To single out the editing in the film Chariots of Fire is, of course, to fly past the two or three most famous and memorable aspects of it. That’s not to say that the editing is underappreciated or unremarkable. One of the film’s seven Oscar nominations went to Terry Rawlings, the celebrated British editor who died last month at 85. However, the Best Picture winner for 1981 fell short in that category, with the Oscar going to Michael Kahn for editing Raiders of the Lost Ark (the better film in every respect, it must be said). Far more than any cut or dissolve, what endures in the cultural memory from this movie is one particular shot and the Oscar-winning theme music by Greek composer Vangelis. Borrowing from Jean Vigo and Leni Riefenstahl, director Hugh Hudson used slow motion cinematography to glean balletic rapture from the physical exertion of sports. With the opening scene of British runners training on a beach, Hudson and Rawlings clearly knew what they had, repeating it at the end of the film as a curtain call for stars Ben Cross and Ian Charleson as well as…the other guys. But even this iconic moment, that’s seemingly all about location, shot selection and score, with the camera sidling from one actor’s face to another’s in a single take, even this relies on editing for its full impact. The scene arrives as a flashback by way of a dissolve that carries a character’s speech back in time with it, the words “and wings on our heels” coinciding with the coalescing shot of bare feet splashing.
My interest in discussing the editing of Chariots of Fire has at least as much to do with genuine appreciation for Rawlings’s work as it does with wanting to say something relatively new about a 38-year-old movie. There’s some trepidation each time I revisit this film, a suspicion that it’s a “classic” in the broadest middlebrow sense — a handsome but stuffy exercise in bland uplift. But the editing keeps the movie humming, even at a robust two hours. Structured as a flashback within a flashback (from the 1978 funeral for Harold Abrahams [Ben Cross], to the 1924 Olympic Games, to Cambridge in 1919 and, eventually, all the way back again), the movie maintains a firm grip on the mostly separate storylines of its two main characters, never staying away from one or the other for too long. The journeys of Abrahams and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) to winning gold medals in 1924 follow parallel tracks, dovetailing over questions of identity and conviction. The potential for a rivalry between the two men is thwarted by circumstances, giving the movie a clear path to celebrating each man’s triumph in turn.
After “wings on our heels,” there are other instances of verbal linkages between scenes. These range from the inspired (such as a transition from a parlor to an informal race track, Liddell’s father exhorting him to “run in God’s name, and let the world stand back in wonder,” with the cut happening at the comma of that sentence, and the word “wonder” followed quickly by the starting gun) to the hackneyed (John Gielgud’s fusty college master praising Abrahams by saying, “I doubt if there’s a swifter man in the kingdom,” with a cut mid-sentence to the Scottish highlands where we first see Liddell, a slightly swifter man). Regardless, it’s a propulsive technique, pulling the story forward. Rawlings also employs the opposite effect after Abrahams and Liddell race against each other for the only time in the movie. Abrahams’s struggle to prove himself has come up short, tossing him into a personal crisis. He sits alone in the stands, replaying the race in his head (in slow motion, of course) over and over.
This sequence is followed by what has become a standby of sports movies, the training montage. Abrahams, having enlisted the aid of a personal coach (Sam Mussabini, played by Ian Holm), engages in various amusing exercises to shave some time off his sprints. These shots are intercut with scenes of Liddell likewise training — a curious feint because, again, the two do not end up as rivals and Liddell doesn’t seem to be in need of improvement. The needs of the story notwithstanding, it’s satisfying to see matching shots of men running next to motor vehicles, the occupants of which cheer them on. Additionally, the montage acts as a transition from Abrahams’s story back to Liddell, whose sister disapproves of his devotion to running when the mission field is his true vocation. Rather than winning, what Liddell tries to accomplish throughout the film is finding harmony between the commitments of his faith and the joy he derives from his sport. This he does, most famously by giving up on a possible Olympic medal because the qualifying heats take place on Sunday, but also in the sequence following that scene, in which Liddell recites Isaiah 40 in church (concerning the “vanity” of worldly achievements and the eternal bulwark of faith in God) while the film cuts between him and the travails of his countrymen on the track. Still, although he has his priorities straight, he always gives the utmost effort to win and cheers on Abrahams when his great victory finally comes.
As a Jewish man, Abrahams faces bigotry ranging from microaggressions to outright slander, and his drive to win has everything to do with upending the hateful assumptions of those with power over him. When he wins a gold medal in the 100-meter race (the same event that Liddell forfeited), the film repeats the editing technique from an hour previous, this time as a way of savoring the win rather than agonizing over a loss. His coach, Mussabini, himself a target of ethnic discrimination, observes the raising of the British flag from afar. Here at the birth of modern sport, with its oft-stated aim of unifying humanity, the film suggests that such a utopian outcome might actually be possible.
One would hope that a film about running would play out at an exciting pace, so it can be argued that Terry Rawlings, no matter how clever some of his transitions may be, was only doing the bare minimum here. However, one measure of the success of a sports movie is in how much enthusiasm it can drum up for a sport in which the viewer might have no natural interest. It’s easy for me to take some of these simpler sports for granted. Chariots of Fire succeeds in capturing the excitement of a simple race, particularly in the early “college dash” scene. If the camera accurately maps out the stakes, and the editing translates the thrill of the event into cinematic terms, any physical challenge can be made captivating. Rendering a race in slow motion has since been parodied to death, but returning to the source remains a satisfying experience.