‘What the film says is that you can hold on to your principles, and still emerge a winner’
David Puttnam recalls series of accidents that helped make Chariots of Fire a classic
David Puttnam: “I think it speaks to people’s inner sense of what they want themselves to be.”’ Photograph: Justin Walpole.
If you ever get to tell David Puttnam he has to sit down tonight and watch one of his own films, his first choice would be Local Hero, the Scottish drama-comedy he produced in 1983, with Burt Lancaster playing the eccentric head of a Texas oil company intent of buying up the entire west coastal village of Ferness to facilitate a new refinery.
This surprises me slightly, not because it isn’t a wonderful film, and I only later discover the making of it ultimately influenced his decision in 1988 to purchase an old farmhouse in west Cork, just down the river from Skibbereen, originally as a summer bolt-hole before making it his home solidly for the last 13 years,
Puttnam’s work in education and technology making him a sort of local hero in his own right.
His second choice would probably be The Killing Fields, which he produced in 1984, based on the true experiences of New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg and his interpreter Dith Pran during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, in part because Puttnam tells me the odds against pulling that film off, “when we did and where we did” were just incredible.
It also contributed handsomely to the list of awards won by his films that include 10 Oscars, 13 Golden Globes, 31 Baftas, nine Emmys and one Palme D’Or, some of which are displayed around that west Cork home he shares with Patsy, his wife of 60 years, and where earlier this year they celebrated his 80th birthing with a long walk down the River Ilen, both completing their Irish citizenship in 2019.
His third choice, admittedly a close call, would be Chariots of Fire, which got its first theatrical release in May 1981, went on to receive seven Oscar nominations and win four, including the Best Picture award which goes to Puttnam as the film’s producer, and four decades on remains among the most heroic of all sporting films.
It’s also the chief purpose of this interview, which upon request Puttnam suggests would be best conducted via a Zoom call from inside his small home cinema, to allow for a more engaging conversation which begins with the comparative state of our lockdown hair and soon touches on some of the lasting themes of success in sport and in life.
Orson Welles always said every great film is a product of a series of successful accidents, and over the course of the next hour it becomes clear that Chariots of Fire is one of those films that may never have come into being, at least not in the form that did, were it not for a series of such events.
It had also being developing in Puttnam’s head for many years in advance, possibly as early as age seven, when he got to attend the 1948 London Olympics with his father Len, an army lieutenant who served as a photographer during the second World War, documenting amongst others the Dunkirk evacuation, then employed by Associated Press to capture images of the finest athletes of those Games such as Fanny Blankers-Koen and Emil Zatopek.
“I was always very keen on athletics, was never any good at running, but always loved the sport,” he says. “And my dad being responsible for all the photography at the 1948 Olympics, in London, taking me along at age seven, I think that’s really what first sparked it all.
“Even as a kid, I would play my own Olympics, using Subbuteo, found ways of doing all the events. I was also a serious tennis player, or thought I was, until I got to Junior Wimbledon and got destroyed in the first round.
“It started too from seeing [Robert Bolt’s] A Man for All Seasons, a number of years earlier. That really moved me, the idea of someone refusing to do something, despite the fact that by refusing to do it was going to cost them their life, that struck me as a very extraordinary thing to do.
“So the whole idea of sacrifice always interested me a lot, not in religious terms so much, but in human terms. So that theme was going on in my head, and A Man for All Seasons was the quintessence of it all.
“Another influence would have been Kon Ichikawa’s [1964 documentary] Tokyo Olympiad, which was immensely important, where the whole idea of slow motion running came from. By then I had also just made Midnight Express, which was a big hit, had also done several rock ‘n’ roll films, and even though I was doing quite well, it wasn’t really the kind of film I wanted to do, not why I left advertising, and that threw me into a slight quandary.”
That also being the early summer of 1978, when Puttnam was living in a rented house in Los Angeles, and housebound with the flu, he was searching the bookshelves for something to read when he hit on the first successful accident.
“The guy who owned the house was a yachting freak, nearly all the books were about yachting, and in there I found this Approved History of the Olympic Games, up to 1948, by Bill Henry. I get to Paris, 1924, and in this one short paragraph I read about this dark horse called Eric Liddell, who was the favourite to win the 100m, had to scratch because the heats were on a Sunday, then surprised everybody to win the 400m.
“It may sound a stretch here, but to me it had an echo of A Man for All Seasons. So I wanted to learn more about it, wrote to the AAA, and they sent me all their scrapbooks, from 1923 to 1924. I mean today, they wouldn’t let them leave the archives. Because I was a sports fan, I admired the writing in The Observer of Colin Welland, approached him, we raised some money, and he wrote the first treatment.
“That was just called 1924 Runners, Chariots of Fire came much later (inspired by the line “Bring me my chariot of fire!” from the William Blake poem, adapted into the British hymn Jerusalem, heard at the end of the film when it returns to the Harold Abrahams funeral service). From there I paid for a screenplay and peddled it around with very little success, in fact first tried to sell it to television. If they had said yes, it would have been a TV film. And if you were trying to make Chariots of Fire today it would unquestionably be made for Netflix. ”
Indeed financing hadn’t been straightforward, the $6 million budget eventually split between 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Allied Stars Ltd, the production company set up by Egyptian businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed and run by his son Dodi, who in 1997 died in the Paris car crash along with Diana, Princess of Wales.
“Even after we managed to get the money together, part of the Fox contract was for two US marquee actors, but we couldn’t have them playing Liddell and Abrahams, because we couldn’t afford them, the budget was finite.
“Instead we got Brad Davis, who had starred in Midnight Express, and Denis Christopher, who had just starred in Breaking Away, the great cycling film, they agreed to come over for scale, their expenses, and play Jackson Scholz and Charley Paddock (who Abrahams beat to win the 100m), and they were sufficiently marquee names for Fox, so I won that battle.
“The big decision was whether we went for actors who could run, or runners who could act. And we very quickly decided we needed actors who could run, which made for this very extraordinary audition, in Hyde Park, with Tom McNab, the British athletics coach, watching some very good actors who were running all over the shop, and thank God Ian Charleson (who played Liddell) and Ben Cross (who played Abrahams) could run, then went off and trained for another two months.
“The other big nightmare was the Paris Olympics, because we needed around 7,000 extras, and we didn’t have the money to pay 7,000 extras. And we had only one day to shoot, a Bank Holiday Monday, up at the Bebington Oval, in Wirral, in Merseyside.
I’m not a religious man, but if Eric Liddell wanted a film made, he certainly helped along the way
“So I bought a car and a motorbike, advertised the fact they would be raffled on the day, one at lunchtime, the other at the end of the day, and anyone who turned up at 9.30am would get a ticket. Around 9.0 there was only a dribble of people, then we looked down towards Wirral train station and there was a long black line of people, in that last half hour 6,800 people turned up.
“We got lucky like that throughout. Even the first shoot, running down the West Sands at St Andrews, was shot on a beautiful day, until I got a call at midnight to say the film had been scratched, that sand had got into the camera. That’s not the end of the world, because you’re insured against things like that, so went back and shot it again the next day, the sea was rough, white horses on the shore, and it makes for a much more dramatic scene, the wind whipping their hair.
“I could go on like that. It’s a terrifying phrase, divine intervention, and I’m not a religious man, but if Eric Liddell wanted a film made, he certainly helped along the way. Time after time, for every crisis, we found a resolution.”
There was one last intervention reserved until the end: Puttnam and director Hugh Hudson had already selected a soundtrack composed of pieces of music by Vangelis, mainly off his 1979 album Opera Sauvage, including the track L’Enfant for the opening and closing titles.
For Vangelis, whose father had run for Greece in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and who had died a short while earlier, there was a nagging feeling he could do better, write a more personal piece of music, only by the time he reached Puttnam it was apparently too late.
“I was sitting in a restaurant in London, and Vangelis actually arrived outside, brings me out to sit in the back of his Rolls Royce, and plays me the cassette of the Chariots of Fire theme, and I knew straightaway, the hairs on the back of my next stood up.
“The problem was we’d already mixed the film, it was practically all finished, except for the front and end titles, because that’s the very last thing you do. So we laid this new piece of music over the front and end titles, the only time that theme music actually appears, and that lifted it again.
“That was also a very calculated decision, we had to make sure the film also had a contemporary feel, which is why we opened and closed at the memorial of 1978, and I’ve often asked my students what would have happened had that opening scene being shot to a palm court orchestra music of the 1920s, people would have started laughing.”
Which is also why four decades on the film still holds up, still holding on to so many admirers including Joe Biden, who would again give Chariots of Fire a gentle nod as his favourite film in his first address as president-elect: for Puttnam – knighted in 1995, made a Life Peer in 1997 – those reasons are perhaps many, an overtly British film with a universal audience.
“I think it speaks to people’s inner sense of what they want themselves to be. Someone asked me only the other day would I have made Chariots Of Fire had Eric Liddell come second, and I said no, of course not. Because what the film says is that you can hold on to your principles, and still emerge a winner. It gives a lie to the Trumpian version of the world, that good guys come last.
“It also says things, quick subtly, about race and prejudice, with Abrahams getting the last laugh over the establishment, and Liddell too when he says to the Prince of Wales that what’s wrong here is you’re asking a man to argue with his own conscience.”
Puttnam suggests other themes from the film bring it up to date, specifically around the global pandemic: he quotes the scene where the Alice Krige character, Abrahams’ fiancée, scolds him for his self-pity and lasting angst.
“Maybe that says something to today’s generation, who are encouraged to feel sorry for themselves. That was a generation that had to put their shoes back on. There is a dichotomy, I know, because I’m 80, but I’m also a war child. I didn’t meet my dad until I was five, because he was away at war with the army. I think I carry erased memory of a form of a sacrifice, that today’s generations struggle to even begin to comprehend.
For me one of the greatest movies is Raging Bull, maybe the film I’d have most liked to have produced
“I know how terrible lockdown has been for a lot of people, really dreadful. My mum brought up two kids with bombs falling on our head. Literally, I was a blitz baby, my sister and I woke up every morning in a cage, which was under an air-raid shelter. I only have one or two memories of that, but what my mother went through, she had a nervous breakdown in the ’50s, and what thousands of women went through from 1939 to 1945, not knowing would they see their husbands again.
“So, while it’s been tough on people, I don’t know if what we’re losing is erased memory of how tough tough-tough is. I know that makes me feel very, very old, when I say it, but it’s the truth, I think it’s the truth. What Chariots does in a very gentle way, without being a superhero film, without indulging on that, it says you know you can stand up, and yes you can win.”
Despite, or perhaps because of the pandemic he also reckons the lure of a good sporting story will always remain, even with it seems increasing negativity around the Olympics.
“We live just down the river from Skibbereen Rowing Club, see the boys and girls out there every morning, and that’s a proper amateur sport, I see what goes into it, summer and winter. And that to me is still the amazing purity of sport, why you can’t write off the Olympics, because every four years there are absolutely heroic stories. And the Paralympics too, which in a sense are even more heroic
And if Puttnam was told he could make another sports film now, what might that be? “For me one of the greatest movies is Raging Bull, maybe the film I’d have most liked to have produced. Like Chariots, which isn’t really about running, Raging Bull is not really about boxing. It’s about people, motivation, the context within you do what you do.
“It was made a year before Chariots, and I remember going to a preview, coming out and thinking ‘f***, I’ve got to start all over again’. It was so good, made me feel like everything I’d done up to that point was pure amateur. I was already well into making Chariots, but it made me want to make it a lot better.
“I think if I was making another sports film today it would also be about the ‘who’, not the what, how unlikely it all was. Jackie Robinson was another one of my personal heroes, probably one of the most gifted single sportsmen ever, with that he achieved in baseball, and in the end what it put him through killed him.
“I’m surprised too there hasn’t been a really great film about Jesse Owens. It’s a very fertile area. I wish you hadn’t asked the question, because you got my head in a spin here.”