The working title of the script was originally “Runners” — about as boring as you could imagine.
In retrospect, the whole project seems beyond improbable. David Puttnam, who would produce the film, happened to be convalescing from a case of the flu in a rented house in Hollywood and, looking for something to read to pass the time, picked up a history of the Modern Olympic Games. In that book, he read a single paragraph about the Scottish runner Eric Liddell, winner of the 400m at the 1924 Paris Games. Intrigued, Puttnam wrote to the British Amateur Athletic Association for more information, and they eventually responded by sending him three large scrapbooks of historical clippings. From those scrapbooks, he would learn about Harold Abrahams, winner of the 100m in those same 1924 Olympics.
As the story began to take shape in his mind, he reached out and hired Colin Welland, a Liverpudlian actor and sometime writer, to create the script for the movie that would become “Chariots of Fire” (the name appropriated from the familiar hymn “Jerusalem” based on a William Blake poem).
Colin Welland died a week ago Monday, and I found myself thinking about how much I liked that script, and how — once it had been made — the movie became something almost inevitable and timeless. I’m not sure I’d call it a great movie. It has been criticized for being sentimental and escapist and has been chided for historical inaccuracy. But I think those complaints miss the point. I assert that it is a good movie that unabashedly recreates an anodyne version of Cambridge in the years following the Great War. Indeed, most of the movie is imagined as a memory in the mind of an old man thinking back to the days of his youth. In that more innocent time, prejudice exists, but can be overcome; where the establishment is strong, but not invincible.
Most meaningful to me, Chariots of Fire tells the stories of real men — Liddell, Abrahams, Aubrey Montague (whose real-life box of letters written home during the Paris Olympics provides much of the voiceover for the film), and Lord Lindsay (based on the real-life Lord David Burghley, winner of the 400m in the 1928 Olympics) — and their essential striving that is at the heart of Athletics.
For most people, when they think of ‘Chariots of Fire,’ they think of the theme song by Vangelis. That theme, too, from its opening clarion call to the oddly childish waterfall of simple chords, seems almost inevitable after the fact. Hasn’t it always existed, oozing inspiration and serving as the background music for every parody of running ever made?
But when I think of the movie, I think of the words spoken by the characters. Those words were often based on the words of actual Olympians — Welland had researched the film by asking 1924 Olympians to share their memories of the Games. There are the savvy observations of Sam Mussabini, the professional coach hired by Abrahams to find him seven yards. There are the angry outbursts from Abrahams, who goes through life with a chip on his shoulder, and there are the serene convictions of Liddell: “God made me for a purpose — for China — but he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
In his script, Welland took liberties with some facts, but I think those liberties were harmless enough. Liddell knew the schedule for the Paris Games months before he boarded the boat to France, and had ample time to train for the 400m. Thus, Lord Lindsay didn’t make a last-minute decision to give up his spot in the 400m. Abrahams did marry an actress, but didn’t meet her until long after the Games, and married her eight years later.
I would argue none of that really matters. The script rings true, even when it deviates from the biographical details of its main characters.
Chariots of Fire won the Academy award for best picture in 1981, and Welland won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Echoing the words spoken by Lord Lindsey in the opening scene of the film:
“We are here today to give thanks for the life of Colin Welland. To honour the legend. Now there are just two of us – young Aubrey Montague and myself – who can close our eyes and remember those few young men with hope in our hearts and wings on our heels.”
One of the best speeches in the movie was not written by Welland, but by the actor who delivered it, Ian Charleson. To prepare to play the Scottish athlete and missionary Eric Liddell, Chareleson had immersed himself in Bible reading.
Here are the words Charleson wrote for the scene where Liddell leads a religious meeting following a race and speaks to the working-class crowd:
“You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. [laughter] But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape – especially if you’ve got a bet on it. [laughter]
“But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe your dinner’s burnt. Maybe you haven’t got a job. So who am I to say, ‘Believe, have faith,’ in the face of life’s realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.
“Jesus said, ‘Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.’ If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.”
It’s a sad coincidence that Charleson and Liddell both died much too young. Liddell died at age 43 in a Chinese internment camp at the end of World War II, and Charleson passed away at age 40 from complications of HIV/AIDS.