The Crown’s fifth season picks up with events that some viewers may remember from the plethora of tabloid coverage surrounding the royal family in the 1990s. While obviously footage of Queen Elizabeth’s (Imelda Staunton) reign in the earlier seasons is somewhat limited, the lifetime of Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) has been poured over by countless retrospectives and documentaries, including this year’s Sundance hit The Princess. The season primarily focuses on Diana after her separation from Prince Charles (Dominic West), and her first time crossing paths with her eventual partner Dodi Al-Fayed (Khalid Abdalla). Unlike the royal family, Al-Fayed was a friend of Hollywood, and was even involved in the production of one of the most famous British films in history.
Dodi’s father, Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw), was born in Egypt and became an advisor to the Sultan of Brunei in 1966. After his move to England in the 1970s, Al-Fayed became very wealthy thanks to his position on the board of the mining conglomerate Lonrho. Al-Fayed’s subsequent business ventures included the Fulham football club, the House of Fraser department store, the luxury department chain Harrods, and several Hollywood projects. After being approached with the script for Chariots of Fire, Al-Fayed chose to fund the project.
What Is ‘Chariots of Fire’ About?
Chariots of Fire is a monumental achievement in film history. The 1981 biographical movie tells the true story of the British Olympic champions Eric Liddell (Ben Cross) and Harold Abrahams (Ian Charleson), who represented their country in the 1924 Olympic Games. Even though Eric was a devout Catholic and Harold was Jewish, they overcame prejudice to take home gold medals. The film is considered a classic within the sports genre and is best known for its Academy Award-winning score by Vangelis. It took home the Academy Award for Best Picture, alongside other trophies, and beat out popular contenders like Reds and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It has been listed on the British Film Institute’s all-time list and was adapted as a stage play in 2012.
The Al-Fayeds’ Involvement With ‘Chariots of Fire’
Producer David Puttnam had been inspired by his father, Len, to create a film about the Olympic Games. Puttnam happened to attend Eltham College at the same time as the Al-Fayed family’s lawyer. According to Puttnam, “so enthusiastic was the lawyer about the project that it all got nasty at one stage because Al-Fayed began to suspect, and quite wrongly, that there was some sort of malpractice afoot.” The script from Colin Welland had been considered a “non-starter” by Hollywood studios and had languished in development hell for years. Due to the lack of action and romance, it was considered to not be commercially viable.
Al-Fayed dealt with the stress of a very chaotic production. Filming had to be suspended when several actors reported injuries, and filling an audience of 7,000 for the sequences at the actual games proved to be challenging. Cross and Charleson reportedly had conflicts on set, which made their friendship hard to capture on screen. The expensive production also included several international trips to film in Scotland and Paris. First-time director Hugh Hudson was under pressure to maintain the upbeat nature of the film when the set was seemingly cursed.
Although Al-Fayed considered the project to be a doomed venture, he saw it as an opportunity to prop up his son. At the time, Dodi was a playboy known for his erratic behavior. Al-Fayed saw giving his son control over the production company Allied Stars as an opportunity to expand his business knowledge. Puttnam remarked in 2012 that the “idea of him being an executive producer was always going to be hopeless because he had the attention span of the average flea.” According to Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles, Puttnam reportedly had to forcibly remove Dodi from the set when he discovered that he had brought cocaine and shared it with many cast members.
‘Chariots of Fire’s Reception and Legacy
While the initial reactions to the film’s premiere in London were tepid, it went on to receive rapturous praise from international critics. It became the highest-grossing British film of 1981, earning £106,484 within its first four weeks alone. While international films were not generally top grossers in the United States, the film’s North American total of $59 million was enough to take the all-time record for an export film, surpassing the record set by Meatballs two years prior. Al-Fayed made a reported £6.5 million after it became an international hit.
Chariots of Fire has been considered a classic in subsequent years, setting a new standard for sports films and spawning a wave of national pride. In 2012, Al-Fayed stated that “young sports lovers throughout the world had found inspiration in the film that Dodi believed in and helped to produce.” Interest in the project rose when a parody featuring Rowan Atkinson debuted during the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games in 2012. Ironically, the ceremony was hosted by Sir Kenneth Branagh, who made his acting debut in a minor role in Chariots of Fire.
The 2012 Olympics coincided with a theatrical re-release in the UK and a Blu-ray remastering. It inspired a stage adaptation starring James McArdle and Jack Loweden the same year, which featured additional compositions by Vangelis. Dodi went on to become a prominent figure in England, which led to his initial meeting with Princess Diana as portrayed in Season 5 of The Crown. Dodi and Diana were later killed in a 1997 car crash after being pursued by tabloid reporters.
The Crown Season 5 is now available to stream on Netflix.