CHARIOTS OF FIRE, the sleeper hit of 1981, picked up speed and sprinted towards the finish line in the final laps of awards season. Bolstered by its hit soundtrack, the film emerged victorious, surprisingly winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Based on a true story, Ben Cross and Ian Charleson star as two runners competing in the 1924 Paris Olympics. The film is vedy British and more a study of the country’s class system, which keeps the audience at a stride’s length.
Today, the film is still remembered for its Oscar-winning score by Greek composer Vangelis. Composed entirely for piano-based synthesizer, the hypnotic main title theme propelled the album to the top of the charts, where it remained for four weeks.
Early on, the filmmakers decided that the score would be used as counterpoint to the Gilbert & Sullivan and other British music that served as source cues. “I wanted somebody with whom I could work in a workshop,” director Hugh Hudson said. Bringing in Vangelis early in the process was a crucial one. Instead of a sixty-piece orchestra, Vangelis, as composer, arranger, and performer, had the luxury of changing and adapting the music to fit the moods of the film.
Some of the composer’s earlier music was used as temp tracks while the film was being edited. Producer David Puttnam wanted to keep the temp track used for the main title and Vangelis would compose the rest of the score. However, when Vangelis’ pulsating new theme was combined with the images of the runners on the beach, there was no denying the mood it created. The memorable, pulsating main title theme, accompanying the images of the runners on the beach, became one of the most popular film score melodies of the 1980s.
The constraints of the score, and Vangelis’ slight experience as a film composer, can be heard as Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) trains. While the synthesizer beat provides an excellent accompaniment to Abrahams’ steps, the sound editor had to dial the score down so that dialogue could be heard.
Critics and film music fans were (and still are) divided over the merits of the score, with some praising the unique sound while others derided the score’s anachronistic quality. “Perhaps the single most important element which blends totally…is the music,” said Puttnam. And screenwriter Colin Weland confirmed that “forty-percent of the film’s success was the music.”