Chariots of Fire (1981) – a rarity
With the exception of boxing (and to a lesser degree golf) individual sports stories are under served by Hollywood. If you take a minute to think I’ll bet that you can name several team sports movies – from baseball football basketball or even hockey and soccer. But given twice as much time you’d probably struggle to remember a single movie about a track (or field) athlete except this Academy Award Best Picture winner.
I think we’ve been spoiled by Bud Greenspan who writes directs and produces those wonderful documentaries about Olympic athletes for whatever TV network is hosting the Games every other year. He captures their behind-the-scenes stories and the drama (& magic) of their events so well that perhaps Hollywood film-makers are intimidated by the eight-time Emmy Award winner’s work (the Directors Guild of America voted to give Greenspan a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995; two years later he received a Peabody). Television producers are willing to take the chance but only on the ones with a sensationalistic angle (Shattered Glory: The Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan Story (1994) Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story (1997) etc.) which is a shame.
I ran track (120 yard high hurdles 180 yard low hurdles) and did field events (high jump triple jump) in high school so I feel fortunate that Chariots of Fire (1981) came out shortly after graduation (while I was still emotionally connected to the sport). Before or after receiving our diplomas some teammates and I traveled east from St. Louis to the NCAA Championships that year and we were in the stands at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when the University of Maryland’s world record holding high hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah became the first man to break the 13 second barrier (12.98) in a 110m HH race.
Unfortunately his result was deemed wind-aided so his feat wasn’t official until he ran .05 seconds faster in 1981; a record that stood for nearly 8 years. Many years later I also witnessed (in person) Michael Johnson smoke the 17 year old 200m world record when he ran the distance in 19.66 seconds at the U.S. Championships (Olympic Trials) here in Atlanta only months before he would lower the record for good (to 19.32 seconds) in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games 200m Final which I saw live on television from our hotel in Virgin Gorda (in the British Virgin Islands) … but I’ve digressed.
Chariots of Fire (1981) is the kind of movie that Academy voters love to recognize even though it may not have been the most memorable among the nominees (Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) On Golden Pond (1981)) that year. In addition to taking home the gold for Best Picture it won Oscars for Colin Welland’s original Screenplay Costume Design (Milena Canonero just won her third Oscar for Marie Antoinette (2006)) and its unforgettable Score by Vangelis (who hasn’t really been heard from since he dropped his Greek surname Papathanassiou). The great character actor Ian Holm received his only Supporting Actor nomination (two years after he helped Alien (1979) make an unforgettable debut). Director Hugh Hudson and Editor Terry Rawlings were also nominated. The British film also earned BAFTA’s for Best Film Costume Design and Holm; it was nominated in several other categories including Film Music Cinematography (fwiw Reds (1981) won the Oscar over Pond Raiders and two others while Chariots was inexplicably left out of the running) Direction Screenplay Editing and Supporting Actor Nigel Havers who played the high hurdler character a Lord (loosely based on a real person).
The story is a fictionalized account of the real miraculous achievement by Great Britain’s male Olympic sprinters (e.g. over the favored U.S. team) at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris France. There are two religiously-based background stories which stay above melodrama (if barely): Ben Cross plays a Jew battling anti-Semitism – his situation is complicated by the controversy of his having hired a professional trainer (Holm) for his quest to become the fastest man in the world (e.g. the 100m champion) – and his Christian opponent Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell who runs for the glory of God and thus refuses to run a heat on the Sabbath; Liddell competed in (and won) the 400m instead. The cast also includes some recognizable Britishers John Gielgud Nigel Davenport & Patrick Magee and a post-Breaking Away (1979) Dennis Christopher and a post-Midnight Express (1978) Brad Davis as American sprinters.
As a former hurdler I found the scene where Lord Lindsay was running high hurdles across the expansive grass lawn of his estate – there was a champagne glass on each standard and his challenge was to run the gauntlet without spilling a drop – to be nothing less than absurd (even if he really did train that way; I don’t know) especially after a hurdle-smashing Roger Kingdom literally broke his way through Nehemiah’s long standing world record several years later. However I am glad that a more serious cinematic hurdling scene exists especially since the only other one I can think of involves John Travolta’s Danny Zuko character leaping one then another before tripping over the third to fall flat on his face while trying to impress Olivia Newton-John’s Sandy character in Grease (1978).
The only older movie that I’ve been able to find about a track & field athlete is The Bob Mathias Story (1954) which features the Olympic decathlon champion as himself and doesn’t appear to be available for purchase.
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog