Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "Chariots of Fire" (1982)

Scene from Chariots of Fire
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Chariots of Fire
Release Date: March 30, 1982
Director: Hugh Hudson
Written By: Colin Welland
Starring: Ben Cross, Ian Charleston, Nicholas Farrell
Genre: Crime, Drama
Running Time: 125 minutes

Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Costume Design
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actor (Ian Holm)
-Best Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Atlantic City
-On Golden Pond
-Raiders of the Lost Ark

And the winner is...

In the echelon of movie themes, there are few that are as immediately iconic as that of director Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire. While the film itself has its own legacy, most casual fans will more likely recognize the synthesizer score by Vangelis draped over the scene of the cast running along the beach. For a film about running, it is an immediate and gripping tune that sets the pace for a British film all about overcoming adversity. While it may not be the most interesting subject matter, it definitely has moments of intrigue, thanks largely to Vangelis and a cast of unknowns giving it their all to bring to life the story of a 1924 Olympics team and their various achievements over the course of the film.

The story begins with producer David Putnam, who was looking for a project in the realm of A Man For All Seasons. He wanted a story about a man who followed his conscience. While flipping through a reference book on the Olympics, he found Eric Liddell's story, which would serve as the basis for Chariots of Fire. It was following this that he assigned the project to screenwriter Colin Welland. While most of the original participants in the Olympics of the time were dead, there were a few that were still living. Welland reached out to them for any information to help with his story. He received several letters that served as the basis. However, he missed a chance to interview Harold Abrahams, who died around the time. However, he attended the memorial and decided to use it at the wraparound plot device, using three different eras to tell the story.

Hudson was more familiar with documentaries and commercials when he took on the assignment of Chariots of Fire. However, he was quick to know what worked. He turned to Vangelis to provide the score as well as promise to have a central cast entirely filled with unknown actors. To counterbalance this, he would decide to have the supporting cast have some familiar faces. When he finished getting the group together, he decided to throw them into a three week boot camp that also included being isolated from the world. This would help to generate a bond between all of the actors and help them give more authentic performances overall.

The film's iconic opening sequence took place at St. Andrews. During this time, Hudson had intended to use previously existing Vangelis music for the score. This resulted in him playing old Vangelis music for the opening sequence. This was what set the pacing for the entire scene. However, the scene was later scored to a different electronic score, which Vangelis praised as a runner's anthem. It was believed that Vangelis was chosen to make the period piece have more of a contemporary attitude about itself. The filming also included the promise to extras that if they wore dark colors (to not stand out in stadium sequences), they would get paid 10 pounds with the promise of double if they got authentic Edwardian outfits. During this time, actors Stephen Frye and Kenneth Brannagh also were known for hassling extras for fun.

The film premiered at Cannes and was considered for the Palme d'Or. The one catch was that French audiences despised the film for its slander towards France. When things were looking bad, Roger Ebert lead a group that asked to give the film an award for the American Critics Prize. That was the only time in the award show's history where this has happened. The film would become critically praised later on,  becoming the seventh most successful film in America that year. The only real conflict came from the few inaccuracies to the film's depiction of the characters, which were sometimes ignoring or rewriting facts. 

Still, it was a massive success and garnered seven Oscar nominations. When winning the Best Original Screenplay award, Welland suggested that "The British are coming." While it may be considered a Paul Revere reference, it actually stems from an incident that he had in a bar during the recent weeks where patrons would say "Watch your wallets. The British are coming." Chariots of Fire also remains one of the few sports films to actually win Best Picture and the only centered around the subject of running and Olympics. What is possibly the film's most remembered attribute is that it is the first British film since Oliver! to take home the prize. In a moment of slight irony, Oliver! was the last rated G film to win. However, Chariots of Fire purposely added profanity to avoid a G rating to keep it from seeming like a kids' movie.

The film's legacy has been heavily based around the score. Vangelis' music has become some of the most iconic works in cinema history. It also has been used to commemorate special occasions, such as the unveiling of the Vietnam Memorial in 1982. In recent years, the film has achieved a revival thanks to England hosting the Olympics in 2012. It was heavily featured in the marketing, which suggested that the country should make the games great. The theme song was also featured in a gag during the opening ceremony featuring fellow British icon Mr. Bean, played by Rowan Atkinson. To round out the list, England also had a play based on the film that ran around the same time, which also featured new Vangelis music. While not a direct sequel, there were also talks of a sequel focusing on one of the character's time in Japan during the war. 

Love it or hate it, Chariots of Fire has a certain enviable iconography to it that most films would die for. From the opening sequence alone, there's a certain bliss that been lampooned for the decades to follow. Even if the rest of the film hasn't aged as well, it still manages to awe and create inspiration in the same way that Rocky's various themes do. It's a film about overcoming adversity, and it does so with pride and grace. Is it the best film to ever win? Not exactly. However, it still manages to stand out as one of the more upbeat and distinct winners of its time.

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