Playing Eric Liddell in ‘Chariots of Fire’

What a challenge for an actor: to play a legend, Eric Liddell, ‘The Flying Scot’, a runner who became known all over the world in 1924 during the Paris Olympic Games, not only because he was one of the stars of the team representing England, and he finally did win a glorious Gold Medal for his country; but also simply because of the kind of person he was, that very special human being everyone came to admire and to love.  
In his particular case it is not by chance that he also happened to be a Christian. and to take being a true Christian very seriously: so seriously that, even if it meant missing the heats for the race he had long trained for and had all chances to win, he decided to respect the priority to be given to honoring God on Sunday, and not to run, because those heats were scheduled on a Sunday; a decision that made at once the headlines of the international newspapers as well as those of England. People everywhere were shocked and some even scandalized, but many actually felt a great deal of admiration for this man who stood by the principles of his faith, whatever the consequences.

Ian Charleson accepted such a difficult role with enthusiasm, and embraced it to the point of really identifying with the legendary sportsman in Eric Liddell, and with the future missionary in him as well.
At some point during the first half of the film, while Liddell’s reputation as ‘the Flying Scot’ was growing already in Scotland itself, after a race he won we see him among a gathering of simple workers, all his more and more devoted admirers and eager to hear him speak. The speech as it had been written by someone else wasn’t right, Ian felt, so he volunteered to write himself another speech; it is this gem of a talk one can watch him deliver with a delightful quiet simplicity to the small crowd that had staid on especially for him, although it was raining:
Liddell: ‘You came to see a race today. See someone win. Happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it.

I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape — ‘specially if you’ve got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe your dinner’s burnt. Maybe, maybe you haven’t got a job. So who am I to say, “believe,” “have faith,” in the face of life’s realities?

I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way.

And where does the power come from to see the race to its end? From within.
Jesus said, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you. If, with all your hearts ye truly seek Me, ye shall ever surely find Me.” If you commit yourself to the love of Christ.

And THAT is how you run the straight race.’

So much said in so few words, and such simple ones too. This wonderful speech is one of my top favorite moments in the entire film, one which always brings tears to my eyes, tears of joy expressing the sunshine that by the end of his words brigtens my heart just as it also suddenly brightened the sky over everybody’s heads on that day in Scotland.

If I am not a Christian, what then am I rejoicing about and shedding tears of joy about in such a speech and in such a film, some of you who will visit my blog will wonder.

Religions do not really matter. They are just dividing and limiting frameworks many of us still feel the need to put around the One wonderful spiritual Reality we could all experience just as well – and even better – in all its diverse aspects, without putting all those mental complications, dogmas and barriers between us. The beatific inner relationship with God that was the Source of Eric’s behavior I know too, and all the mystics of the world have known it too, whatever religion they happened to belong externally to, when they were not actually outside of any religion at all.  It is the joy of inner recognition of that  shared experience of God, or whatever name one wants to give to That.

Several months ago, while I was researching just out of personal interest the life of this remarkably talented and sincere actor, Ian Charleson, who touched so many other human beings besides me by the unforgettable way he embodied the soul beauty of the real Eric Liddell, I came across the following article posted by someone on a Forum, and I found it so great I kept a copy of it for myself. I am glad I did, for it enables me, now that I am having this blog, to share it with you down below.  As you will see, it also opens up an important topic I have never yet written about on my blog.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011 

Thoughts on Ian Charleson

I recently realized that the movie Chariots of Fire, which I watched for about the fifth time last weekend, would have completely failed if it weren’t for the brilliant acting of Ian Charleson who played Eric Liddell. That may seem obvious: Eric Liddell’s character is the inspiration of the movie. He’s the Christian missionary who ran for God’s pleasure, who risked throwing away three years of training and a chance for Olympic gold because he felt he could not run an Olympic heat on the Christian Sabbath.

People think it’s the story itself that captivates us, but I think it is Charleson’s performance that sells it. His job as an actor was not just to play a good man but a saintly man, pious yet likable, reserved but not dull, conflicted yet steadfast, vulnerable enough to draw our sympathy yet strong enough to stand entirely alone. Then he had to make it look so natural the audience would be tempted to think this guy Ian Charleson must just be playing himself; yet I can’t think of a more difficult acting role. One misstep and the whole thing is ruined: we’re left with a story about a self-righteous prig who’s determined to put the hopes of an entire nation on hold because of his personal fanaticism. The difference between that disaster and the Academy Award winning picture we got is Ian Charleson’s ability to hit exactly the right note.

I got curious about the man who was able to pull off this subtle, multi-layered, highly spiritual performance. I thought, “I really like this Charleson guy. I’ll bet he’s either Christian or gay.” I googled, then wikipedia-ed. Charleson was gay. And reading between the lines he was probably also Christian, judging from how eager he was to play the part of Eric Liddell, saying the role would “fit like a kid glove.” He studied the Bible intensively to prepare for the role and wrote the post-race speech Eric Liddell delivered to the working class crowd himself. Charleson died of AIDS in 1990. He was 40.

It was all news to me. Maybe ten years ago such a discovery would have shocked and disgusted me, but now I find it makes sense, and I even guessed beforehand that maybe a gay man pulled off this remarkable performance. But why did I have that hunch? So many times when I encounter a song, a performance, or a piece of art that strikes me as so true and subtle and poignant and uplifting I feel almost a spiritual connection with it, I later learn the artist behind it is gay. It’s happened so often I now take it for granted. Maybe there’s something about being gay that enables an artist to see more clearly what it means to be human, to identify certain truths about us all. Maybe it is the ones who are forced to the margins who truly understand what it is we all have in common.

Now that I know Ian Charleson was gay it occurs to me that the dimension he grasped about Eric Liddell, which made that character seem so authentic, was his loneliness. To run for the pleasure of God had to be a lonely calling, one that neither your coach nor your missionary sister could easily understand. It’s too religious for the athletic world and too secular for the Christian world. The Eric Liddell that Charleson portrayed was a man caught in between, and while both worlds sought to foist their own agendas upon him, he insisted on marching to a tune that he alone could hear, indulging in a private joy which, though mixed with pain, enabled him to carry himself with dignity throughout the chaos. Who else but a gay actor could understand so intuitively how these complex elements fit seamlessly together: to stand seemingly on center stage and still feel like an outsider looking in, to navigate through so many apparent contradictions and other people’s attempts to define you, to drop an anchor deep within yourself and stay centered upon it with a conviction that reaches near spiritual heights?’
(Posted by Misty at 10:30 PM
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Labels: Chariots of Fire, Ian Charleson)

Thank you for this, Misty. I don’t know you but through this piece of writing of yours, which obviously comes from deep in your heart.

If ever you find this post, I hope you will not mind my use of your article without having contacted you and asked permission beforehand, it just happened like that and it felt okay to me to do it that way, I trust that it will feel okay for you too.


10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Aanel
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 05:13:25

    Brilliant. Thanks for posting these thoughts about Ian.



    • Bhaga
      Oct 20, 2011 @ 01:23:59

      Thank you, it was my pleasure, Aanel.
      Dud you see also my next post for him, ‘To Ian Charleson, with love’? Some beautiful comments are there too about him.
      PS Sorry for this belated answer; I got no notice about your comment, just saw this morning that one was pending for approval, so I looked it up… and approved it! From now on you’ll be able to post again comments on this blog if you feel like it.



  2. Aanel
    Oct 20, 2011 @ 01:40:13

    Yes, Bhaga, I did see your lengthy post called “To Ian Charleson, with love”. Both of these posts are wonderful, perceptive, eloquent, and heartfelt.

    I’m personally writing Ian’s official book biography at present, and I appreciate your words, feelings and insights. (I also wrote Ian’s Wikipedia article.)

    I think Google Alerts originally notified me of your blog posts.



    • Bhaga
      Oct 20, 2011 @ 04:16:27

      So glad to come to know about you, Aanel!
      It is good news that you are writing that biography, please let me know when it is out; thank you already for the Wikipedia article…
      Thank you also for expressing your appreciation of my own humble contributions!



    • bob
      Jul 17, 2012 @ 00:44:21

      Wonderful to know that a biography is being written about this exceptional artist and human being. You’ve undertaken a noble project and I wish you the greatest success.



  3. Robin Mueller
    Mar 02, 2013 @ 21:55:39

    Hi, was just googling chariots of fire and Ian Charleson and came across the above. Thanks for the moving and expressive words. What a bloody tragic shame that he was taken from us so soon. I am thrilled to know that he wrote the words to the post-race speech. I’m not religious but those words really speak to me.



    • Bhaga
      Mar 03, 2013 @ 05:02:28

      Thiose words can speak indeed to anyone with an awakened soul, for they are not really religious, they are simply from another awakened soul, and that inner experience is universal….Thank you for this comment!



      • Aamel
        Mar 03, 2013 @ 05:13:29

        Brilliant observation, Bhaga!

        And thank you for your comment, Robin. I have felt that way too. In 2005-2006 I was having a lot of trouble with my spiritual path and needed a lot of inspiration to keep me going. I didn’t really find it externally and in my reading materials, but I found Ian reciting this speech on a site called “American Rhetoric”. I listened to it over and over several times a week for a long period. It helped me so much!

        At that time I didn’t even know Ian had written it. And I hadn’t seen Chariots of Fire in 25 years and hadn’t even looked at Wikipedia, much less been inspired to write Ian’s biography. It was just Ian helping me by inspiring me on a daily basis.


  4. Bhaga
    Mar 03, 2013 @ 05:45:46

    So, Aanel, now I know the main deep reason why you find yourself nowadays writing Ian’s biography!!! Thank you for sharing this, which shows truly how the sincere words of one inspired human being can touch and influence the lives of so many other ones – even a long time after those words were said and that human being has left the Earth…



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