Posted by: daveed | August 28, 2008

On permanent rotation IV: Chariots of Fire

The totalitarian love-in, aka the 2008 Beijing Olympics, are history. Good riddance. I hear it was watched by gajillions of people and that the host country won buckets gold medals. Some protested, got arrested, shot. Bladi-blah-blah. We did all right I guess; I wouldn’t know because I refused to watch a minute of it. Sorry, but I’m not interested in seeing thug regimes show how effective they are at brutally social engineering people. Or swallowing the crap that corporate media peddles to whitewash it all. “Spirit of the Games” my ass.

Now that the collectivist-corporatist orgy is over, it got me thinking about the very different themes present in Chariots of Fire—dedication versus duty. A hunger for glory, both personal and spiritual. In essence, a celebration of the heroic.

Aesthetically, the film goes from stately and reserved, like an Edwardian photo album, to impassioned kineticism. A modernist, magisterial score embraces it all to paint a picture of Olympian triumph in the waning light of Empire. It serves up an historical footnote long forgotten in a way that still gives me a visceral reaction every time. That familiar icy gut when the runners approach the starting line. The body straining for those precious few inches, and victory. The emotional drain afterwards when faced with defeat.

It’s a sad but true fact that were this film to be released today it wouldn’t have even been a “sleeper”, let alone an Oscar Winner. It would have quietly been passed over for the latest star-vehicle featuring [enter movie star of the month here]. Oh, maybe for costumes or art direction, but that’s it. It would’ve remained art house or just gone straight to video.

From my personal experience vault: I distinctly remember when I walked out of the theater. I was very young, very impressionable, and absolutely astonished by what I saw. Here was heroism of the kind that only knew from myth and fantasy stories. Here were runners performing like gods, but they were real, which made their victories (and defeats) the stuff of legend, yet attainable on Earth. I caught the bug and became a track athlete.

Years later, there was a theatrical re-release and I was hesitant about seeing it. It had been a long, long time since I strapped on my running spikes and stared down the lanes of a track. Would the indelible impression the film made on my young heart be now seen as just a childish emotional reaction? Would the whole story seem dated and, dare I say it, cheesy? No. It still evoked those feelings of triumph—this time, I could appreciate the film for its wider themes of glory, prejudice and redemption.

It was more than magnificent. It was a reaffirmation that there is only one “Spirit of the Games”. The human spirit.

Here’s the brilliant opening sequence, starting with the eulogy for Harold Abrahams, segueing to the famous beach running scene.


  1. I watched some of the games and I totally agree with you: China shouldn’t be hosting an event that is supposed to symbolize a spirit of unity (within the context of rabid competition, of course).

    Interesting that even as the visiting US TV commentators were breathlessly narrating the “spectacular” opening ceremonies (dubbing it China’s coming out party), they were providing parenthetical updates on the Chinese government’s revocation of 2006 US gold medalist Joey Cheek’s visa. Why? Because they got wind of his plans to demonstrate against human rights violations…occurring in DARFUR.

    Apparently, the very thought of any public demonstration against corrupt governments threatened to rupture the bubble of benevolence China had fabricated for the world. Sounds like the actions of a paranoid (and guilty) regime to me.

    Actually, the opening ceremonies were amazing. But you got the sense that all those performers had better pull it all off perfectly.

  2. And don’t forget the two (that we know of) staged elements of the opening ceremonies: the fireworks and the girl’s singing… And I can’t help but wonder how many of China’s and Russia’s athletes were doping. Apparently it’s “widespread” in Russia — no surprise there.

    Still, I salute the individual athletes for their accomplishments; Shawn Phelp’s achievement was nothing short of spectacular and he deserves high praise. I’m just sorry their hard work and talent was used as yet another screen for the oppression and corruption in China.

  3. Notice how that fatal stabbing of the volleyball coachs father in law just vanished off the radar?Imagine if the reverse had happened.

  4. I love Chariots of Fire! Actually, this week I read something about it. Before its release, the film’s producer David Putnam screened the film without the Vangelis score, and he found that it didn’t work at all. He attributes the ultimate success of the film to the score. I don’t agree, but it’s an interesting thought. What would that movie be like without it?

    But also, the fact that you as a young person could be exposed to such a film is really a sign of different times.

    What are ten year olds watching now, I wonder?

  5. I believe the film would have done OK w/out the Vangelis score, but it really elevates it to something extraordinary. All the very modern synth sounds remind us that the film’s themes and emotions are just as relevant as today (1981), but the tone of the score is pure romanticism.

    Otherwise, we’d just have a period piece. And a mere sports movie. Maybe that score gave the film that added element that helped it win Best Picture. It certainly colors my appreciation for it.

    Next time you’re in NYC I’ll take you to the Museum of the Moving Image. There’s a great exhibit on film scores where you assign different clips to scenes. It’s really amazing the different results you get in terms of emotional impact.

  6. They actually had a feature about the guy from this movie during the Olympics, he ended up going to china to be a missionary so their was that tie in too.

  7. Yep, Eric Liddell. He died in a Japanese internment camp in China.

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