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Chariots of Fire is an inspirational fact-based 1981 Britishmarker film. It tells the true 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, which was written by Colin Welland and directed by Hugh Hudson, was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture. It is ranked 19th in the British Film Institute's list of Top 100 British films.

The film's title is a reference to the line, "Bring me my chariot of fire," from the William Blake poem adapted into the hymn Jerusalem; the hymn is heard at the end of the film.


In 1919, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) enters Cambridge Universitymarker, where he meets with anti-Semitism from the staff, but enjoys participating in the Gilbert and Sullivan club. He succeeds, as the first person in history, at the Trinity Great Court runmarker — running around the court 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 famous 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.

After a Sunday church service, Liddell discusses God's laws with his best friend and running coach Sandy (Struan Rodger), and gently reminds a young boy that the Sabbath is not a day for playing ball. After winning the Scotland v. Ireland race, he preaches to the crowd on "Life as a race".

When they first race against each other, Liddell beats Abrahams. Abrahams takes it extremely badly, 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). They allege it is ungentlemanly for an amateur to "play the tradesman" by employing a professional coach. Abrahams realizes this is a cover for their anti-Semitism and class entitlement, and dismisses their concern.

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. But 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 dishonor God: "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 buddies, Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell), and Henry Stallard (Daniel Gerroll).

While boarding the boat to Paris for the Olympics, Eric Liddell learns the shocking news that the heat for his 100 metre race will be on a Sunday. Liddell 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 in the form of Liddell's teammate Lord Andrew Lindsay. Having already won a silver medal in the 400 metre hurdles, Lindsay proposes to yield his place in the 400 metre race, on the following Tuesday, to Liddell. Liddell 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 Scotlandmarker that Sunday, and quotes from Isaiah 40, verse 31:
'But they that wait upon the shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and be not weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.'

Abrahams is badly beaten by the heavily favored 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 100 metre sprint, 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 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 Sholz, 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 movie ends, onscreen text explains that Abrahams married Sybil, and became the elder statesman of British athletics. Eric Liddell went on to his missionary work in China.


Historical accuracy and inaccuracy


The film depicts Abrahams as attending Gonville and Caius College, Cambridgemarker with three other Olympic athletes: Henry Stallard, Aubrey Montague, and Lord Andrew Lindsay. Abrahams and Stallard were in fact students there and competed in the 1924 Olympics. Montague also competed in the Olympics as depicted, but he attended Oxford, not Cambridge. Aubrey Montague sent daily letters to his mother about his time at Oxford and the Olympics; these letters were the basis of Montague's narration in the film.

The character of Lindsay was based on Lord Burghley, a significant figure in the history of British athletics. Although Burghley did attend Cambridge, he was not a contemporary of Harold Abrahams, as Abrahams was an undergraduate from 1919 to 1923 and Burghley was at Cambridge from 1923 to 1927. One scene in the film depicts the Burghley-based "Lindsay" as practicing hurdles on his estate with full champagne glasses placed on each hurdle — this did in fact happen.

Another scene in the film recreates a race in which the runners attempt to run round the perimeter of the Great Courtmarker at Trinity College, Cambridgemarker in the time it takes the clock to strike 12 at midday. The film shows Abrahams performing the feat for the first time in history. In fact, at the time of filming the only person on record known to have succeeded was Lord Burghley (upon whom the character Lindsay, who in the film runs along with Abrahams in the court to spur him on, is based) in 1927. The feat has since also been accomplished by Trinity undergraduate Sam Dobin, in October 2007.

In the film, Liddell is tripped up by a Frenchman in the 400 metre event of a ScotlandmarkerFrancemarker international athletic meeting. He recovers, makes up a 20 metre deficit, and wins. This was based on fact; the actual race was during a Triangular Contest meet between Scotland, England and Ireland at Stoke-on-Trent in England in July 1923. His achievement was in fact even greater, as he had already won the 100- and 220-yard events that day. Also unmentioned with regard to Liddell is that it was he who introduced Abrahams to Sam Mussabini. This is alluded to: In the film Abrahams first encounters Mussabini while he is watching Liddell race. The film, however, suggests that Abrahams himself sought Mussabini's assistance.

Abrahams' fiancee is misidentified as Sybil Gordon, a soprano at the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. In fact, in 1936, Abrahams married Sybil Evers, a mezzo-soprano in the D'Oyly Carte, but they did not meet until the 1930s. Also, in the film, Sybil is depicted as singing the role of Yum-Yum in The Mikado, but neither Sybil Gordon nor Sybil Evers ever sang that role with D'Oyly Carte. Harold Abrahams' love of and heavy involvement with Gilbert and Sullivan, as depicted in the film, is factual.

1924 Olympics

See also: Great Britain at the 1924 Summer Olympics.

The film takes some liberties with the events at the 1924 Olympics, including the events surrounding Liddell's refusal to race on a Sunday. In the film, he doesn't learn that one of the heats is to be held on the Sabbath until he is boarding the boat to Paris. In fact, the schedule was made public several months in advance, and Liddell spent the remaining months training for the 400 metres, an event in which he had previously excelled. The film depicts Lindsay, having already won a medal in the 400 metre hurdles, giving up his place in the 400 metre race for Liddell. In fact Burghley, on whom Lindsay is loosely based, was eliminated in the heats of the 110 hurdles (he would go on to win a gold medal in the 1928 Olympics), and Lindsay's deference to Liddell in the 400 was fabricated.

The film reverses the order of Abrahams' 100m and 200m races at the Olympics. In reality, after winning the 100 metres race, Abrahams ran the 200 metres but finished last, Jackson Scholz taking the gold medal. In the film, before his triumph in the 100m, Abrahams is shown losing the 200m and being scolded by Mussabini. And during the following scene in which Abrahams speaks with his friend Montague while receiving a massage from Mussabini, there is a French newspaper clipping showing Scholz and Charlie Paddock with a headline which states that the 200 metres was a triumph for the United States. In the same conversation, Abrahams laments getting "beaten out of sight" in the 200. The film thus has Abrahams overcoming the disappointment of losing the 200 by going on to win the 100, a reversal of the real order.

Eric Liddell actually also ran in the 200m race, and finished third, behind Paddock and Scholz. This was the only time in reality that Liddell and Abrahams competed in the same race. Their meeting in the 1923 AAA Championship in the film was fictitious, though Liddell's record win in that race did spur Abrahams to train even harder.

Abrahams also won a silver medal as an opening runner for the 4 x 100 metres relay team, not shown in the film. Aubrey Montague placed sixth in the steeplechase, as depicted.

Personal and insignia inaccuracies at the Olympics

In the film, the 100m bronze medallist is a character called "Tom Watson"; the real medallist was Arthur Porritt of New Zealandmarker, who refused permission for his name to be used in the film, allegedly out of modesty. His wish was accepted by the film's producers, even though his permission was not necessary. However, the brief back-story given for Watson, who is called up to the New Zealand team from Oxford Universitymarker, substantially matches Porritt's history. With the exception of Porritt, all the runners in the 100m final are identified correctly when they line up for inspection by the Prince of Wales.

Jackson Scholz is depicted as handing Liddell an inspirational Bible-quotation message before the 400 metres final: "It says in the good Book, 'He that honors me, I will honor.' Good luck." In reality, it was the American coach who handed Liddell the note. For dramatic purposes, screenwriter Welland asked Scholz if he could be depicted handing the note, and Scholz readily agreed, saying "Yes, great, as long as it makes me look good."

A few national flags are inaccurate. During training, the American athletes wear shirts with anachronistic 50-star U.S. flags — it would not be until 1959 that Alaskamarker and Hawaiimarker would be granted statehood, raising the number of states (and thus stars) from 48 to 50. The Canadian flag shown on the chest of David "Don" Johnson during the 400m final did not become the Canadian flag until 1965. The Five Races Under One Union flag of Nationalist China flies prominently at the games, although China did not compete in the 1924 Summer Olympics (this usage was probably intended, however, as an homage to Eric Liddell's adopted homeland).

Production details


Producer David Puttnam was looking for a story in the mold of A Man for All Seasons (1966), regarding someone who follows their conscience, and felt sports provided clear situations in this sense. He discovered Eric Liddell's story by accident in 1978, when he happened upon a reference book on the Olympics while housebound from the flu in a rented house in Los Angeles.

Screenwriter Colin Welland did an enormous amount of research for the film. Among other things, he took out advertisements in London newspapers seeking memories of the 1924 Olympics. Many athletes were still living, and Aubrey Montague's son sent him copies of the letters his father had sent home — which gave Colin Welland something to use as a narrative bridge in the film. Except for changes in the greetings of the letters from "Darling Mummy" to "Dear Mum" and the change from Oxford to Cambridge, all of the readings from Montague's letters are from the originals.

Ian Charleson himself wrote Eric Liddell's inspiring speech to the post-race workingmen's crowd at the Scotland v. Ireland races. Charleson, who had been studying the Bible in preparation for the role, told director Hugh Hudson that he didn't feel the scripted sanctimonious and portentous speech was either authentic or inspiring. Charleson was uncomfortable with performing the words as scripted. It was decided that Charleson should write words that he was comfortable speaking, and thus came the most memorable speech of the movie.

For Colin Welland's first draft of the film, his working title was "Runners." The inspiration for the title "Chariots of Fire" came one Sunday evening when Welland turned on the television to an episode of the BBC's religious music series Songs of Praise, which featured the stirring hymn "Jerusalem". Welland not only took the title "Chariots of Fire" from the hymn, but also incorporated the hymn itself into the film.

The film was slightly altered for the U.S. audience. A brief scene depicting a pre-Olympics cricket game between Abrahams, Liddell, Montague, and the rest of the British track team appears shortly after the beginning of the original film. For the American audience, this brief scene was deleted. In the U.S., to avoid the initial child's G rating which might have hindered ticket sales, a different scene was used — one depicting Abrahams and Montague arriving at a Cambridge railway station and encountering two WWI veterans who use an obscenity — in order to be given a PG rating.


Although the film is a period piece, set in the 1920s, the Academy Award-winning original soundtrack composed by Vangelis uses a modern 1980s electronic sound, with a strong use of synthesizer and piano among other instruments. This was a bold and significant departure from earlier period films, which employed sweeping orchestral instrumentals. The title theme of the film has become iconic, and has been used in subsequent films and television shows during slow-motion.

Some pieces of Vangelis's music in the film did not end up on the film's soundtrack album. One of them is the background music to the race Eric Liddell runs in the Scottish highlands. The title of this piece is "Hymn," and it is from Vangelis's 1979 album, Opéra sauvage. It is also included on Vangelis's compilation albums Themes, Portraits, and Odyssey: The Definitive Collection.

Five lively Gilbert and Sullivan tunes also appear in the soundtrack, and serve as jaunty period music which nicely counterpoints Vangelis's modern electronic score. These are: "He is an Englishman"from H.M.S. Pinafore, "Three Little Maids from School Are We" from The Mikado, "With Catlike Tread" from The Pirates of Penzance, "The Soldiers of Our Queen" from Patience, and "There Lived a King" from The Gondoliers.

The film also incorporates a major traditional work: a British choir singing "Jerusalem" at the 1978 funeral of Harold Abrahams, the event which 'bookends' the film and which inspired its title. A handful of other traditional anthems and hymns, and a ballroom waltz, round out the film's soundtrack.


Director Hugh Hudson was determined to cast young, fresh unknowns in all the major roles of the film, and to back them up by using stellar veterans like John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson, and Ian Holm as their supporting cast. Hudson and producer David Puttnam did months of fruitless searching for the perfect actor to play Eric Liddell. They then happened to see Scottish stage actor Ian Charleson performing the role of Pierre in the play Piaf, and knew immediately they'd found their man. Unbeknownst to them, Charleson had heard about the film from his father, and desperately wanted to play the part, feeling it would "fit like a kid glove." Ben Cross, who plays Harold Abrahams, was discovered while playing Billy Flynn in Chicago. He was thrilled, and said he was moved to tears by the film's script.

All of the cast portraying runners underwent a grueling 3-month training intensive, with renowned running coach Tom McNab, said to be the current-day "Sam Mussabini." This three-month training and isolation of the actors created a strong bond and sense of comaraderie between them all — an affinity and affection and familiarity which then also came through on film.

Filming locations

The famous beach running scene
The famous beach scenes associated with the theme tune were filmed at West Sands, St. Andrewsmarker. A plaque commemorating the filming can be found there today. The very last scene of the opening titles crosses the 1st and 18th holes at St. Andrews Golf Coursemarker.

All of the Cambridge scenes were actually filmed at Hugh Hudson's alma mater Eton Collegemarker, because Cambridge refused filming rights, fearing depictions of anti-Semitism. This was a decision the Cambridge administration greatly regretted after the film's enormous success.

Liverpool Town Hall was the setting for the scenes depicting the British Embassy in Paris. The Colombes Olympic Stadiummarker in Paris was represented by The Oval Sports Centre, Bebingtonmarker, Merseyside. The nearby Woodsidemarker ferry terminal was used to represent the embarcation scenes set in Dovermarker. The railway station scenes were filmed at the National Railway Museummarker in York. The scene depicting a performance of The Mikado was filmed in the Savoy Theatremarker with members of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. The dinner scene between Harold and Sybil was filmed at the Café Royal Oyster Bar in Edinburgh.

Awards and recognition

Academy Awards (1981)

Chariots of Fire was very successful at the Academy Awards. When he accepted his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay Colin Welland famously announced "The British are coming".

Cannes Film Festival (1981)

At the 1981 Cannes Film Festival the film won two awards and competed for the Palme d'Or.
  • Best Supporting Actor - Ian Holm - won
  • Prize of the Ecumenical Jury - Special Mention - Hugh Hudson - won
  • Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) - Hugh Hudson - nominated

BAFTA Awards (1981)

Popular lists

See also


  1. Aubrey Montague – Biography at
  2. Hugh Hudson's commentary to the 2005 Chariots of Fire DVD
  3. Daily Mail 27 October 2007
  4. Stone, David. Sybil Gordon at the Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company website, 11 July 2002, accessed 8 November 2009
  5. Stone, David. Sybil Evers at the Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company website, 28 January 2002, accessed 8 November 2009
  6. Goodell, Gregory. Independent Feature Film Production: A Complete Guide from Concept Through Distribution. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982. p. xvii.
  7. Nichols, Peter M. The New York Times Essential Library, Children's Movies: A Critic's Guide to the Best Films Available on Video and DVD. New York: Times Books, 2003. p. 59.
  8. Hugh Hudson in Chariots of Fire – The Reunion (2005 video; featurette on 2005 Chariots of Fire DVD)
  9. Ian McKellen, Hugh Hudson, Alan Bates, et al. For Ian Charleson: A Tribute. London: Constable and Company, 1990. pp. 37–39. ISBN 0-09-470250-0
  10. Puttnam interviewed in BBC Radio obituary of Jack Valenti.
  11. Bradley, Ian, ed. The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan. Oxford University Press, 2005. p. 576.
  12. Chariots of Fire – Filming locations at the Internet Movie Database

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