Off to the jolly olde sod…
When the First World War ended, Great Britain was feeling worn-out. The loss of life had been heavy, and everyone, young men in particular, had to learn how to operate in a strange new world. In 1981, the world was reeling from the malaise of the 1970s. America had ended its involvement in the Vietnam War several years earlier, and a lot of people were feeling that life had become something they didn’t recognize. In the midst of both of these time periods came the stories of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, two Olympic medalists who ran for very different reasons, but who inspired those who came in contact with them. They held to their personal integrity despite all obstacles and reminded Great Britain of their great sporting heritage. In 1924, the world saw them win the gold. In 1981, the world saw their stories brought to the screen in the film, Chariots of Fire.
The film opens at a church in 1978. It’s Harold Abrahams’s funeral, and elderly Lord Lindsay is delivering the eulogy. He’s not only remembering Abrahams, but a whole generation of men who typified the new Great Britain. “Now there are just two of us–young Aubrey Montague and myself–who can close our eyes and remember those few young men, with hope in our hearts, and wings on our heels.”
The rest of the film is told in flashback, and Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell) is the narrator, which comes in the form of letters to his mother. It opens right before the Olympic team goes off to France in 1924. Aubrey remembers how he met Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), adding another layer to the flashback. Both of them were on their way to Caius College when Aubrey drops his sporting equipment and Harold helps him out. Aubrey is a pretty easygoing fellow, while Harold is intense from the get-go, and the two of them become fast friends.
Harold is very much an Englishman, but his father is a Lithuanian Jew, and therefore Harold has a deep desire to vindicate himself in English society. Every slight and every sneer will be proven wrong by Harold excelling in everything he does, from academics to sports. He’s never lost a race, and while at school he pumps up his image by anonymously submitting stories about himself, illustrated with action shots, to the local papers.
Harold does take time out for fun, however. He’s a major fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, so he joins the Caius Gilbert and Sullivan Society. One of the productions they put on is HMS Pinafore, and Harold leads the company in, appropriately enough, “He Is An Englishman.” One night he and his buddies go see The Mikado, where Sybil Gordon (Alice Krige) as Yum-Yum catches Harold’s eye. Being the bold fellow that he is, Harold asks her to dinner.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, Eric Liddell is on furlough. He’s a successful rugby player, and his friend, Sandy (Struan Rodger), wants him to take up running. Eric’s sister, Jenny (Cheryl Campbell), is not quite as enthusiastic, because she wants Eric to pursue the ministry without any distractions. Eric’s father, on the other hand, gives Eric his blessing: “Run in God’s name, and let the world stand back in wonder.”
Eric not only runs for Scotland, but he tells the crowds about Jesus. One Sunday after church, he and his family are on the way out of the yard when a football rolls in their path, with a twelve-year old boy running after it. “Sabbath’s not a day for playing football, is it?” asks Eric, whose innate sense of fun shows when he asks the boy if they can have a match together in the morning. “I don’t want him to grow up thinking God’s a spoilsport,” he tells Jenny.
As their reputations grow, Harold and Eric’s paths begin to cross. Harold travels to Scotland to watch Eric run, and also to see a famous coach who’s there observing, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm). What they witness is mind-boggling. Eric is elbowed off the track in the first turn, and everyone thinks he’s out. Incredibly, however, Eric picks himself up and charges back into the race, not going full-throttle until he’s overtaken the leader.
Harold watches, stone-faced, crumpling his program in his fist as Eric crosses the finish line. He meets with Sam after the race, and asks him if he can help him win against Eric Liddell. Sam is a little taken aback because coaches are the ones to take on students, not vice versa, but he promises to observe Harold.
Funnily enough, or not, the opportunity comes when Harold himself races against Eric, and he loses by two yards. Harold is gobsmacked, because he’s never lost a race in his life, but it’s enough to convince Sam to take him on (See the real Abrahams and Mussabini here).
All roads lead to the Olympics, and Harold and Sam train like fury. So do Eric and Sandy. They’re both shoo-ins for the team, of course, as are Harold’s friends, Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), Aubrey, and Henry (Daniel Gerroll). They’re part of a formidable team, and their competition includes the equally formidable American team, especially medalists Charlie Paddock and Jackson Scholz.
To his dismay, Eric is told by a reporter as he boards the ship to Paris that his qualifying heat will be on a Sunday. His mind whirls with what he told the boy about not playing sports on the Sabbath, and sees all his work possibly going up in smoke. In the end, Eric knows he has to honor the Lord first.
Eric goes immediately to Lord Birkenhead (Nigel Davenport), a member of the Olympic Committee, who tells him to sit tight. The whole business has the potential for scandal, but in the end, Lord Lindsay gives up his spot in the 400 metres for Eric. It’s not a race Eric has trained for, but he graciously accepts.
Spoiler alert: Harold and Eric each win their races. Here’s footage of the real events in 1924:
Where Eric and Harold diverge is how each handles winning. Harold, who ran for vindication, feels empty, depressed and at loose ends until he realizes there’s life after a gold medal. Eric feels elated because he has served God to the best of his ability. He’s done what he came to do, and now he can move on to his next task.
Chariots of Fire draws me in every time, even though I first saw it over twenty years ago. It’s cast correctly, it arcs correctly, and most importantly, it allows the viewer to really move around inside Eric and Harold’s heads. Vangelis’s score helps out a whole lot. His movements don’t just soar, but put the character’s thoughts into music. In the scene where Harold loses the race to Eric, for instance, as his face twists in shock and anger, Vangelis twists a single note into a question mark. Synth music can sound hokey and canned, but in this case it’s another character.
Like most historical films, Chariots of Fire changed some details for dramatic purposes and pacing. Eric’s Sunday dilemma, for instance, wasn’t revealed to him in the eleventh hour–the whole business was resolved before he left for Paris. His sister, Jenny was also very supportive of his running. Some details were just erroneous, the biggest one being that Harold married Sybil Evers, not Sybil Gordon, and they didn’t meet until 1934.
Other details were tweaked because the real people didn’t want to be associated with the film. Lord Lindsay was based on Lord Burghley, who didn’t start at Caius until 1923, after Harold had graduated. Burghley and Lindsay both liked to measure their jumping height on the hurdles by putting objects on them. Lindsay used champagne, but Burghley used matchboxes. The rest of the character was based on Olympian Douglas Lowe.
Harold Abrahams broke his leg in 1925, which derailed his athletic career. He went on to practice law for many years, but was also England’s grand old man of sports, providing commentary for events in print and on the radio. His struggles with anti-Semitism weren’t as pronounced as they were in the film, but were probably added in to give his story more tension. Abrahams converted to Christianity and died in 1978. His funeral was similar to the one portrayed in the movie.
Eric Liddell went back to China, the land of his birth, where he was a missionary. He spent the last years of his life in the Japanese concentration camp of Wiehsien. Since Eric was such an important public figure, Winston Churchill negotiated a prisoner exchange, but Eric gave his spot up to a pregnant woman. Survivors of the Wiehsien camp remembered Eric was a tremendous help during the dark days, organizing sports and other events. Eric also taught science while in the camp, even though equipment was scarce. Instead, Eric drew pictures of microscopes and other tools that were so accurate his students were able to use these devices after the war. Eric Liddell died of a brain tumor in February of 1945, and his last words were, “It’s complete surrender.”
Chariots of Fire remains effective and compelling. It reflects a time that might seem simpler, but shows how much hasn’t changed. It portrays the struggles of two different men for different reasons, but who both end up winning in more ways than one.
For more of the Rule, Brittania Blogathon, please visit A Shroud of Thoughts. Thanks for hosting, Terence! Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you tomorrow for our big Breen recap…
Ramsey, Russell W. God’s Joyful Runner. South Plainfield, New Jersey: Bridge Publishing, 1987.
Swift, Catherine. Eric Liddell. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1990.