Director: Hugh Hudson
Time: Aprx. 2 hours
Movie Review: Christopher C. Harmon
Abrahams kneels between the crossed lines of white chalk with something very near reverence. His eyes appraise the earth and cinder track. Slowly, with a silver blade, he makes three cuts and scoops away the hard ground between them with curved fingers. Charles Paddock stands. His own footholds are already prepared; he plays his blade against an open palm, and turns a proud and deathly stare upon the man who kneels. Charles Paddock is the greatest sprinter of his day. And it is a great race that he is about to lose.
Chariots of Fire is said to take its name from a poem by that Englishman of effusive soul, William Blake. An original screenplay written by Colin Welland from historical fact, it chronicles the story of two British champions, a Scot named Eric Liddell and an Englishman, Harold Abrahams. Friends, they run once against each other, and once (in the 1924 Olympics) against the world. Their souls are different, and their backgrounds divergent. Their stories are united by a shared love of God, England, manly sport, and victory. Whether these form a true hierarchy, or only an amalgam of fine allegiances, is, I take it, the theme of the film.
Liddell (played by Ian Charleson) is an extraordinarily pious man, but one who loves to run and win as much as to preach and pray. As he explains gently to his rather small-souled sister, partner in his ministry, “God made me for a purpose, and that purpose is [missionary work in] China. But he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
Harold Abrahams runs without a trace of Eric’s joy. “Ruthless” is the appellation the sportswriters give to this 100 meters man. The naturalized son of a Lithuanian Jew, Abrahams is emphatically English and “Caius College [Cambridge] first and last.” But he is also “defensive to the point of pugnacity” about the subtle anti-Semitic tone in many a loose remark made around him. As Abrahams confides several times, anger drives him to so many victories.
Between training sessions of the utmost seriousness, Abrahams journeys north to Scotland to cover for Caius College Liddell’s brilliant races. His admiration for Eric’s courage becomes profound; deeper still is his desire to best him. They compete only once, in the 100 meters in London, in 1923. Abrahams finishes a full stride behind “The Flying Scotsman.” Some of Director Hugh Hudson’s finer sequences follow, in the emptied stadium where Abrahams relives again and again the agonized final steps of the sprint. His shoulders slump, and the air is broken by the whip-like crack of wooden chairs snapped upright by a clean-up man, moving steadily along an aisle.
The eighth modern Games open in Paris in 1924, before a world which expects Olympians to be amateurs at athletics and gentlemen in victory and defeat. Before the Games, Abrahams creates a small scandal by hiring Sam Mussabini, a professional trainer who pledges to find those two extra strides within him that beating the Scotsman will require. Abrahams’s Master at Cambridge criticizes this move as a “headlong pursuit of individual glory.” Abrahams replies curtly: “What I intend to achieve is for my family, my university, and my country, and I bitterly resent you suggesting otherwise.” “Your aim is to win at all costs.” “Perhaps, sir, you would rather I play the gentleman and lost.” “To playing the tradesman, yes.” In Paris, Abrahams and Mussabini take a room near the stadium, apart from the team. The old man applies his ointments, and the athlete awaits those “ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence.”
On the ship from Dover, Liddell discovers that his 100 meter heat will be run on the Sabbath. He refuses to participate. A hastily assembled committee of English sports dignitaries advises him not to neglect his countrymen and his king. “If I win,” Eric responds, “I win for God. To run would be against God’s law.” Scowling, an old patriarch admonishes him: “In my day, it was King before God.” “God made countries,” rejoins Eric, “and God made kings and the rules by which they govern.” The crisis is overcome by the film’s most likeably-English Englishman, Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers). He offers to swap his 400 meter event for Liddell’s 100, “just to see you run.” Liddell runs. He runs with head thrown back, mouth gaping wide, arms swinging gracefully at first, and then flailing the air in anticipation of the tape. His victory is overwhelming.
There is a way in which Harold Abrahams is always alone. He is more than ever alone in his 100 meter final: Liddell is not beside him, and the Americans Charles Paddock and Jackson Scholz have beaten him in earlier heats. Even Sam Mussabini, professional and thus person non grata at the Games, awaits the outcome of the event pacing in the hotel. On the track, Abrahams and Paddock take to their marks. In this brief scene, the efforts of the film’s many artists achieve the culmination of excellence. The rattles and the roars of the stands are silenced; we are made to hear only the slice of silver tools in the track and grittiness beneath spiked shoes. Our attention is arrested by Paddock’s intimidating gaze, and then focused on the swing of the golden charm that marks each movement of Abrahams’s dark shoulders.
Abrahams’s triumph over both Scholz and Paddock is complete. Hours later and none too sober, Mussabini and the victorious Abrahams sit quietly in a deserted cafe. Mussabini reflects: “You always thought of yourself as ruthless, hard, kind of a loner like me. But you care-you care about the things that really matter.”
The film’s attention to the things that really matter takes it beyond athletics. It invites us to contemplate the rival claimants to the souls of the young. When Abrahams visits the church at Cambridge, its panels of old stained glass light his features; when he takes dinner at a Cambridge restaurant, its tall modern windows feature cricket champions, posing with their bats. Religion and athletics represent for these Britains the terms of the spectrum of human virtue, within which there exists a variety of worthy activities. Among these the characters in Chariots of Fire wind individual, but thoughtfully chosen paths. Abrahams runs “for my family, my university, and my country,” and not a little for himself. Eric Liddell runs because God gave him gifts, and obliged him to use them. Before an audience of adoring Scots, he compares his life’s work to hip races: “So where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.”
Taken together, this film’s many speeches—some witty, some stately, some of simple eloquence, all very English—are an inspiring reflection upon athletics and the human character. The Church of St. Mary’s in the Strand, which greets us as the film begins, is a fit metaphor for this film’s characters. Like its grand architecture, they are upright, clean, and noble. The heroes in Chariots of Fire are everything demanded of those who would achieve a true measure of greatness: “spirited, yet gentle. . . lovers of victory when it comes to virtue, but without envy.”