oscar Ceremony that ‘The British were coming!’ meaning in that year a British film would take the Best Picture award at the most prestigious film awards in the world – and he was not wrong! This touching epic centring on the will and power of the human spirit was a box office smash making the reputations of a number of young British actors and providing a fantastically nostalgic portrait of Britain in the 20’s at a time when people were still in the grips of Brideshead fever!

Taking away the awards and the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, this film really is a piece of cinema magic and seems the most appropriate film recommendation to kick of this blog! No chap or chapesse can seriously count themselves amongst these rarefied ranks unless they have taken the time to sit and watch this timeless classic! If you haven’t I suggest that you stop reading this blog, go to HMV, buy a copy, sit and watch it and return to this article when you have had time to appreciate the gentle majesty of two men’s quest for the 1928 Olympic Gold.

From the first moment you hear Vangelis’ uplifting score, the first bars of the piano and the clatter of feet on the beach at St. Andrews, you know you are in for a real treat! Told from the perspective of one of the central characters, Aubrey Montague, the film plays as a wonderful paean to a lost Britain and the amateur spirit. Filled with beautiful shots of the rugged hills  of Scotland, the old colleges of Cambridge (in fact Eton as the production could not obtain permission from Cambridge), London theatreland and of course the then iconic Paris Atheletics Stadium.

The acting is fresh and naïve and showcases some of the finest British talent at the start of their careers supported by some of the greats of the English theatre and cinema. Ben Cross, Ian Charleson and Nigel Havers play against John Gielgud, Ian Holm, Edward Fox, Brad Davis and Cheryl Campbell to great effect and there is plenty of chemistry. You really feel the electricity that exists in the rivalry between Abrahams (Cross) and Liddell (Charleson) and find yourself routing for  both when they race either separately or against one another!

However, it is not so much the fine acting and the brilliant sets that make this film but the wonderful script and the heavy scent of patriotism that pervades throughout – this is the only film that makes me cry with joy to be British, it is wonderfully uplifting. It is this quality that seems to be lacking from modern British cinema, nowadays films are made depicting gritty inner city struggles, bleak portraits of unemployment in 1970s and 1980s Northern cities or vapid comedies which almost make you embarrassed to be British. There is something very dirty about rousing patriotism in the 2000s and 2010s and I think this is a real shame, there are plenty of other heroes like Abrahams and Liddell which would make fine films but in the current climate it seems like Chariots of Fire will stand alone as a unique depiction of a lost era.

I am not religious or dogma bound but the film does have a strong but  philosophical dilemma where man must choose between faith and glory. Liddell’s belief in the righteousness of his faith is as relevant today as it was then and his inner strength is a fine example to any chap to be resolute even when face with adversity and incredible peer pressure. Abraham’s story is one of the most iron of wills and a burning desire to win, his is a battle with external forces and his 100 Metre Gold in the Olympics is symbolic of his triumph over a society that had always sought to hold him back.

Chariots of Fire truly is the best of British, a wonderful film capturing the essence of what it is to live and care passionately about this country! Who knows, perhaps they might make something similar to complement the London 2012 Olympics featuring Mark Lewis-Francis and  Dwayne Chambers (as yet untested actors!) with a rousing score or a soaring film about the 1988 4X100 British Team who finally triumphed in Seoul…but I doubt it, films like that just aren’t fashionable any more!

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