Home > Reviews > CHARIOTS OF FIRE – Vangelis

CHARIOTS OF FIRE – Vangelis

December 9, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

MOVIE MUSIC UK CLASSICS

Original Review by Craig Lysy

Lauded English film producer David Puttnam was seeking a new film project, which offered sports heroism and dealt with matters of conscience. By chance he came upon the story of runner Eric Liddell, and found exactly the tale he wanted to tell. He hired screenwriter Colin Welland to adapt Liddell’s story, and he meticulous in his research of the 1924 Olympics. He crafted an Academy Award winning screenplay that provided the vehicle for Puttnam to realize his vision. Hugh Hudson was hired to direct and he decided early that he would cast young, unknown actors for the film’s major roles, with established actors in the supporting roles. He chose Ian Charleson to play Eric Liddell, Ben Cross as his rival Harold Abrahams, Nicholas Farrell as Aubrey Montague, and Nigel Havers as Lord Andrew Lindsay, while adding Sir John Gielgud, Nigel Davenport, Lindsay Anderson, Ian Holm, and Patrick Magee to the supporting cast.

The story takes place in 1924 as the United Kingdom prepares for the upcoming Paris Olympics. It centers on two runners whose religious beliefs are woven into the fabric of their being and competitive running. Harold Abrahams is a Jew who sees running as a means of validating himself as a Jew and overcoming prejudice, while Eric Liddell is a devout Scottish Christian born of missionary parents, who sees running as a way of glorifying God. Their beliefs were ultimately impactful on their placement on the team and success. Both faced obstacles yet ultimately rose to the occasion and achieved validation and victories. The film was a staggering commercial success, earning $59 million, and received critical acclaim, securing seven Academy Award nominations and winning four – Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Score.

Hudson and Putnam resolved early in the creative process that they did not want a traditional period piece orchestral score, but instead something more modern in its sensibilities. Given that Hudson had enjoyed previous collaborations filming documentaries and commercials with Greek electronic composer Vangelis, it was no surprise that he was hired for the project. Hudson advised Vangelis that he wanted the music spotted minimally, reserved for the film’s more dramatic moments. Additionally, given the religious undercurrents, Hudson felt church choir pieces were needed. There were some early creative disagreements when Hudson informed Vangelis that he wanted him to interpolate his piece “L’Enfant” from his 1979 documentary score Opera Sauvage as the main theme. It took some time and effort, but Vangelis finally convinced him that he could do better and was allowed to present a new original theme. Following his first listen Hudson admitted it was a much better theme, and was won over.

Vangelis composed five themes for his soundscape including the titular Chariots of Fire Theme, which has become legend. The music speaks of the liberating joy of running and offers the score’s main theme, capturing the very essence of Putnam’s vision. There are two primary themes, one for each of the main characters; Eric’s Theme offers a classical ABA construct with a solemn and forthright declarative A Phrase joined by a softer and more reverential B Phrase. Harold’s Theme offers quite a contrast as gull like bird song joins with gentile synthesizer to create a gossamer-like identity. There are also two training themes, one for the British and one for the Americans. The British Training Theme supports scenes of the British athletes training and offers a synth driven piece abounding with youthful exuberance, confidence and determination. The American Training Theme supports the training montage of the American athletes and is kindred in its kinetics. It offers a propulsive and energetic synth driven construct, which abounds with unbridled confidence as we see the coaches pushing their athletes.

A number of national anthems we also used given the venue of the Olympic games, including the aspirational Confederate anthem When Johnny Come Marching Home by Louise Lambert and Patrick Gilmore, the American national anthem The Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key and John Stafford Smith, and the French national anthem Le Marseillaise by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. Joining the film score would be five classic Gilbert and Sullivan show tunes including “He is an Englishman” from H.M.S. Pinafore, “Three Little Maids from School Are We” from The Mikado, “With Catlike Tread” from The Pirates of Penzance, “The Soldiers of Our Queen” from Patience, and “There Lived a King” from The Gondoliers. Lastly, the traditional hymn “Jerusalem” played a major role in the film. It was originally written as a poem by William Blake in 1808, and is considered one of the finest in English literature. This inspired poem was transformed in 1916 by Sir Hubert Parry who wrote music for it as a celebration of England. The confluence of lyrics and music is truly sublime, achieving a breath-taking synergy. Over the years the hymn has become woven into the very sinews of English cultural identity and now serves as the country’s unofficial national anthem.

The film opens with Warner Brothers Studios logo supported by Max Steiner’s classic fanfare. The roll of the opening credits displays as white script on a black background yielding to Lord Andrew Lindsay’s eulogy narration in 1978 for Harold Abraham’s funeral. As he reminisces, we segue into “Chariots of Fire,” a score highlight, with a time shift to 1924 where we see young men aspiring to make the British Olympic team running barefoot along the shores of the English Channel. We see joy and exhilaration on Eric’s face and Vangelis supports with a full exposition of his iconic Chariots of Fire Theme. Though incongruous with time, culture and setting, the piano and synth driven music in its own way succeeds in capturing the spirit and emotions of the scene. We shift to a few years earlier where we see Aubrey and Harold meeting at Cambridge, where both aspire to make the British Olympic team. Traditional English choir carry a remembrance ceremony for the hundreds of former students who perished during the Great War, their names displayed on the wall. This music is not found on the album. Following the traditional freshmen dinner, we shift the to the next day where we see the men signing up for various extracurricular activity clubs. Glee club recruitment is supported by Gilbert and Sullivan’s festive “The Soldiers of Our Queen” from Patience, which is not found on the album.

In “Eric’s Theme” we shift to the Scottish Highlands in 1920, where we see Eric as a favorite son, a missionary and running legend attending a running competition for Scottish youth. He is coached to run an impromptu race, which he graciously accepts. As the men race, he is carried by his theme, which seems more conducive to a church ceremony than a competitive race. Later we see Eric singing during a church service, which is supported by “Fight The Good Fight” by Jon S. B. Monsell. The hymn’s second stanza supports Eric’s running aspirations – “Run the straight race through God’s good grace, lift up thine eyes, and seek Christ’s face; life with its way before us lies— Christ is the path, and Christ the prize.” This interpolation is well conceived, yet it is not found on the album. As Harold relates to Aubrey his intention to succeed in the study of Law, he declares boldly that he will take on each and every one, and run them off their feet. As he departs, he is supported by the prideful confidence of “He is an Englishman”, from H.M.S. Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan. The song continues and sustains a montage, which reveals him dutifully studying, winning several races, ultimately concluding with him singing in a stage production of H.M.S. Pinafore the song’s final words. This was well conceived and executed.

The action moves to 1923 and we witness a ceremony opening a race between Scotland and France, which is carried by Scottish bagpipes supporting the French team singing Le Marseillaise. As the race begins Eric is deliberately knocked down by a Frenchman. He is stunned, yet resumes the race propelled by his faith, which carries him with Godspeed to a stunning victory. Vangelis supports with a grim synth line, which eventually coalesces into his theme. The music however was again underwhelming, lacking the determination, kinetics and the joyous celebration of victory. Harold is unnerved by Eric’s victory and seeks out the assistance of running coach Sam Mussabini as he is determined to win the gold medal. As Harold departs the music of “Three Little Maids from School are We” from The Makado (1885) by Gilbert and Sullivan enters and supports a transition to the play at the theater with the runners in attendance. Harold is smitten with dancer Sybil Gordon and audaciously asks her to dinner, which she accepts. A spirited piano rendering of “Three Little Maids from School are We” supports their arrival and seating at the restaurant. Their chemistry is palpable and we see a nascent love unfolding.

Later in 1923, in London, Eric and Harold face off for the first time. As we see them in the dressing room Eric greets him and wishes him good luck, to which Harold replies, “May the best man win”. A subtle rendering of Harold’s Theme supports the scene. We segue into “100 Meters” where we see them compete in the 100-meter race. Eric wins decisively and we see Harold devastated. Later as he sits in the stands attempting to contemplate his loss, we see astonishment and fear in his eyes. Vangelis’ approach is to not speak to the overt racing events unfolding on the screen, but instead to reveal the chaos, disbelief and psychic shattering Harold experienced with the loss. The music offers a writhing and grotesque dissonance, which perfectly captures Harold’s devastation as his mind replays Eric’s victory over and over. Sybil comforts him, and exhorts him to overcome the loss and not give up. When Sam arrives and declares that he can give him an additional two yards, Harold brightens, having regained hope. Sam convinces Harold that his stride is too long, and that the path to victory is shortening it. What unfolds is a training montage where we see Sam and Harold training relentlessly, and Eric also training running on the beach. Vangelis introduces his British Training Theme, a synth driven piece abounding with youthful exuberance, confidence and determination. The theme is not found in a film score cue but instead in the concluding concert piece from 7:45 – 8:25.

In two unscored scenes we see the emotional drivers of Eric and Harold. Eric confides to Jennie that he will rejoin her at the China mission, but not until he has glorified God with a win at the Olympics. Later, Aubrey comforts Sybil who is hurt that Harold stated that he must rid his mind of her if he is to win. We then shift to Aubrey training with the hurdles, which Vangelis supports with the British Training Theme. Well the hard work pays off as Aubrey, Harold, Eric, Lindsey and the other runners learn they have been selected for the Olympic team. Sybil sees Harold off and Eric is stunned when he learns that the qualifying meet will take place on Sunday, his Sabbath. As he stands alone and conflicted on the windswept deck, we hear his beleaguered theme now adorned with a eulogy of trumpet, joined in his mind with words of Jennie’s admonitions. After disclosing that he cannot violate the Sabbath to Lord Birkenhead, Eric is advised to stay silent while he negotiates with the French moving the meet to Monday. As Eric contemplates his fate, we shift below deck to Harold playing the piano and singing with comic bravado “With Catlike Tread” from The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan. In the port of Le Havre we see the arrival of the Americans supported by the aspirational Confederate anthem When Johnny Comes Marching Home. We then launch into the requisite American national anthem The Star-Spangled Banner. Later we see the rigorous training regimen of the American athletes, which Vangelis supports with the propulsive and energetic synth driven American Training Theme. The theme abounds with unbridled confidence as we see the coaches pushing their athletes. This theme is not found in a film score cue, but it is reference in the closing concert piece from 12:25 – 13:25.

The Olympic opening ceremonies begin with the parade of athletes supported by traditional marcia olimpica. Once assembled the French national anthem Le Marseillaise is sung. The first event, the men’s 200-meter hurdles unfolds in “Five Circles”. The music to me exists in an alternative reality divorced from the film. It offers a signature Vangelis piece, which provides a pleasant meandering melody, adorned with other-worldly ambiance, but is a queer juxtaposition from the driving, competitive athletic kinetics seen on the screen. In my judgement the pairing of music and film imagery is just bizarre. Later in the evening we are graced by the Skater’s Waltz, Opus 183 by Emil Waldteufel as the team attends a formal dinner and dance party with the Prince of Wales in attendance. Lord Birkenhead entraps Eric into an ambush meeting with the Prince of Wales, The Duke of Southerland, President of the British Olympic Association, and Lord Cadogan the British Olympic Chairman, where they exert pressure to get Eric to change his mind. But his resolve will not bend to their purpose, and he states that he will not violate the Sabbath. Yet all is made well when Lindsay enters the meeting and saves the day by graciously proposing that Eric take his spot in the 400-meter run on Thursday, to which all agree.

An extended rendering of the music from the “Five Circles” cue supports a montage of the men’s running events where we see Harold beaten in the men’s 200-meter race. Juxtaposed is a sermon at the Paris Church of Scotland by Eric who offers an inspired quote from Isaiah 40, which concludes with “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” As previously stated, I do not believe Vangelis’ music was synergistic or congruent with the film’s narrative and cinematography. As Harold prepares for his final race, he confides to Aubrey his admiration of him, and his fears. As he dresses and later reads a letter from Sam which expresses his confidence that he will win, his theme twinkles aimlessly in the background disconnected from the powerful conflicted emotions Harold is feeling. A marcia pomposa carries the runners to the field where they are greeted by the Prince of Wales who makes his bigotry toward Harold well known. As the men prepare and take their places the grotesque ever shifting dissonance of the “100 Meter” cue reprises, which again seems more attuned to a horror film than men preparing for an Olympic race. As Harold prevails and wins the race in “Abraham’s Theme”, his theme, replete with eerie wailing seagull calls and twinkling sythn ignore the celebratory joy of his triumph, instead offering what I believe to be one of the worst pairings of music and film imagery in cinematic history. As a stunned Sam sits down to take it all in, we see the British flag raised supported by the British national anthem “God Save The King”.

Next up will be Eric in the 400-meter race. While the American coach dismisses Liddell, his chief American competitor Jackson Scholz does not and hands him a note of support, quoting 1 Samuel 2:30 “He that honors Me I will honor”. The race commences without musical support. As Eric takes the lead, he in his mind offers praise to God and his theme joins to support his victory. His theme resounds in triumph as he is hoisted aloft by his team mates and is afforded a hero’s honor. The music is sustained as we see him and the other runners back home welcomed as national heroes. Harold is the last to disembark from the train and is greeted warmly by Sybil who runs into his welcoming arms. As they depart in “Jerusalem” they are carried away by the magnificent English anthem sung by boy’s chorus, which is later joined by diegetic audience choir in 1978 as a thankful nation sings praise to a national hero at Harold’s funeral. Script informs us of Harold’s death in 1978, as well as Eric’s in 1945 at the hands of the Japanese in China. We close as we began with the opening beach running scene empowered by the Chariots of Fires Theme as the end credits roll.

The album concludes with “Chariots of Fire”, a 21-minute concert suite, which contains most of the score’s original themes. We open with formless ethereal synth and sounds of waves upon the shores. Gradually beginning at 2:24 the textural sounds begin to coalesce into a cogent melodic form, which introduces at 3:48 a gentile rendering of an embellished Chariots of Fire theme by solo piano tenero with shifting synth auras. At 4:24 we segue into an emotionally accessible rendering of Harold’s Theme carried by solo piano gentile. At 7:06 we segue into a formless ethereal bridge of twinkling effervescence from which is born the British Training Theme at 7:45, a synth driven piece abounding with youthful exuberance, confidence and determination. At 8:59 we return the gossamer like beauty of Harold’s Theme, far more moving and eloquent than its iterations in the film, achieving a crescendo for a stirring statement with great emotive power. At 9:54 interplay with Eric’s Theme commences and offers the piece’s most sublime passage. At 12:25 we segue powerfully into the propulsive and energetic synth driven American Training Theme. The theme abounds with unbridled confidence as we see the coaches pushing their athletes. We boldly reprise the British Training Theme at 13:44. A twinkling piano bridge at 14:44 slowly dissolves into an ocean of synth textures. At 17:01 the Chariots of Fire Theme with interplay of the British Training Theme slowly begin to emerge from the shifting currents of the synth ocean, yet they never coalesce into a melody, instead dissolving into nothingness.

This film score graphically displays how the shifting tides of popular culture can elevate a flawed score to starry heights. I have reviewed many film scores in my career and I must say that Vangelis’ effort with Chariots of Fire pretty much fails on multiple levels. It was poorly conceived, and I believe poorly executed, the public’s universal praise notwithstanding. I acknowledge that Vangelis composed an iconic titular theme, an infectious feel good melody, which was widely popular, and over time has become indelibly woven into humanity’s collective consciousness. Yet its bookend application during the film was insufficient to redeem his effort. I do commend Harry Rabinowitz the film’s Music Coordinator for his insightful use of source music. Unlike Vangelis, all his scenes were spot on and congruent in understanding and expressing the film’s narrative. As to the other thematic material, the themes for the two protagonists just confound as they lack the vitality, kinetics and ambition we would usually associate with a story exploring a very intense competition between two men. Harold’s Theme especially leaves me incredulous by its inherent incongruity to a competitive runner seeking personal and cultural validation. Its truly underwhelming exposition during his crowning heroic victory was stunning in its feebleness and inescapable ineptitude in understanding the drama unfolding on the screen. The other film score cues on the album were similarly uninspired, repetitive, never meaningful or impactful during the film, and ultimately a testament to unmemorable ambiance.

I used the original AAD soundtrack release for this review and I must say that the audio quality is unsatisfactory. Also, the cue organization and structure are not congruent with the film score, but rather organized as is customary for other Vangelis concept albums. I believe the revolution that began with Giorgio Moroder’s seminal electronica score to Midnight Express opened the door for this new idiom and set the stage for Vangelis’ remarkable Oscar win. With his music soaring to #1 on both the American and English billboard charts, we must conclude that electronica had arrived and offered a new modern idiom from which there would be no turning back. I am most happy with this development, which has brought over the years many outstanding electronica scores to my ears. Yet its legacy of the stunning and unexpected defeat of William’s masterpiece Raiders of the Lost Ark, what I believe to be one of the 100 greatest film scores of the 20th century, to this day confounds me, and in my judgement, offers one of the most perplexing and incredulous moments is AMPAS award history. In closing, I diverge from my customary recommendation to purchase this album except for Vangelis fans, and those of you that gravitate to historical electronica scores.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score I have attached a YouTube link to the beautiful album concert piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wuXCS7lVoc

Buy the Chariots of Fire soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Chariots of Fire (Titles) (3:33)
  • Five Circles (5:20)
  • Abraham’s Theme (3:20)
  • Eric’s Theme (4:18)
  • 100 Metres (2:04)
  • Jerusalem (written by Hubert Parry and William Blake, arranged by Harry Rabinowitz, performed by The Ambrosian Singers) (2:47)
  • Chariots of Fire (20:41)

Running Time: 42 minutes 03 seconds

Polydor 800-034-2 (1981)

Music composed and arranged by Vangelis. Recorded and mixed by Raphael Preston and John Walker. Album produced by Vangelis.

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