My Favourite Film of 1985.

Film As with plenty of films on this list, St Elmo's Fire is so ingrained in my psyche it's almost impossible for me to offer a critique. The usual meagre research for this article/post/exposition reveals to me that Rob Lowe won Worst Actor Razzie for his performance as college nostalgist Billy Hicks and so close am I to this hundred and ten minutes, it's impossible for me to objectively judge if they were right.

All I can think about is the key scene when he comforts Demi's flibbertigibbet Jules with an explanation for St. Elmos Fire and how warm Lowe is, so much so it comforted me on a number of occasions during my teenage years (when I probably saw the film as often as Adventure In Babysitting).  On the few occasion people have needed me to help them in similar ways, I'm sure it's Billy Hicks I'm channelling.

Except the problem with that scene, with his speech is that it's completely false. Here's what Billy says:
Jules, y'know, honey... this isn't real. You know what it is? It's St. Elmo's Fire. Electric flashes of light that appear in dark skies out of nowhere. Sailors would guide entire journeys by it, but the joke was on them... there was no fire. There wasn't even a St. Elmo. They made it up. They made it up because they thought they needed it to keep them going when times got tough, just like you're making up all of this. We're all going through this. It's our time at the edge.
Let's pick our way through this now and painfully debunk the message utilising passages from what seems like a pretty well referenced Wikipedia entry.

Electric flashes of light that appear in dark skies out of nowhere.

Actually, St. Elmo's fire is a form of matter called plasma, which is also produced in stars, high temperature flame, and by lightning. The electric field around the object in question causes ionization of the air molecules, producing a faint glow easily visible in low-light conditions. Roughly 1000 volts per centimeter induces St. Elmo's fire; the number depends greatly on the geometry of the object. Sharp points lower the required voltage because electric fields are more concentrated in areas of high curvature, so discharges are more intense at the ends of pointed objects.

Conditions that can generate St. Elmo's fire are present during thunderstorms, when high voltage differentials are present between clouds and the ground underneath. Air molecules glow owing to the effects of such voltage, producing St. Elmo's fire.

The nitrogen and oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere cause St. Elmo's fire to fluoresce with blue or violet light; this is similar to the mechanism that causes neon lights to glow.

Sailors would guide entire journeys by it ...

It is a sign of electricity in the air, which can interfere with compass readings, making it poor as a navigational tool and some sailors may have regarded it as an omen of bad luck and stormy weather. Other references indicate that sailors may have actually considered St. Elmo's fire as a good omen (as in, a sign of the presence of their patron saint).

.... but the joke was on them... there was no fire.

Physically, St. Elmo's fire is a bright blue or violet glow, appearing like fire in some circumstances, from tall, sharply pointed structures such as lightning rods, masts, spires and chimneys, and on aircraft wings or nose cones. St. Elmo's fire can also appear on leaves and grass, and even at the tips of cattle horns. Often accompanying the glow is a distinct hissing or buzzing sound. It is sometimes confused with ball lightning.

In 1751, Benjamin Franklin hypothesized that a pointed iron rod would light up at the tip during a lightning storm, similar in appearance to St. Elmo's fire.

There wasn't even a St. Elmo. They made it up.

St. Elmo's fire is named after St. Erasmus of Formia (also called St. Elmo, one of the two Italian names for St. Erasmus, the other being St. Erasmo), the patron saint of sailors.
Disappointing, but educational.  You could also rationalise it as Billy deliberately disregarding the science because sometimes (and this is even a shock to a rationalist like me) faith and hope are more palpable and useful emotions than reality.

St. Elmo's Fire is one of the few films on this list for which my memory fails when trying to remember when I first saw it.  On release in 1985, I would have been too young to even know what it was let alone see it at the cinema (though as I type this I remember seeing adverts for it in Smash Hits).  But I did know John Parr's theme song very well, and may have bought a seven-inch of it at Penny Lane Records in Matthew Street before even seeing the film.  Eventually I owned a VCI copy of the VHS, then the dvd in the late 00s.  It's on Netflix too.

The soundtrack even on cassette was very expensive and became a key Christmas present in about 1992.  What I do have a vivid memory of is inviting three of my course friends, Melanie, Alex and Madeline to my dorm room for a group study session, one of the rare occasions my course mates visited me at home and putting the soundtrack on while we waited.  Mel smiled and said that she'd just paid £25 for the cd.  That was just eight years after the film's release which is the same length of time between now and the first Iron Man film.  It's our time at the edge, and how.

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