The sleeper hit of 1981, Chariots of Fire picked up speed 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. More a study of the British class system, the film is vedy British, keeping the audience at a stride’s length.
What did emerge from the film was Vangelis’ popular score. 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 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.
Earlier Vangelis 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 1980’s. The “Five Circles” theme for the Olympics has a hint of sadness. A slow and pensive theme, coupled in groups of two notes, is heard memorably as Abrahams (Cross) quietly and methodically prepares for his race.
Eric’s theme is more rousing, with a hint of religiosity to it, benefitting a character who runs for God’s pleasure. In one memorable sequence, the cinematographer lights up the middle lane on the track and the music provides atmosphere rather than melody, bringing the runner’s focus into view both visually and musically.
The constraints of the score, and Vangelis’ slight experience as a film composer, can be heard as Abrahams trains. While the synthesizer beat provide an excellent accompaniment to Harold’s steps, the score relied on the sound editor to “dip” it 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. Variety praised the music as “richly orchestrated with uplifting cadences [that] suits the action with a lingering quality.” On the other end of the spectrum, Page Cook in Films In Review called it “trendy, but trashy.”
“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.” Whatever the opinion, Chariots of Fire catapulted Vangelis into the limelight.