A beautiful true Story: ‘Chariots of Fire’

Among the comments I received for my recent post on ‘Narrow-mindedness’, was a statement by someone that the Norway killer who stunned the world these last weeks ‘was a true Christian, as only the fanatics of every religion were the true practitioners of those religions.’
Although I am myself not any more a Christian nor a member of any religion since forty years, I already objected strongly to such a false notion in my answer to that comment; but I think now is the time to also bring out on this blog a post I wanted since long to write on one of my top favorite films ever: ‘Chariots of Fire’, which portrays, in one of the two real persons that are its main heroes, what I would call a true Christian.
This sublime film being British, and exemplifying all along the specifically British qualities, it gives me also the opportunity to reaffirm publicly the high esteem I have of the British people, in spite of the defects they of course also have, as do in their own way the people of all other cultures too.
That very youthful ‘old’ film tells us of the true story that happened between two sportsmen in the UK in the 1920s.
As an introduction, here is the original review from the time the film came out (1981), an immediate success:
Posted: Tue., Apr. 7, 1981, 11:00pm PT

Chariots of Fire

(Drama — British – Color)
Twentieth Century-Fox release of an Allied Stars presentation of an Enigma Production, produced by David Puttnam. Features entire cast. Exec producer, Dodi Fayeed. Directed by Hugh Hudson. Screenplay, Colin Welland.


“Chariots of Fire,” which weaves the stories of two former British track aces who both won major events at the 1924 Paris Olympics, is about the will to win and why. It’s also a winner for director Hugh Hudson in his theatrical bow after an apprenticeship in commercials. With strong script values and top-notch performances, he makes it almost look easy. As to business outlook, the David Puttnam production for 20th Fox should prosper in the urban markets on satisfied word of mouth, and it’s also a worth competitor as this year’s official British entry at Cannes.
As between the slapstick comedy and scary contrived shlockers that predominate in the current marketplace, “Chariots” offers jaded fans an un-common chance to relate to believable people in a drama of affecting emotion and tension, plus more than a little social and psychological complexity. In short, the Colin Welland script has a lot to admire in the engrossing way it counterpoints the progress of its two sporting heroes, each driven by impulse that has little to do with mere fame per se and even less with national honor.
Ian Charleson and Ben Cross are both exemplary as the respective super-runners, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, the first a Christian Scot who believes that by winning can he best honor the Lord; the latter an English Jew with a chip on the shoulder for whom over-achieving is his ticket to acceptance in a prejudiced society.
For the record, Liddell later went to China as a Christian missionary and died in a Japanese POW camp. Abrahams, who died three years ago, went on to become an elder statesman of British athletics. Also for the record, his alma mater, Cambridge U., declined the use of its hallowed Anglo-Saxon precincts for location purposes. Stand-ins more than suffice.
What with two social “outsiders” hogging the glory for dear old Albion, the snobby establishment doesn’t come off to raves. Yet at the same time, “Chariots” is also a warm salute to the best of British tradition and values, as well as vivid testament to individual integrity and supreme determination. Welland’s sympathetic screenplay generally succeeds at emotional honesty, time and again inducing a tug or choke but without confusing schmaltz for decent sentiment.
Hudson’s direction gets it all together with admirable assurance and narrative style. No arty tricks, no self-conscious posturing. His use of slow motion and freeze frames for the various racing sequences turns out to be a valid device for sharpening emotional intensity and competitive agony, not the cliched gimmick it might have been.
Convincing conflict is rife, with the two heroes either at odds with the establishment, their women or themselves.
No imbalance mars the pic, whose cross-the-board achievement lifts it to an impressive level of unified accomplishment. David Watkin’s lensing is excellent without being fussy or contrived. The score by Vangelis, richly orchestrated with uplifting cadences, suits the action with a lingering quality.
The casting is pin point. Charleson and Cross, neither meaningful to film fans up to now, come over as plausible types rather than stereotypes. John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson contribute sharply as university officials dismayed by the upstart young Jew. Nigel Davenport is very good as the Olympic squad’s titular leader, and Patrick Magee is excellent in a brief turn as a blimpish peer of the realm.
Cheryl Campbell and Alice Krige have effective moments as the principal women. But it’s Ian HoIm who scene steals every time as a professional coach whose mentoring ultimately provides Abrahams with an “extra two yards,” or the winning margin. And as Holm tells him after the big Paris race, he won it not for God or country but “for us.”
Now my turn… my Review, so to say!…  It will be actually in direct continuation of my just previous post, ‘Towards a Race Without Ego’, as I will go further with my comparison between the ego and the soul, and describe the characteristic kind of inner influence both have on all of us human beings.
But if Jack Pitman has been able to write his Review without having to reveal too much of the story itself, my focus will need to be much closer to the details, and so I have to issue here a strong warning:


I fell in love with that film from the first time I saw it. I came out stunned with the incredible inner beauty I had been given to admire all along the story, and in so many of its characters.  And to know that this had been a true story, that these two men and the people around them had really existed, was a summum of joy for me.
The small group of friends who do from day one adopt lonely and aggressive Harold Abrahams are just wonderful to watch as they soon make him feel at home in Cambridge and appreciated, in spite of the overall atmosphere of disdain and rejection that is embodied by the two heads of the Colleges concerned, apparently great as everyone else, but only as long as they are among English men, and revoltingly full of conceit as soon as Harold Abrahams the Jew comes into the picture.
But Harold has no faith and finds no inner support in his religious origins, only the hated stigma of belonging to a portion of Humanity that is not accepted as fully English by the genuinely English.
This makes him a perfect representative of a human being left to his own devices for achieving the greatness and recognition he wants for himself as an individual. And he is indeed a remarkable individual, but the core of his being is still his ego, with all the normal reactions and typical behaviour that universally betray even the most highly refined and conscious ego. This means his hardened personality brings by itself additional complications and obstacles in his life, that would otherwise not be there. He suffers a lot from the rejection he himself exaggerates in his thoughts. Even his friends have to be extra careful with him, as anything can be felt as an offence by his hyper-sensitivity.
With Eric, it is exactly the contrary: everything about this smiling, fun, humble man is so simple, seems so easy… and yet is somehow shining, magnificent, in a way one cannot define.
What makes this true story so interesting is how perfectly it illustrates the difference, precisely, between living still by and for the glory of the ego, as Harold Abrahams does, and living by and for the love of God, as Eric Liddell does, who runs for His glory.

There are many very moving moments in the film, and a few peculiarities attributed to Eric there, among which two have been checked out against historical reality in the Wikipedia article I will now quote from:
‘The scene in the movie where Liddell fell early in a 440 yard race in a Scotland-France dual meet and made up a 20-metre deficit to win the race is (…) historically accurate except that the actual race was during a Triangular Contest meet between Scotland, England and Ireland at Stoke-on-Trent in England in July 1923. Liddell was knocked to the ground several strides into the race. He hesitated, got up and went after his opponents, now twenty metres ahead. He caught the leaders shortly before the finishing line and collapsed in exhaustion after crossing the tape.
Liddell’s unorthodox running style as portrayed in the movie, with his head back and his mouth wide open, is also said to be historically  accurate. At an athletics championship in Glasgow, a visitor watching the 440 yard final in which Liddell was a long way from the leaders at the start of the last lap (of a 220 yard track) remarked to a Glasgow native that Liddell would be hard put to win the race. The Glaswegian merely replied, “His head’s no’ back yet.” Liddell then threw his head back and with mouth wide open caught and passed his opponents to win the race.’

The moment in the film when Eric is viciously pushed down by an opponent and falls, but then with hardened eyes and jaws gets up again and starts running again even faster, is one of the most powerful moments of the film, revealing suddenly the extraordinary strength and determination in this man so loving one could have thought him weak. And yet even that inner strength in him comes from God, and from that total abandon to the influx of God-given winning energy that manifests through his head being thrown back and his mouth opening when he is in full ‘receiving’ mode towards the end of a race – a thing just beautiful to watch happening, as if some mysterious, sacred alliance between the human and the divine was taking place under our very eyes, with incredible results that stun and awe everyone, his opponents included, already won over by his genuine gentleness.

Two quotes that I would have picked myself as well from the dialogue, I was very glad to see chosen also in the Wikipedia article:
– About the responsibility all Christians have, whether missionaries like the Liddell parents or not, of giving through their own life at every moment an inspiring exemple of how a true Christian behaves:
“We are all missionaries. Wherever we go, we either bring people nearer to Christ, or we repel them from Christ.”
– To his beloved sister Jenny, eager to go back with him to the Mission in China where they were born and grew up, and desperate that he seems not to see the Mission as the God-given purpose for his life, busy  as he is now with running and winning, Eric answers passionately:
“I believe that God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. When I run, I feel His pleasure.”
At a time, nearly a century ago, when to love God meant to shun and reject one’s body, what an inspired and inspiring comment from that admirable Christian who by his own direct experience knew a different truth…

Later, in Paris with all the others (including his rival Harold) who will represent England at the Olympic Games, when the problem arises of the heats for his race being held on a Sunday, Eric shows again an undomitable courage, standing for his truth even in front of the political and princely heavyweights who try all together to make him change his decision of not participating in any race on a Sunday. One of his closest friends from Cambridge, a charming young British nobleman, by an act of generosity and altruism spontaneous to his genuine inner nobility, will boldly intervene and solve the problem by offering to Liddell his own place (and chance to win a second medal) in a race held on another day. This Liddell can accept, and he does with gratitude; everybody lets out a sigh of relief: he will run!… 

But it is from the inner point of view that the whole crisis is the most significant: this has been a hard test from the Divine for Eric’s sincerity in keeping with his belief that Sunday is for God only: his sincerity has prevailed, he has won the inner test, so now God has given him the new possibility he needed for going on and winning the outer victory too… Even one of the American competitors – one of his direct rivals – who has come to respect and love him a lot, becomes the instrument of the Divine for giving to Liddell the concrete sign of His support, through a note with a quote from the Bible in which God says ‘Him who honors Me, I will honor’. It is with that wonderfully reassuring note still clutched in his hand that moments later a beaming Eric wins the race, and a new Olympic Record. In the standing ovation by the entire crowd, his brother and beloved sister give him the loving surprise of being there too, applauding wildly with tears in their eyes. Complete happiness for this true lover of God that Eric is.

All this shows remarkably well how ‘God’, or let’s say the Divine, helps us grow and reach our full potential, through tests, but also total love: even Harold Abrahams, who secretly dreaded to be in the same race as Eric, is spared the devastating humiliation of a defeat, by Eric running in another race; Harold then can win too the victory he so badly needed and also truly deserved to win, against their American rivals. Yet another human being has his own life redeemed by Abrahams’ victory in his race: Samuel Mussabini, the genius of a coach he has worked with and befriended, as despised for his humble and foreign origins as Harold too has been for his.

One couldn’t dream of a better and more satisfying result across the board for the English team – except for some of the Cambridge friends who didn’t do as well as they had hoped; but even those ones are able to overcome their personal disappointment and to rejoice with the others, their whole group triumphantly celebrated by all and their loved ones upon their arrival back in England.

This is the kind of happy ending some people will find too good to be true, or too nice and sweet to be interesting. Yet it has been the happy ending that really happened for these young students and sportsmen who at that time embodied the spirit of England by being its ‘Chariots of Fire’…


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jules
    Aug 14, 2011 @ 22:52:06

    That it is indeed a beautiful story which i must confess, i have never watched. From what you have written it really does seem to portray the strength and wonder of the human soul, i shall certainly watch it as soon as i have chance 🙂



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