Chariots of Fire

Vangelis' Music And a Joy of Running

JULY 10, 2024 | LITOCHORO | 7 MIN

Chariots of Fire

N 40°06'24.5"
E 22°29'41.1"

In 1982, the Academy Award for Best Original Music went to Vangelis Papathanassiou – a famous Greek composer, one of the greatest creators of film music in history – for the soundtrack to the film Chariots of Fire directed by Hugh Hudson. Everyone knows the title song from this film, it has become part of mass culture, played many times, used on various occasions, paraphrased and reworked many times. But it is probably best known by runners, Vangelis’ composition can be heard during the start of many different running competitions, perhaps even more often during award ceremonies. And it’s hardly surprising, Chariots of Fire is, after all, a movie about running. However, even though everyone knows the music, few people know what this movie is actually about. And it’s worth thinking about it for a moment, if only because of the uniqueness of the title.

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If there is one scene from Hudson’s film that is more popular, it is certainly the opening shots of the run on the beach. Here is a group of young people in slightly archaic, from our point of view, snow-white costumes running along the seashore. The camera slowly shows almost every runner, without highlighting anyone, so we are completely unaware that our main characters are among them. The costumes are archaic, the running technique is also a bit outdated, but the music is the main motif, mostly synthesizer (with piano main theme), cosmic sounds of Vangelis, seemingly incompatible with this distant era. However, what is absolutely universal and understandable is the extraordinary joy and euphoria on the faces of the runners. Hugh Hadson’s work is, above all, a film about the joy of running. But also about the fact that running is not always just about running.

Blade Runner

on Peloponnese
Blade3-new.jpg
That day I wanted to cross the mountains. Not high. Separating the central part of the Peloponnese from the eastern coast. It was in the second week of my journey around the great, mulberry-leaf shaped, Greek peninsula. I had over 1000 km in my legs, countless bays and sea views under my eyelids, the memory of a few Venetian forts and many old towns, located on such steep slopes that some houses grow on the roofs of others. I was constantly reliving the endless serpentine roads and all the shades of sunrises and sunsets that I saw every day. I thought that little could surprise me anymore.

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Olympics in Paris, 1924

The film Chariots of Fire tells the story of two athletes preparing for the 1924 Paris Olympics: Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. Abrahams was an English Jew who tried to overcome the anti-Semitism surrounding him through running. Liddell came from a Scottish family of Presbyterian missionaries, and for him running competed with serving God. They were both sprinters and were supposed to compete over a distance of 100 m. However, Liddell resigned when it turned out that the qualifying rounds for the fastest sprint were to take place on Sunday, and for him it was a day dedicated to God. He finally started in the 400 m and won (see video from 1924). For both of them, running was something more, it meant more, it gave extraordinary joy, which the opening scene of the movie running on the beach perfectly shows.

Chariots of Fire

Chariots of Fire - first clue

But why is the movie called Chariots of Fire?
The explanation is certainly not the person of the music composer, but it is worth mentioning that before Vangelis became an icon of film music, he was the founder and member of the band Aphrodite’s Child, whose most famous work – the album 666 – is entirely based on motifs from the Apocalypse of St. John. This religious element is certainly not without significance here.
The main clue, however, leads to Hubert Perry, who in 1916 composed the hymn And did those feet in ancient time (Jeruzalem), as a kind of solemn, religious and patriotic song, encouraging soldiers on the fronts of the protracted World War I. The song quickly became so popular that it partially serves as the English national anthem. It is sung willingly to this day, always as something more than an ordinary song, always performed and listened to while standing.

William Blake poem's - second clue

However, the words to Perry’s hymn are much older. Their author is one of the greatest poets of the English language (and an extraordinary philosopher and painter), William Blake. Our hymn is actually the introduction to his 1804 poem Milton: A Poem. As is often the case with Blake, the work is full of bold metaphors, sometimes so ambiguous that scholars still disagree on its specific meaning. Generally, however, it is about encouraging action. There is therefore a “bow of burning gold:”, “arrows of desire” and, of course, the titular “chariot of fire”. From our point of view, the last verse is interesting, with the obvious message that only combined mental and physical effort leads to final victory. There were no personal trainers back then, so this thought is expressed in a slightly veiled way:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant Land.

It is worth noting that in religious language “building Jerusalem” means bringing paradise to earth, which, translated into a slightly more human measure, always means achieving the most ambitious goals.

Chariots of Fire by Wiliam Blake

Phaistos Disk

The messenger of the forgotten world
Phaistos Disk
Phaistos Disk is round in shape, approx. 16 cm in diameter and 1.5 to 2.1 cm thick. It is made of clay with spirally arranged signs on both sides. There are exactly 241 of them, including 45 unique ones.

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Prophet Elijah in heaven - third clue

However, it was not William Blake who invented the titular chariots of fire. This bold idea was taken from the Bible. In the second chapter of II Kings of the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah is taken up into heaven. God sends a fiery chariot for him, drawn by fiery horses, of course. In the sixth chapter of the same book, chariots of fire also appear in the plural, so this is not Blake’s poetic license.
It is also worth mentioning that in Greece the Prophet Elijah is one of the most popular saints. Even though the scene of his assumption described in the Bible took place somewhere on the banks of the Jordan River, a huge number of peaks on the Aegean Sea are named after this fiery prophet (e.g. one of the peaks of Olympus or the highest peak of the Taygetos Mountains in the Peloponnese).

Wilam Blake, God Judging Adam

Chariots of Fire - in search of the ultimate meaning

In the most popular interpretation, chariots of fire are identified with extraordinary powers thanks to which we can do impossible things. Another interpretation, however, suggests that great athletes such as Abrahams and Liddell are the chariots of fire thanks to which humanity can rise to the heights of happiness and reach for heaven. Therefore, we have a complete model of “runner’s happiness”: from Hadson’s film we take the delight of a seaside run and the emotion of Vangelis’ music, from Perry’s hymn the value of community and a pinch of pathos, from Blake the ideal symbiosis of soul and body, and from the prophet Elijah the belief that everything it may happen.
And nowwe finally know why ultra runners like the mountains so much: it’s much closer to heaven from there.

As with several of Vangelis’ other film works, the original soundtrack has never been released on disc. The album Chariots of Fire, available since 1981, contains songs specially recorded for this release, enriched in terms of arrangements compared to the film version. Also worth attention is the version released in 2012 under the name Chariots of Fire. The Play. It contains additional songs composed especially for the stage version of Chariots of Fire.

Finally, it is worth noting that the music so loved by runners comes from the most prolific period of Vangelis’s work. The following amazing albums were created in this time (in a duet with Jon Anderson): Short Stories (1980), The Friends of Mr Cairo (1981) and Private Collection (1983), and in 1982 another film masterpiece – Blade Runner.

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