Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Can any short poem have been quoted so often as William Blake’s ‘And did those feet in ancient time’? It gives us the expressions ‘satanic mills’ – which I’d bet are now more common than just plain mills – and ‘green and pleasant land’, as well as the title of F. R. Leavis’s Nor Shall my Sword. And between riots England sports fans intone the whole of this anthem to Christian revival, under the title ‘Jerusalem’: see this gloriously 90s video (ah, those weren’t the days).

But Blake also (nearly) wrote the words Chariots of fire, the name of a middling-to-bad film about running that won four oscars. It centres on the rivalry between a Scottish and devoutly Christian athlete, and a Jewish one struggling against prejudice. The final showdown at the Olympic games is avoided due to the Christian refusing to race on a Sunday, allowing each athlete to win gold in a different event. So the message seems to be that being Christian won’t help you to win races any more than being a Jew will. Except that the Scot comes away looking the bigger man in a film that is named after an ode imagining Jesus’s visit to Britain, so, er, maybe it will.

The dubious merits of much of the film aside (for instance the Scot’s hilarious, chicken-like running style), there is of course the opening scene. Twenty handsome young men run together along a beach. For whatever reason, running in a pack is – I hesitate, but what other word is there? – magnificent, and this scene captures something of that. This scene also features the famous theme tune, by Vangelis. Would many runners be fine with being watched this intensely by a fat man smoking in a darkened room? Still, this too is a monument to its decade (this time the 80s).

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