Chariots of Fire

Wings On Our Heels

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.

Chariots of Fire soundtrackl
“Eric’s Theme”

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.”

  1. Excellent theme for sure but Raiders of the Lost Ark should have won the Academy Award for score AND film.

    1. You do love your RAIDERS, don’t you, Erik? LOL Great score and film, to be sure. My choices would have been REDS for Picture and RAGTIME for Score. But I wouldn’t have balked at Spielberg and Williams.

  2. Yeah, I’m biased when it comes down to Raiders being my all time favorite movie and film score. Reds was indeed a good picture but unfortunately I haven’t heard Ragtime. I must remedy that.

    1. Yes, do remedy that. RAGTIME isn’t as layered as RAIDERS, but it’s entirely appropriate for the picture (flawed though that picture is) and has some wonderful melodies.

  3. “Composed entirely for piano-based synthesizer…” Actually, almost entirely. Vangelis is also a percussionist, as is demonstrated in the use of actual cymbals, bells, etc.

    1. Were they actual percussion instruments or percussion-like sounds made from the synthesizer? Either way, you have a good point. Thanks for pointing that out.

    1. I never doubted his percussion abilities. Was just curious about whether or not it was real percussion on the soundtrack. But even more embarrassing than my not knowing whether or not Vangelis played percussion, is misspelling “heels,” which I have now corrected. Doh! Some days I just can’t win. :)

  4. To the trained ear, all of Vangelis’ percussion sounds real. I own all his albums except 2 of the most obscure ones. Tomita worked with synth percussion at around the same time. So did Wendy Carlos. There is a noticeable difference between real cymbals especially and synths made to sound like cymbals. The cymbals in “Chariots of Fire” sound real. If you were Vangelis, would you rather use the cymbals in your own studio or the embarrassing synth equivalent of 1981? ;-) By the way, the piano in the track is also real. Vangelis owned a Bösendorfer at the time.

    1. Ya learn something new every day. Fascinating to learn more about this composer that I know very little about, so thanks for your comments. :)

  5. Though I generally like this score especially the main theme, I think Vangelis’ 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE is far grander and greater work.
    The main theme is gorgeous but one that really grabs me has always been the driving and dark Hispañola.

    Menkin’s ALADDIN won that year beating out Goldsmith’s BASIC INSTINCT, Isham’s, A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, the always underrated Richard Robbins’ HOWARDS END, and Barry’s CHAPLIN. Though ALADDIN held little interest for me it was still a fine year for score nominations but it really is a shame that – at least in my book – the best wasn’t even on the list

    1. I haven’t heard 1492 in YEARS! I really should dig it out. I remember when it came out that I thought Vangelis had taken huge steps forward in his film music. Nothing was going to beat CHARIOTS OF FIRE in 1981, and nothing was going to beat ALADDIN either. Menken was uber-popular, so was the movie. And, as good as the other scores are, I still think ALADDIN was the proper choice and showed, again, big steps forward in Menken’s film writing. Perhaps if 1492 hadn’t been such a bomb, Vangelis would have stood a better chance. Then again, if I remember correctly, that synth style of writing and his time had passed by 1992. But correct me if I’m wrong.

  6. It was a bomb Jim but in my perhaps – in my not so humble opinion – not because of a lack of quality but because the subject carried so much baggage.

    I actually am a fan not only of the score but the film and am hoping that one day R. Scott, like he’s done with the KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, will give us a definitive four hour version.

    Now I know that there are a few who thought 1492 was already too long so I suppose that would a slow death.

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