No film occupied such a central place in my childhood as Chariots of Fire, the 1981 masterpiece about the rivalry between running greats Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell at the 1924 Olympics. I can quote large portions of the film by heart—the result, ironically enough, of strict sabbatarian convictions not unlike those that provoke the central conflict of the film for the Scottish Presbyterian Liddell. As children, we were not allowed to run and play on Sundays, or enjoy any entertainment that lacked major Christian themes (once, while packing up my things for college, I chanced upon a memorandum to my parents I’d written at age 9 arguing for the presence of such themes in The Lion King). Since most of the “Feature Films for Families” barely merit one viewing, much less one every Sunday, we found ourselves returning over and over again to Chariots of Fire, all the more so since my mother was — like Abrahams’ — Lithuanian Jewish and my father of largely Scottish ancestry.
My children, you’ll be glad to hear, do run and play on Sundays, as indeed my dad does now, but I do not regret the thirty or so viewings of the Hugh Hudson-directed classic to which I was treated. After all, religious themes aside, Chariots of Fire remains a landmark of British cinema. Sporting an ensemble cast anchored by iconic British actors like Ian Holm and John Gielgud (together with breakout talents Ian Charleson and Ben Cross in the lead roles), an Oscar-winning screenplay with hardly a wasted or misplaced line, and one of the most iconic soundtracks in film history, the film deserves remembering nearly four decades later for its artistic merits alone.
But few films have combined such artistic merits with such a searching and sympathetic portrayal of Christian faith. In the most memorable conflict of the film, Liddell must ask himself how to balance his loyalty to God with the pursuit of excellence when the two seem at odds, as they do when he is asked to run on Sunday at the Paris Olympics. As over-scrupulous as this may seem to most Christians today, the basic struggle between loyalty to God and men (as the film effectively conveys) is a timeless one, and Liddell’s example remains an inspiring testimony for Christians tempted to compromise their convictions in the pursuit of advancement (especially in sports, where such temptations are more numerous than ever).
Liddell’s struggle between allegiance to his Christian God and to his craft is thrown into much sharper relief by its contrast with Abrahams, for whom running is “a weapon… against being Jewish,” a way of seeking to transcend a religious identity that bars him from full recognition in an England that is “Christian, and Anglo-Saxon, and so are her corridors of power, and those who stalk them guard them with jealousy and venom.”
Although the film is usually read in terms of these two protagonists, Christian and Jewish, it is important to note the role of these “corridors of power” as the third main “character” of the film, and as a mutual antagonist for both Liddell and Abrahams.
More than just a timeless tale of religious conviction vs. personal aspiration, Chariots of Fire is a story firmly set in the 1920s, those years in which the old world of Europe had clearly been shattered by the Great War, but did not know what to do except limp on and pretend nothing had changed. The shadow of World War I lies heavy over the film, and the young men who embark again for France in 1924 clearly carry on their backs the heavy burden of the generation that had left ten years earlier, never to return. They must carry the torch for a nation—and for institutions—whose credibility died on Flanders’ fields, but which continues to expect them, in the words of Prince Edward’s address to Liddell, “to make sacrifices” for national pride, “without which our allegiance is worthless.”
Liddell’s “inquisition” before these representatives of king and country is neatly paralleled by a scene earlier in the film where Abrahams is called before the Masters of Caius and Trinity Colleges in Cambridge to answer for what they see as his “headlong pursuit of individual glory,” undermining the institutional ideals of “loyalty, comradeship, and mutual responsibility.” Abrahams denies any such “individual vs. institution” dynamic, insisting that his pursuit of excellence is on “my family, my university, and my country,” and that the true conflict is between the snobbish aristocratic ideals of a bygone age and the gritty practicality of modernity. When they admonish him that “you are the elite, and are expected to behave as such,” he issues the stinging retort: “you yearn for victory just as I do, but achieved with the apparent effortlessness of gods. Yours are the archaic values of the prep school playground. You deceive no one but yourselves. I believe in the pursuit of excellence, and I’ll carry the future with me.” He is right, of course; the obsolescence of the aristocratic ideal in the age of the automobile and of the professional was to become thoroughly manifest in the years that followed. And yet their dismissal of his approach as the result of “a different God, a different mountaintop” is not entirely off-target either, nor should his denial of individualism be taken wholly at face value.
Abrahams’ motivations are indeed varied and complex, making his character a rather more compelling study than that of Liddell, who, however inspiring his triumph over external obstacles and temptations, remains serenely at peace with his own sense of calling for most of the film. In a revealing scene, Abrahams explains to his friend, Montague, his struggle over his Jewishness: “it’s an ache, a helplessness, an anger; one feels humiliated.” His immigrant father, he says, had done everything he could to “make true Englishmen out of his sons,” and Harold too desperately wishes to be a true Englishman, yet he still feels shut out, or allowed only into the vestibule, perhaps—“semi-deprived,” he calls it. He speaks truly when he tells the College Masters that he is not running to stand out, but to fit in, but since he does not yet fit in, the only way he knows is first to stand out—“to take them all on, one by one, and run them off their feet.”
It might be reading too much into this determination to gain acceptance by merit to see it as a reflection of Abrahams’ religion; but it might not. Indeed, the positioning of this crucial scene in the film suggests an intentional contrast with the calm assurance that the Christian Liddell enjoys. Liddell has just been shown giving a speech which (although watered-down a long way from authentic Christianity at actor Ian Charleson’s insistence) concludes “if you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.” And Liddell’s race of life is indeed comparatively straight. Although his sister, Jenny, worries that his commitment to running may interfere with his Christian work and commitment, he himself is convinced “that God made me for a purpose… he made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure,” and Liddell’s success comes from channeling this pleasure into a kind of reckless abandon on the racecourse, in sharp contrast to Abrahams’ meticulous training regimen. Liddell runs by faith, with full assurance in advance of being accepted by the only One that matters; Abrahams runs by works, doubting and groping after a feeling of acceptance and a sense of purpose that always seems to elude him.
In a twist of fate, the contest between these “different Gods” and “different mountaintops” is not settled on the racetrack after all. The Olympic 100 meters showdown toward which both men, and the film, have been building is averted by Liddell’s Sabbath conflict, which leads him to run in the 400 meters instead. Both men, and the clashing approaches they represent, are able to enjoy a cathartic moment of vindication and triumph (at the expense of their common enemy, the defunct guardians of aristocratic propriety). The final verdict between their two faiths, if we are to find it all in the film, is subtle but powerfully symbolic. The film begins with the 1978 funeral of Abrahams at St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, a Christian house of worship, and returns there for the final scene, with the choir singing “And did those feet in ancient times, walk upon England’s mountains green, and was the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen.” Abrahams did indeed convert to Christianity in 1936, so that one might well say that the “flying Scotsman,” who died as a missionary in a Japanese internment camp in 1945, triumphed in the end.