By Sam Poppleton
On a state visit to Britain in 1982 President Ronald Reagan allegedly declared that his favourite film was Chariots of Fire and insisted on meeting its director Hugh Hudson. You can all go and see why soon as it will be re-released on 13 July 2012, two weeks before the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. Despite his own acting experience, the former president’s favouring of Hudson’s film may well have because of the political ideology it represented rather than any artistic appreciation. Chariots, like the monetarist economists of the time, preaches the gospel of the individual.
Telling the story of the 1924 Olympic Games from the perspective of two of Britain’s finest sprinters Chariots of Fire was a huge success winning four of the seven Academy Awards it was nominated for. Devout Christian Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), fresh from an international rugby career with Scotland, causes international controversy when he will not run the 100 metres because it falls on a Sunday, the Sabbath. The British Olympic committee (including the Prince of Wales) pressurise him but he refuses to buckle. Instead Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), Liddell’s teammate, offers him his place in the 400 metres as Lindsay has already won a silver medal in the hurdles. Despite the unfamiliar distance, and highly trained Americans, the Flying Scotsman beat the odds and won a gold medal. The story of Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) is no less defiant. An English Jew and self-imposed outcast Abrahams resists the calls of Cambridge Dons for him to part ways with his trainer Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) as they fear it represents him ‘playing the tradesman’. Overcoming anti-Semitism and class distinction Abrahams wins gold in the 100 metres.
Reagan and Thatcher’s politics may have only been in its infancy in 1981 but Chariots caught the zeitgeist perfectly and perhaps owes much of its success to its associations with the Falklands War and British patriotism at the time. Hudson’s next major feature Revolution starring Al Pacino was nowhere near as critically or commercially successful.
A film out recently hoping to follow the Chariots model was Fast Girls, directed by Regan Hill. However, repeating the mantra of the individual does not chime with a 2012 audience. The selfish are vilified rather than glorified with emphasis in sport, and society, on being a team player. So rather than focus on individual successes Fast Girls makes the clever move of celebrating the team event, the relay. Of course characters still have to overcome hurdles (some literally) in order to succeed, pushy parents and class differences, but they must all pull together for the good of the team in order to succeed. It’s all very big society. The coach conforms to this perfectly; Brian (Philip Davis) volunteers to help give young sprint star Shania (Lenora Crichlow) a head-start and then steps aside once she exceeds his expertise. His actions are the opposite of selfish. Compared with Sam Mussabini, who in the climatic scenes talks of wanting to have trained a winner, Brian is the patron saint of the church of Cameron.
As Olympic zeal grips the country it will be interesting to see which of these two films sets the box-office pace: the out-of-place classic or modern film full of mixed-race women (unfortunately a noteworthy feature in multiplexes) that realises the current political ideals? Either way, Fast Girls director Regan Hill may soon be answering calls from no.10 as once again a sports film has captured the politics of the time.