Chariots of Fire, the improbable Best Picture winner from 1981, is a film about running. It is also a film about faith. It is a film about two men, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), who run for Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics at Paris and win, respectively, the 100 meters and 400 meters in order to re-affirm their faith.
The two men are the same, yet different, and this is fully displayed in the movie’s astonishing sequence set over the opening credits to Vangelis’s illustrious score (a sequence that still feels like a breath of fresh air on its own, punk-smacking any parody of it in the ensuing years). The camera finds Liddell running along the overcast beach, head and body tilted back, his face breaking into a smile, as if allowing the love of what he is doing to wash over him. Then the camera pans to Abrahams behind him, running with his face pitched forward, his face fixed in determination, his hands clenched, showing total focus.
Abrahams is a man of Jewish heritage who attends prim, proper Cambridge University where he experiences a stuffy outcry over that heritage, though not necessarily enough to deter and/or affect his impeccable talent of running because, hey, even in 1919 (when he came to Cambridge) athletes were the gods of campuses worldwide. This is proved when he becomes the first person to successfully make the Trinity Court Run – that is, zipping around the university’s courtyard in the time it takes the great clock to strike 12. It is a marvelous scene, a reality show filtered through polite British society, but also demonstrating the attitude and cocky belief Abrahams has in himself. He doesn’t want to win his races. He expects to win his races.
Liddell is a Scot, born of Chinese missionaries and an unflappable Christian. In an early scene he gently upbraids a boy for deigning to merely kick around a ball on the Sabbath. Sunday, he explains, is God’s day, and nothing should override it. His sister, however, accuses him of flailing devotion when he skips a prayer meeting for a race. He responds: “(God) made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” The scene directly following this one finds Abrahams’s friend and fellow runner Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers) explain to the soprano singing star, Sybil (Alice Krige), whom Abrahams is courting, that when Abrahams runs it is a matter of “life and death.”
Initially, this relationship with Sybil, while based on fact, seems forced, but upon reflection this is not necessarily so. Running and the Arts, really, are no different in the way that each requires – as Liddell puts it – “energy of the soul.” When artists create, they (we?) can feel His pleasure. For them (us?) it can be a matter of life and death. (In the words of the immortal Steve Prefontaine: “Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run.”) Chariots of Fire is one of the favorite movies of my mother, a published author and playwright many times over. In fact, her office in my childhood home had a yellowed picture of the film’s Liddell being raised in the arms of several post-victory and she used to go around paraphrasing one of the movie’s most memorable quotes: If you don’t write, you can’t win. (Amen.)
That comes from a moment when Sybil chastises Abrahams in the moments after he finally loses a 100 meter race……to Liddell. It’s gut-wrenching, the way director Hugh Hudson and his editor Terry Rawlings keep flashing back to the close of the race, Abrahams watching in agony as Liddell and his seemingly omnipresent innocent smile break the tape first, much in the way any sprinter worth his whistle probably does when tasting the agony of defeat. And is at this delicate moment that Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), a professional track coach, approaches Abrahams to advise he can assist him in adding the necessary couple of strides to achieve victory.
Mussabini’s professional status causes a polite uproar as it compromises the notion of Abrahams’ “amateur” status and suggests he is putting himself before God and Country, or Country and God. This is partly an anti-semitic attack, to be sure, but Abrahams dismisses them by explaining his “pursuit of excellence.” This is to say what he seeks goes past whom he is running for – it’s what he’s running for.
Same goes for Liddell, and when he learns his first qualifying heat will be contested on the Sabbath, he – like Jerry Seinfeld – chooses not to run. The British Olympic Committee and even the Prince of Wales attempt to convince him otherwise in a private meeting. Adhering to his values, he will not re-consider. Not, that is, until his teammate Lindsay, having already earned a silver medal in an earlier event, shows up and offers to cede his spot in the 400 meter dash to Liddell. Despite never having competed at that distance, Liddell accepts. This is unique because what took place in reality and is re-created in the film goes against dramatic convention. We expect a Liddell vs. Abrahams showdown, and because it does not arrive the conclusion of the film becomes something else – something deeper and richer.
By this point the audience does not expect either man to lose – regardless of whether or not they already know the actual outcome of 1924 – and so Hudson does not even attempt to hide it. Rather he films these two sequences not so much in the context of winning and losing but as an affirmation of the faiths of the two respective men.
Faith comes in all shapes and size. I will never be convinced otherwise. It can be found on a track just as it can be found in a cathedral. “I want to compare faith to running in a race.” This is what Liddell says to a crowd gathered to hear him in an early scene. “It requires concentration of will. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape. But how long does that last?” Really? How long does it last? Did you know that every year on July 7th at 7 PM – the date and time of his 100 meter gold medal run – Abrahams and his wife, Sybil, dined with Arthur Porritt, who finished third in the same race, and his wife, all the way up until Abrahams’ passing in 1978?
It lasts a pretty long time.