I never saw 1981’s “Chariots of Fire.” I knew it became an instant classic and won many Oscars, and I endured the theme song on the radio (in ancient times when popular movie scores were actually played on the radio, ad nauseam).
So, playing catch-up, I rented it to see what all the fuss was about. It’s stood the test of time (which isn’t difficult when the setting is post-World War I). Historical period pieces obviously can’t age, but the storytelling techniques of directors can. That said, overall, “Chariots of Fire” moves at a more leisurely pace than our current attention span is used to, but it packs a punch in terms of reminding us about what’s important in life.
Ambitious British law student Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), of Lithuanian-Jewish heritage, is a mega-talented sprinter. He attends Cambridge and, as a freshman, immediately challenges the 700-year-old-and-still-standing school record of racing around the perimeter of the institution’s hallowed main courtyard.
He destroys the record and is immediately taken note of by the bigoted, elite faculty, who refer to him as “the Semite.”
For Abrahams, running is “a weapon.” When asked what that means by his coy, hard-to-get actress girlfriend Sybil (Alice Krige) (who, in time, turns out to be a true soul mate), Abrahams replies that it’s a weapon against being Jewish.
He relates to her that while he is often invited to the trough, he’s not allowed to drink. He’s well-respected by classmates, though, especially by fellow track teammates.
The other sprinter in this movie about sprinting is China-born Scotsman Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), the son of Christian missionaries.
He’s also blessed with blistering speed. He intends to return to missionary life eventually, but unlike his sister and her protestations about his running, Liddell sees his talent as God-given and therefore his duty to use it to glorify the Lord by attempting to medal in the 1924 Olympics. Liddell is the only man to have beaten Harold Abrahams, thus far, in a footrace.
Theirs is a stark contrast of motives. Abrahams hires a professional coach, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), to take chance out of the winning equation, much to the disgust of two of Cambridge’s dons (Sir John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson) who feel he’s thereby stooping to “plebeian” status.
They would prefer he take a less serious (and therefore more aristocratic) amateur approach. Which Abrahams finds ridiculous, knowing they’re as keen as he is to have the school win.
Abrahams’s motivation is generated primarily by fear of losing. And affirmation of self. It will most likely never be the case, due to his inner conflict, that he’ll be able to savor victory.
On the other hand, the warm, extremely likable Liddell, who, ironically, is more of a “mensch” than Abrahams, runs out of a desire to glorify God by putting the physical gifts bestowed upon him to good use. He’s got inner peace, but his conflicts are external—the Olympic committee schedules his race on a Sunday, and he flat-out refuses to run on the Sabbath.
And so, we’ve got two world-class rivals competing for diametrically opposed reasons.
Rounding out the story are secondary narratives of Liddell’s conflict with his sister, Abrahams’s wooing of his future wife, as well as brief training montages (Abrahams’s, that is, since he’s the one going above and beyond training-wise).
And then there are the behind-the-scenes attempts by Olympic officials as well as British politicians and royalty to sweet-talk or otherwise manipulate with intent to dissuade Liddell into running his race when they want him to, and not when God wants him to. One of these is the Prince of Wales (David Yelland) functioning in dual capacity as the head of the British Olympic committee.
Apparently, many truths were stretched and enhanced to rev up the drama. The above-mentioned political hand-wringing, wheedling, and cajoling in fact were much more low-key. But then—that’s Hollywood. And there’s nothing wrong, in storytelling, to heighten the reality in order to stress a point.
3 Things Stood Out
I realized the now long-famous music by Vangelis Papathanassiou was the template for the theme music of 1986’s “Top Gun.” Not a particularly profound insight.
Next, was the comment by the university don played by Shakespearean theater royalty John Gielgud. When Abrahams is done vociferously stating his case about winning at all costs and takes his leave, the don shrugs his shoulders at his colleague and says, “A different god. A different mountaintop.” In his case, it stemmed from bigotry and the looking down the nose at a “lesser” religion. But some societies are very much in agreement that there are different gods, different mountaintops, and different paradises.
Thirdly, “Chariots of Fire” flies in the face of modern Olympic competition and doping, lying, cheating, and cheating by lying about doping. Lance Armstrong, anyone? The endless need for drug testing; the scandals that have become ho-hum, because ours is a modern society that supports winning at all costs.
Abrahams’s attitude was a harbinger of things to come. His later life was highly influential in regard to sports and the Olympics: He was an athletics journalist for 40 years, and a sports commentator for BBC radio (which included reporting on the 1936 Berlin Olympics). Later he became president of the Jewish Athletic Association, as well as chairman of the Amateur Athletic Association.
It’s therefore refreshing and uplifting to bear witness to the attitude of Liddell’s integrity. Of having the moral courage to stay true to his faith and convictions above all else, regardless of the outcome. Don’t see much of that these days. So quaint, so old-fashioned. And yet moving when you see it.
Granted, Abrahams’s conviction in the face of pressure by the university to change his ways is also admirable. And yet, Liddell, after a lifetime of service, was mourned by all of Scotland at his death.
‘Chariots of Fire’
Director: Hugh Hudson
Starring: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Ian Holm, Sir John Gielgud, Nigel Havers, Nicholas Farrell, Alice Krige
Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Release Date: April 9, 1982 (USA)
Rated: 4 stars out of 5