Last November, David Puttnam received a mysterious phone call. It was a tip-off from someone in the White House transition team. “They said: ‘We just thought you’d like to know that he’s referenced it again.’”
Joe Biden first cited Chariots of Fire – the stirring story of Scottish sprinting champion Eric Liddell and Jewish gold medallist Harold Abrahams that producer Puttnam ushered to Oscar glory in 1982 – as his favourite film during the vice presidential race in 2008. “Someone put personal fame and glory behind principles,” he said. “That, to me, is the mark of real heroism.”
Twelve years on, Biden gave a nod to the film in his first address as president-elect. “Now, together, on eagle’s wings,” Biden told the crowd in Delaware, “we embark on the work that God and history have called us to do.” This line, via Isaiah 40, mirrors the climax of Liddell’s sermon in the film: “They that wait upon the Lord … shall mount up with wings as eagles.”
“Victory over the odds is always a great story,” says Stephen Fry, who was an extra in the film when he was “a tall gangly and weird-looking young Englishman” at Cambridge. “Running for office and breasting the finishing tape.”
Biden’s marathon slog to the White House finds parallels in the story of Liddell, who overcame numerous hurdles, many involving his own moral code, to win a gold medal in the 1924 Olympics.
“It gives the lie to a Trumpian view that good guys come last,” says Puttman. “You can actually do the right thing and win.”
“It’s about living up the old Corinthian ideals of sport,” says Nicholas Farrell, who played amiable athlete Aubrey Montague. “Hanging in there for the long run, not just short-term profit, which is obviously going to kill the world. Because it’s a race you actually get to see the heroes who embody those qualities coming in first. And Americans, especially, love a winner.”
This, thinks Nigel Havers, was one of the reasons behind Chariots of Fire’s instant popularity in the US. “As David said in his Oscar speech: this is a fairy story, and you like fairy stories to come true.”
The film’s uncynical take on faith is also felt to be a key draw for many Americans – including Biden. “It tackles religion full-on,” says Havers. “The drama comes from the fact one boy [Liddell, played in the film by Ian Charleson] won’t run on a Sunday.”
Havers’ character, Lord Andrew Lindsay, saves the day after offering to swap his 400m heat – scheduled for a Saturday – with Liddell’s 100m race, which he refuses to compete in as it falls on the Sabbath.
“[Biden is] a deeply devout man,” says the film’s director, Hugh Hudson. “The film is about selflessness and self-sacrifice. These are things he appreciates.”
Fry sounds a note of caution: “Biden might well have admired Eric Liddell’s stance over running on the Sabbath, but that seems unlikely as Biden is a Roman Catholic, and Liddell was from a sect that probably looked on Catholics as the spawn of Satan.”
Hudson was the director of Neil Kinnock’s 1987 party political broadcast, widely reckoned to have cost Biden the presidency that year, after he borrowed phrases from the speech shown in the film without crediting the Labour leader, before dropping out of the race.
Kinnock’s opponent, Margaret Thatcher, was another fan of Chariots of Fire, as was her closest political ally, Ronald Reagan. Puttnam remembers Reagan “going nuts” with excitement at being able to introduce his wife Nancy to the film’s director.
Puttnam enjoyed Wednesday’s inauguration so much he watched it twice, and Hudson also reports being very moved by the spectacle.
For Farrell Chariots of Fire’s “fresh, wide-eyed lack of spin” was reflected in the ceremony.
“There’s something charming and warm and positive about people behaving with dignity and an understanding of history and an awareness that the rest of the world wants America to return to some sense of moral upstanding,” he says. “It could have been a bit shorter, but when you’ve just got rid of this appalling person there’s no harm in taking your time to hand over to the new regime.”
Havers, too, was impressed, particularly by the flags (“as moving as thousands of people”) and Biden’s line about America leading “by the power of our example”. On the latter he says: “Best bit of the whole thing! A cracker.”
Yet he also felt it could be done with a trim. “I thought the speech was too long and I would have rehearsed it a bit more. I could’ve just tweaked a few things for him.
“It was from the heart and he did really well given that he suffers from a stammer – as does Ed Balls, another politician I greatly admire. I always think everything is too long: every film, every play. The wire has to be absolutely stretched all the time. When the wire drops a little bit, it’s really hard to get it back again. I just felt that his speech, it just dropped a few times.”
“Americans can’t resist making things so theatrical,” says Hudson. “But it wasn’t as long as the Oscars, thank God.”
All the men’s presidents: the Chariots of Fire team on their favourite White House leaders
David Puttnam: I met Jimmy Carter long after he left office – a totally lovely guy. I had a sandwich lunch in the Oval Office with Reagan. He couldn’t have been more kind – but it would be wrong to say he was impressive. I found the Clintons quite cold and very self-aware – but when Bill spoke later he was very impressive. I was never surprised (I’m sorry to say) that Hillary lost the election as there seemed to be a real lack of spontaneity or empathy – although having seen her since with her daughter I’m no longer sure that’s fair.
Obama wins by a country mile. He was the whole package – smart, understated, dignified and entirely personable. Oddly, I think he didn’t achieve as much as he might have during his presidency because of the historical significance of being the first black president – I think that above all, he and his wife were determined to set an impeccable “behavioural benchmark” to ensure the possibility of a future candidate of colour. In that way they can be credited with making it possible for Kamala Harris to be a viable VP, and maybe one day president. As I see it that will be his true legacy.
Nicholas Farrell: I’m not really a fan of presidents who approved overt or covert operations against Latin American countries trying to make their way in the world, which discounts quite a few. I recently discovered that among his many other achievements, Roosevelt founded five national parks and 51 bird reserves. That gets a big tick from me. And I like Biden because he hasn’t screwed up yet.
Stephen Fry: For personality, style and breadth of achievement I think perhaps Teddy Roosevelt. The huge front teeth, the flash of the spectacles, his catchphrases – “Bully!” and “Deeelighted”. Flawed of course, but who isn’t? A man who fulfilled the Kipling ideal of filling every unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run …
Hugh Hudson: I like Eisenhower very much. He came at a time when the world was in chaos after the war and we needed a general, a military man. He was very strange and wise.
Nigel Havers: I had great respect for Obama and still do. I was working in America for the first year of his presidency and remember the overwhelming wave of affection for him when he won. He had a hard time and couldn’t get done what he should have because he didn’t control the Senate. He tried his hardest with healthcare. I just thought he was really well-read, intelligent, considered, well-intentioned – and worried. He also writes very well.