Having completed his first draft, screenwriter Colin Welland was unable to conceive a title for the film beyond the somewhat uninteresting "Runners". The inspiration came one Sunday evening when Welland turned on the television to the BBC's religious music series Songs of Praise (1961) - featuring the stirring hymn "Jerusalem" (written by William Blake and set to music by C.H.H. Parry), its chorus including the words "Bring me my chariot of fire"; the writer leapt up to his feet and shouted to his wife Patricia, "I've got it, Pat! 'Chariots of Fire'!"
Ian Charleson himself wrote Eric Liddell's inspiring speech to the post-race workingmen's crowd. Charleson, who had been studying the Bible in preparation for the role, told director Hugh Hudson that he didn't feel the scripted sanctimonious and portentous speech was either authentic or inspiring. Charleson was uncomfortable with performing the words as scripted. It was decided that Charleson himself should write words that he was comfortable speaking. And thus came the most inspiring speech of the movie.
Eric Liddell's 400 meter victory in the 1924 Olympics was an Olympic record of 47.6 and excited the crowd with an unorthodox run. He ran the first 200 meters in 22.2 seconds, considered by track experts to be tactically foolish, considering it was only 0.3 seconds slower than his 200 personal record, but he actually increased his lead in the second half beating the competition by nearly a second.
Extras in the Olympic crowd scenes were told to wear dark colours so they would not stand out. Extras who managed to wear actual Edwardian clothes were paid 20 pounds while those in normal dress were paid 10.
The Church service shown at the very beginning and end of the film is based on the actual funeral service of Harold Abrahams, who (as only hinted at in the movie) converted to Christianity later in his life.
David Puttnam arranged a screening of the film for Eric Liddles widow. Afterwards she said she loved the film - and that it fully captured her husbands character. However, she felt that the only thing they got wrong was that her husband was a much more graceful runner that was shown. Puttnam was astonished - he said the only thing they really knew about Liddle when making the film was his running style (from newsreel films of the era). The one thing he was fully confident that they had gotten right was the only thing Mrs. Liddle felt was wrong.
Stephen Fry is in the film, singing in the chorus of the Cambridge 'H.M.S. Pinafore' production. He is the third face to the right of Harold Abrahams, singing "He Is An Englishman". He's on screen for about 35 seconds, starting at around 32:00.
Liddell was born in China, and died in China. His parents were missionaries there, and he returned as a missionary himself. During the Japanese occupation of China, he was taken into the Japanese Weihsien internment Camp, where he died.
Director Hugh Hudson originally wanted Vangelis' 1977 tune "L'Enfant", from his 1979 'Opera Sauvage' album, to be the title theme of the film, and the beach running sequence was actually filmed with "L'Enfant" playing in the background for the runners to listen and pace to. Vangelis, however, finally convinced Hudson he could create a new and better piece for the film's main theme - and when he played the new and now-familiar "Chariots of Fire" theme for Hudson, it was agreed the new tune was unquestionably better. But the "L'Enfant" tune still made it into the film: When the athletes reach Paris and enter the stadium, a brass band marches through the field, and first plays a modified, acoustic performance of "L'Enfant". Vangelis's electronic "L'Enfant" track eventually was used prominently in the film The Year of Living Dangerously (1982).
About six years after the film's release, Trinity College reenacted the quad dash with British Olympic athletes Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe taking part. Nigel Havers agreed to act as starter. At lunch after the event, the Dean confessed it had been a great mistake not to cooperate with the making of the film.
In real life, Lord David Bughley (Lord Lindsay in the Film) was the first man to do the Great Court Run, not Harold Abrahams. This was changed, because David Puttnam was a socialist and did not want to show a Lord winning, and this is one of the reasons that Lord Burghley did not consent to let his name be used in the film.
Although it received a standing ovation when shown in competition at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, this movie was mercilessly savaged by the French critics, because it called the French "the frogs" and "an unprincipled lot." In order to prevent the negative critical response from hurting its international distribution, Roger Ebert lobbied the other American critics in attendance to award it the "American Critics Prize", which they did in a 6-5 vote. This marks the only time in the 60-year history of the festival that this award has been presented.
The film does not mention that Harold Abrahams had earlier competed in the 1920 Olympics but was not very successful: He finished fourth in the 4x100 relay, 20th in the long jump and was eliminated in the quarter-finals of both the 100m and 200m races.
When the marching band enters the stadium at about 1:20 into the film, they are playing a band arrangement of "L'Enfant," one of the tracks from film composer Vangelis' 1979 album 'Opera Sauvage', in the original key.
Nigel Havers' character, Lord Lindsay, was actually based upon Lord Burghley, who refused to cooperate with the filmmakers and would not allow his name to be used in the production. Upon seeing the completed film, however, Lord Burghley told the filmmakers that he regretted his earlier refusal to cooperate with the production.
The lesson that Eric Liddell reads in the church in Paris is from Isaiah 40: 26, 29-31, King James version. It's interspersed with shots from the Games but is basically: "He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."
In real life, the text from the Bible was handed to Eric Liddell by a coach on the US team, not by Jackson Scholz. Colin Welland flew to Florida to obtain Scholz's permission in person for the artistic license.
The real Eric Liddell found out about the 100 meter heat being held on a Sunday several months in advance of the Paris games. The British Olympic team was then able to adjust and fit him into the 400 meter race instead.
Colin Welland was researching Twice in a Lifetime (1985) shortly before the Oscars ceremony. When he entered the bar in the Pennsylvania steel town where he was carrying out the research, the regulars would call, "Watch your wallets, the British are coming!" This partly inspired Colin Welland's remarks at the end of his Academy Award acceptance speech.
When the athletes are running off the beach (in reality West Sands at St Andrews in Scotland) they run towards a large red building clearly marked as a hotel. This is in fact Hamilton hall of residence, a student accommodation hall belonging to the University. The white picket fence that they jump borders the 1st and 18th holes of the Old course, famed for many a British Golf Open.
The scene in which Harold Abrahams first sees Sybil Gordon, singing as Yum-Yum in "The Mikado", is based on either a mistake of fact or a deliberate alteration to make the story more romantic. In real life, the name of Abrahams' bride was Sybil Evers. Evers was a member of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, but while Sybil Gordon was its principal soprano, Sybil Evers was a minor soprano, who sang the role of Peep-Bo The Mikado, not the lead role Yum-Yum as it appears in the movie. Moreover, she only appeared with the D'Oyly Carte company for one season, 1930-31. Evers and Abrahams did not meet until 1934, 10 years after Abrahams' Olympic victory. They were married in 1936. (In real life, while he was a Cambridge student, Abrahams was engaged to a young woman, Christina McLeod Innes, but they broke up when he decided to devote himself full time to athletics and the Olympics.)
The scene in which Abrahams runs around the quad, was actually based on 1928 Olympic Gold medalist in the 400 meters, David Burghley who had ran around the great court at Trinity College in the time it took the clock to strike 12. Technically, Burghley was the second person to accomplish that feat, as someone had done it before in the 1890s, but then again it took 5 seconds longer back then for the clock to complete its toll.
Parts of the movie were filmed over several days at Goldenacre in Edinburgh. Each morning, TV aerials had to be taken down for historical realism, then re-erected in the evening after shooting ceased. Inevitably, an overrun led to some friction with residents.
Scenes of Eric Liddel courting a Canadian woman in Paris where cut out of the film. She can be seen in the church audience when Liddel is preaching and sitting next to Sandy McGrath during the final race. She is presumably a surrogate for Eric Liddel's real life wife Florence Mackenzie, who was from Canada. She and Liddel actually met years after the 1924 Olympics.
Although Harold Abrahams tells Sybil about his physician-brother, the film doesn't mention that he had another older brother (Sidney "Solly" Abrahams) who had competed in the 1912 Olympics as a long jumper, but did not win a medal.
In the scene where Harold Abrahams's coach is showing him Charles Paddock winning gold in the 1920 Olympics and why Jackson Scholz only got silver, the coach had it wrong. Scholz only came fourth and was not successful in winning silver. He did however win silver in 1924 at the Paris games.
Kenneth Branagh was a "gofer" for the shoot, and is also in one scene as an extra. He is a Cambridge student in the "Society Day" crowds, wearing a grey knit vest with dark trim, a white shirt, and a dark tie. He's on screen for 20 seconds, starting at about 11:00.
Lord Lindsay's character was actually based on an athlete, Lord David George Brownlow Cecil Burghley, who first competed in the 1924 Paris games without winning any medals, but he did win the 400 meter hurdles in the 1928 Amsterdam games.
Producer David Puttnam was looking for a story in the mold of A Man for All Seasons (1966), regarding someone who follows their conscience; he felt sports provided clear situations in this sense, and happened upon the story by accident while thumbing through an Olympic reference book in a rented house in Los Angeles. Screenwriter Colin Welland took out advertisements in London newspapers seeking memories of the 1924 Olympics. Many athletes were still living, and Aubrey Montague's son sent him copies of the letters his father had sent home - which gave Welland something to use as a narrative bridge in the film.
The character Tom Watson in the film was in real life Arthur Porritt, future Governor-General of New Zealand and father of the environmentalist Jonathan Porritt. Indeed, two years after the Olympics, Porritt became Surgeon to the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII, aka Duke of Windsor), who meets Watson twice in the film, and subsequently to his brother George VI after Edward abdicated - performing lung surgery on the King following his diagnosis with cancer, his failing health attributed to the strains of unexpected kingship as well as his heavy smoking. The character of Andrew Lindsay was loosely based on Lord Burghley. Both men refused permission for their real names to be used, but confessed to regretting their decision after the film was successful.
In the scene of Abrahams and Aubrey in the chapel at King's College Cambridge, the choir is singing the Miserere by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652). This is the piece that was only allowed to be sung in the Sistine Chapel until Mozart famously wrote it out from memory at the age of 14.