An explosion of fireworks against the London skyline and Paul McCartney leading a singalong were to wrap up the three-hour show masterminded by one of Britain's most successful filmmakers, Oscar winner Danny Boyle.
He led off his spectacular in his favored medium, with a high-speed flyover of the Thames, the river that slices like a vein through London and was the gateway for the city's rise over the centuries as a great global hub of trade and industry.
The rush of images showed a cricket match, the London Tube and the roaring, abundant seas that buffet and protect this island nation - set to a pulsating soundtrack including snippets of the Sex Pistols' irreverent "God Save the Queen."
Later, Queen Elizabeth II stood solemnly as the more traditional version of the anthem was sung by a choir of children. Boyle filmed a sequence showing a stunt version of the 86-year-old monarch carried to the stadium by helicopter and parachuting in.
To open the ceremony, children popped ballons with each number from 10 to 1, leading a countdown that climaxed with Bradley Wiggins, the newly crowned Tour de France champion. Wearing his race-winner's yellow jersey, Wiggins rang a 23-ton Olympic Bell from the same London foundry that made Big Ben and Philadelphia's Liberty Bell.
Its thunderous chime echoed around the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium. Bells in Britain have traditionally pealed to celebrate the end of war and the crowning of kings and queens, and now for the opening of a 17-day festival of sports.
The show then shifted to a portrayal of Britain that Britons cling to - a place of meadows, farms, sport on village greens, picnics and Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne's fictional bear who has delighted generations of British children tucked warmly in bed.
But the British ideal - to quote poet William Blake, of "England's green and pleasant land" - then took a darker, grittier turn.
The set was literally torn asunder, the hedgerows and farm fences carried away, as Boyle shifted to the industrial transformation that revolutionized Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, the foundation for an empire that reshaped world history. Belching chimneys rose where only moments earlier sheep had trod.
The Industrial Revolution also produced terrifying weapons, and Boyle built a moment of hush into his show to honor those killed in war.
"This is not specific to a country; this is across all countries, and the fallen from all countries are celebrated and remembered," he explained to reporters ahead of the ceremony.
Royal welcome (Photo: AFP)
"Because, obviously, one of the penalties of this incredible force of change that happened in a hundred years was the industrialization of war, and the fallen," he said. "You know, millions fell."
Olympic organizers separately rejected calls for a moment of silence for 11 Israeli athletes and coaches slain by Palestinian gunmen at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Two of the Israelis' widows appealed to audience members to stand in silence when International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge rises to speak later at Friday's ceremony. The Israeli culture and sport minister planned to do just that.
The parade of nations was expected to feature most of the roughly 10,500 athletes - some planned to stay away to save their strength for competition - marching behind the flags of the 204 nations taking part.
Greece had the lead, as the spiritual home of the games, and Team Great Britain was last, as the host. The tradition of athletes marching into the stadium by nation at the opening ceremony began at London's first Olympics, in 1908.
Bradley Wiggins (Photo: AP)
It fell to the queen to declare the games open. Last month, the nation put on a festive Diamond Jubilee - a small test run for the games – to mark her 60 years on the throne, a reign that began shortly after London's last Olympics, in 1948.
The Olympic cauldron will be lit with a flame that was kindled May 10, at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics in Greece, from a reflection of the sun's rays off a mirror.
Since then, 8,000 torchbearers, mostly unheralded Britons, have carried the flame on a 70-day, 8,000-mile journey from toe to tip of the British Isles, whipping up enthusiasm for a $14 billion Olympics taking place during a severe recession.
The identity of the last torchbearer, the one to light the cauldron, was kept secret - remarkable given the intense scrutiny at what have been called the first social media Olympics.
Speculation focused on Roger Bannister, the first man to run a four-minute mile, in 1954, and on rower Steve Redgrave, among others.
The show's lighter moments were to include puppets drawn from British children's literature - Captain Hook from "Peter Pan," Cruella de Vil from "101 Dalmations" and Lord Voldemort from J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, as well as Mary Poppins.
Their appearance had a serious message, too - the importance of literacy.
"If you can read and write, you're free, or you can fight for your freedom," Boyle said.
The director of "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Trainspotting" also laced the show with snippets from British cinema, including the actor Daniel Craig as James Bond, and the spine-tingling soundtrack to "Chariots of Fire," which told the story of a Scotsman and an Englishman at the 1924 Paris Games.
Boyle's $42 million show, with 15,000 volunteers, promised to take the expected global television audience of 1 billion on a rich and textured journey through British history.
His challenge was daunting: To be as memorable as Beijing's incredible, money-no-object opening ceremony of 2008, the costliest in Olympic history.
"Beijing is something that, in a way, was great to follow," Boyle said. "You can't get bigger than Beijing, you know? So that, in a way, kind of liberated us. We thought, 'Great, OK, good, we'll try and do something different.'"
Boyle drew from Shakespeare, British pop culture, literature and music, and other sources of inspiration that will speak to - but perhaps at times baffle - not just Anglophiles but people across the globe.
It was Rogge's last time as president of the International Olympic Committee to watch the Olympic flag being raised at an opening ceremony. He will step down in 2013 after completing the maximum two terms.
Besides the thousands of athletes and performers, 60,000 spectators were expected to pack Olympic Stadium.
Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president, planned to attend the ceremony with his wife, Ann. Romney caused a stir in Britain by suggesting earlier this week that the country had "disconcerting" problems preparing for the games.
Other political leaders from around the world, US first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters, and a sprinkling of European and celebrity royalty were also attending.