‘Chariots of Fire’: Hugh Hudson, Anglophilia and the Olympic Stage

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Image credit: Hugh Hudson

I’m not sure why Hugh Hudson’s 1981 film Chariots of Fire has meant so much to me, but it has. Curiously, I didn’t notice its initial release, even though I regularly went to the cinema virtually every weekend. However, it was because of my enthusiasm for film that I happened to be watching the Golden Globes during its January 1982 broadcast. On that night, as the nominees for the best foreign picture were announced, I heard the audience cheer as the now iconic scene on screen. A group of men, all dressed in the same white uniform, ran majestically in all their youth and vigor down the English seaside as a synthetic anthem played, evoking Olympian glory. I was immediately captivated by what I saw!

As soon as I could I went to see Chariots of Fire at the Montclair Plaza Theaters, which had expanded from a triplex to a multiplex that included a theater dedicated to foreign films. I loved the movie so much I wound up seeing it six times in a matter of a few short weeks. Moreover, I watched Ben Cross and Ian Charleson portray “Harold Abrahams” and “Eric Liddell” several more times on pay tv, as well as renting and eventually owning the movie on VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray. I watched it again tonight.

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Image credit: Hugh Hudson

At this point in my life, Chariots of Fire has a lot of nostalgia value. It appeared at a time when I was striving to find an identity for myself, which was at time in one’s growth—16, going on 17—when finding the right identity is everything. With that in mind, Hudson’s image of 1920s England and its idyllic depiction of Oxford University was just what I needed. I was a burgeoning intellectual who was yearning for a more sophisticated sense of self, complete with the broadened horizons that were lacking in my so-called life. Chariots of Fire instantly became a part of my peculiar form of Anglophilia, which included watching British television dramas such as Testament of Youth, which starred Cheryl Campbell (who plays “Jennie Liddell” in Chariots), and The Flame Trees of Thika, starring Ben Cross. Then, of course, there was Brideshead Revisited, which itself became a unique obsession. Speaking of which, I shouldn’t neglect mention my discovery of Evelyn Waugh, Richard Adams, and W Somerset Maugham. Furthermore, it was also a time when, among other things, I was discovering music by Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, and Simple Minds.

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Image credit: Hugh Hudson

In the end, Hugh Hudson’s film about British Olympic hopefuls makes me feel good. I identify with the main characters, each of whom is marginal to English society—Abrahams, a Jew, and Liddell, a Scot—in a way that gave me insight into my own marginality to mainstream American society. Although my Anglophilia never took me to the UK, except for a few days in Wales and another people marginal to English society, what mattered more was the story and images. I have no idea of the film’s historical accuracies vis-à-vis the actual 1924 Olympics. Probably several liberties were taken for the sake of dramatic effect. Nevertheless, the film bears an emotional truth about gifted individuals struggling the find themselves at the same time they are dealing with the limits of those gifts. What the combination of that cinematography and Vangelis soundtrack made me realize is that it is one’s willingness to engage in that struggle, replete with the risk of failure, that is the difference between running the race only to win as opposed to running the race because you know you have to in order to find what’s at the end of the track.

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Image credit: Hugh Hudson

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