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'Fire' Starter

The little English picture that could, Chariots of Fire ignited America Sept. 26, 1981.

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Who knew that those runners on the beach could hoof it all the way to Hollywood? Like the real-life Olympic sprinters it portrayed, Chariots of Fire burst out of the starting blocks when it opened on Sept. 26, 1981, and never looked back.

Depicting the athletic and religious trials of two British track stars at the 1924 Olympics — Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a Christian missionary who wouldn’t run on Sunday, and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Jew who sought to rebuke anti-Semitism with his accomplishments — the movie was conceived by Midnight Express producer David Puttnam, who reportedly was inspired by a book on Olympic history he found in a rented home. After hiring Hugh Hudson, an industrial-film director, Puttnam found an executive producer in Dodi Fayed, later the ill-fated paramour of Princess Diana.

Upon its release, the $6 million film got exalted reviews after its premiere at the New York Film Festival. Newsweek called it a ”superb work”; the Washington Post, ”an undeniable rouser.” Despite — or because of — its label as a highbrow sports film, art-house and mainstream audiences responded with equal enthusiasm.

Still, Chariots was regarded as a long shot at the Academy Awards ceremony five months later — seemingly a two-horse race for Best Picture between On Golden Pond and Reds. There was no denying Chariots’ stiff-upper-lip heroism and popular Vangelis score (which won the film its first of four Oscars): It ended the night as the first English production since 1968’s Oliver! to nab the big prize. It also helped launch the ’80s Brit-film invasion (to wit, Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero and Merchant Ivory’s A Room With a View).

”People talk nowadays about the English films that have done well, making a fortune for low investment, yet Chariots made a huge breakthrough,” says Hudson. ”It really was a blessed, charmed production.”

Though it earned over $60 million in the U.S., the film’s real validation may have come when its theme, ”Chariots of Fire — Titles,” hit the top 10 on Billboard’s pop chart in 1982, staying there for two months. Vangelis’ music even sparked an electronic-score surge (like Giorgio Moroder’s for Scarface), as well as parodies (see the race to Walley World in National Lampoon’s Vacation).

But it was Chariots’ amazing sprint to the finish line at the Oscars that rings through the years. Let future front-runners take note: The race ain’t over till it’s over.

Time capsule: Sept. 26, 1981

At the movies, Faye Dunaway stars in the cult classic Mommie Dearest, and her over-the-top performance as Joan Crawford introduces the phrase ”No wire hangers!” On TV, The Johnny Carson Anniversary Special, NBC’s salute to the king of late night, tops the ratings. In music, Diana Ross and Lionel Richie coo ”Endless Love.” In bookstores, John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire replaces Stephen King’s Cujo as the No. 1 fiction best-seller. And in the news, Sandra Day O’Connor takes her post as the Supreme Court’s first woman justice.