Chariots of Fire (1981)

Chariots of Fire (1981)

“I’m forever in pursuit, and I don’t even know what it is I’m chasing.”

A devout Scottish missionary (Ian Charleson) and a determined Jewish Cambridge student (Ben Cross) face diverse challenges as they compete to earn spots in the 1924 Paris Olympics.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Dennis Christopher Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Ian Holm Films
  • John Gielgud Films
  • Olympics
  • Rivalry
  • Sports

Peary doesn’t review this Oscar-winning British historical drama in his GFTFF, but he does reference it in his Alternate Oscars, where he describes it as a “slow-moving film about running” that “received mostly excellent reviews and had numerous admirers” but was “detested by… many.” He shares his own frustration at the time that “this ‘true story’ about two British runners… at the 1924 Paris Olympics — Jewish Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Scottish missionary Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) — distorted the facts,” but adds that he was “impressed by the leads (and supporting actors Ian Holm and John Gielgud), admired its noble themes (having to do with courage and integrity in the face of bigotry), and… felt a surge of emotion as a parade of proud athletes glided across the screen to Vangelis’s myth-making, Oscar-winning score.”

Reviewers since then seem divided between resentment that such a “minor” film won the Oscar, and appreciation for it as a well-crafted period piece. I’m in the latter camp. While it took me a while to understand the film’s purpose and get into the rhythm of its pacing, I eventually became invested in its protagonists and their outcomes — primarily because both men are likable, immensely talented underdogs who deserve a chance at success. The supporting stories about the pressure Charleson feels from his disapproving sister (Cheryl Campbell):

… and the burgeoning romance between Cross and a beautiful actress (Alice Krige):

… help to more fully humanize them, as does the mentorship Cross receives from his coach, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm):

… and the disapproval of said support expressed by two stuffy college masters (John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson).

Meanwhile, the cinematography is beautiful; the running scenes are compellingly shot; Vangelis’s score is appropriately haunting (and not over-used); and special note should be made about Terry Rawlings’ expert editing, which cleverly uses cross-cutting to build tension and connection between the various stories. This one remains worth a one-time look.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams
  • Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell
  • Fine historical detail
  • David Watkin’s cinematography
  • Terry Rawlings’ editing
  • Vangelis’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a good show, and for its historical significance as an Oscar winner. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Historically Relevant
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Chariots of Fire (1981)

  1. Rewatch. Agreed; a once-must, for its place in cinema history.

    The assessment given is well-put. I particularly agree that the two main characters “are likable, immensely talented underdogs who deserve a chance at success.”

    It doesn’t bother me that the film is historically inaccurate. Acc. to Wikipedia, it was not the intent of the filmmakers to be completely accurate but, instead, to tell a rousing tale. (I had actually forgotten that it was based in fact.) Outside of the running sequences, it may not be an overwhelmingly rousing film but it has quiet momentum.

    I’ll admit it’s not a particular favorite. I don’t think I have seen it since it was released (though perhaps I saw it once again when it was released on VHS). But I can admire the craftsmanship of its making, as well as its ultimate purpose. I’m esp. impressed with the work of DP David Watkin – but then he proved himself to be remarkably dependable throughout his career.

Leave a Reply