Hauling Out Chariots of Fire for the Olympics

Nigel Havers (foreground) and Ben Cross in "Chariots of Fire." Image: Warner Brothers
Seek and ye shall find. Wasn’t it an archivist, who said that?

The admonition applied last week at the BFI National Archive. Officials there announced that a routine search for footage had uncovered an all-but-forgotten film Running – A Sport That Creates Both Bodily and Mental Health (1924), which features two of Britain’s most famous Olympic athletes, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. Their lives served as the basis of the Hugh Hudson’s Oscar-winning 1981 film Chariots of Fire.

The rediscovery of the rarely seen documentary film (of which the BFI has placed five minutes online) is timely given the staging later this month of the London Olympic Games. To mark that occasion, Chariots of Fire is to be re-released this month.

In the film, Ian Charleson played Eric Liddell, a devout Christian who would not run on Sundays, and Ben Cross appeared as Harold Abrahams, who was ostracized because he was Jewish. (Also out this month is Fast Girls, a new feature film championing British athletic achievements – in standard, syrupy, class-and-race-conflict fashion, judging by previews: A street-smart runner’s intense rivalry with an equally ambitious wealthy teammate, how ’bout that!)

As for the high-quality Liddell/Abrahams footage, the BFI has held it since 1938. David Puttnam, the producer of Chariots of Fire, along with scriptwriter Colin Welland, viewed it during their research, but the partial online release marks the first time a significant portion of the film has been made available to the general public. It features Harold Abrahams demonstrating the correct and incorrect methods of starting a running race, and honing his distinctive lean-forward running style. Eric Liddell is shown attending a race meeting and running.

The full title of the film is Running – A Sport That Creates Both Bodily and Mental Health (1924): Juvenile Races at a Country Sports Meeting, and scenes from the 1924 Olympics with W.M.Cotterell, Harold Abrahams, E.H. Liddell, D.G. Lowe, H.B.Stallard, G.M.Butler and D.McLeod Wright. John Betts directed the 19-minute film. It was part of the Stoll Film Company’s series “Sporting Life and What Not to Do but How to Do It.”

It has been used in a  ITV 1 documentary The Real Chariots of Fire that will be broadcasted in the United Kingdom this week. The BFI will then make the full film available later this year in its BFI Mediatheques around the UK.

Other Recent BFI News

Wonderful London

The BFI will release six restored short films of 1920s London life on 23 July 2012 as Wonderful London, a film series by Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller.

The films were shown to great acclaim at the 2011 BFI London Film Festival, and now are being released on DVD in a package that includes six other films – in black-and-white prints that the BFI made several years ago. The package also contains new essays by London commentators.

The restored films feature well-known and disappeared images of the city. Parkinson and Miller made them as travelogues on various aspects of city life, for use in cinemas. A BFI press release says: “Aimed at exploiting the popularity of the print magazine of the same name, they were produced on a budget, but told with wit and flair. They particularly liked to highlight the contrasts in the capital, East End and West End, rich and poor, natives and immigrants – often looking beyond the stereotypes to show surprising views of the city.”

The newly-restored films are Barging Through London, London’s Sundays, London’s Free Shows, Cosmopolitan London, Flowers of London, and London Off the Track. They take viewers from Chelsea to Hackney past such familiar landmarks as Buckingham Palace, the River Thames, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, and St Paul’s Cathedral. They reveal nooks and crannies and parts of London rarely filmed, such as poor, over-populated districts. Also visible are the long-gone Crystal Palace and the recently vanished gates of White City, where London’s first Olympic stadium now lies under a shopping centre.

The renowned silent-film pianist John Sweeney recorded new piano accompaniments that are featured on the DVD.

BFI Acquires 400 titles from the Children’s Film Foundation

In mid-June 2012, the BFI acquired the Children’s Film Foundation (CFF) collection of around 400 British short films, features, and serials that were produced for young audiences from the 1950s to the 1980s. The owner of the Odeon and Rank cinema chains set up the CFF as a non-profit pan-industry initiative in 1951, with the aim of making home-grown entertainment that young cinemagoers could see at the “Saturday morning pictures.”

The foundation famously encouraged young directors and actors. Michael Powell, Lewis Gilbert, Alberto Cavalcanti, and John Krish all worked for it, while many future leading film and television actors made their start in CFF films, including Francesca Annis, Michael Crawford, Susan George, Richard O’Sullivan, Dennis Waterman, Keith Chegwin, Gary Kemp, Leslie Ash, Phil Collins, Sadie Frost, and Matthew Wright.

The films featured adventure, mystery, monsters, science-fiction, shipwrecks, races, and animals, with strong regional content, from Scotland to the South West of England.

The films are now preserved in the BFI National Archive. They are available for TV, footage, and stills sales. Some of the films will be screened at BFI Southbank and released on BFI DVD over the next few years. The first DVD release, on 23 July 2012, is The Children’s Film Foundation Collection: London Tales, containing three London-based adventures; The Salvage Gang (1958), Operation Third Form (1966) and Night Ferry (1976). It features plucky young Londoners foiling villains, gangsters, and conmen, as they are wont to do.

Several films from the collection can already be watched for free in BFI Mediatheques, with more to come.

Categories: Shorts

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