Given our continued fascination with World War One and our post-Olympics desire to find inspiring sporting stories, I’m surprised that Hugh Hudson’s film of Chariots of Fire does not have a higher profile. It’s still more remembered as a (somewhat old-fashioned) success of the past rather than an engaging text of the present.
Some of its race scenes are, I think, brilliantly done and can be re-watched separately for their narratives of individual effort and courage : the “college dash” round the quadrangle by Harold Abrahams and Lord Andrew Lindsay while the clock strikes twelve; Eric Liddell’s Scotland run against France at Edinburgh where he makes up a quarter of a lap watched by a disbelieving Abrahams; Liddell’s Olympics win, where his devout voice-over suggests his Christian faith has made his victory almost inevitable.
The film contains other great scenes of the psychology of the sportsman. For example, the sequence of Abrahams’ campaign of practice and progress, incited by his anger at anti-Semitic prejudice and depicted to the strains of Gilbert and Sullivan. A few minutes later, Abrahams presents his vision to coach Sam Mussabini at their first meeting, “I want that Olympic medal..I can see it there…but I can’t get it on my own”, and Mussabini wittily brings him down to earth with “it’s the coach that should do the asking”.
Mussabini anticipates Eric Liddell’s later move to 400 metres running by telling Abrahams that the shorter distance doesn’t fully use Liddell’s gifts. The longer distance is more suitable for athletes of grit and courage and endurance like Liddell (“a gut runner”), while the 100 metres is “run on nerves” and is “tailor made for neurotics,” and therefore suited to Abrahams, who confesses to being a running “addict”. Abrahams later foresees his 100 metres final as “ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence”, an idea which I often heard recycled, if more kindly, by the media during the 2012 Olympics.
The period of Chariots of Fire is very much that of World War One. The earliest part of the story is set in 1919. No characters are specifically described as having served in the war, or having protested against it. However, both Abrahams and Liddell are presented as post-World War One characters, seeing the weaknesses in traditional national loyalties. Abrahams knows the British establishment prefers those who are Anglo-Saxon and Christian but believes these corridors of power can be trespassed by determination and dedication. Liddell believes that the Christian message is not fully heeded but that when applied it has overwhelming power. As he preaches at the Church of Scotland in Paris, “All nations, before (God), are as nothing”.
Abrahams is too young to have seen active service at the front, and all his fellow athletes in the film are equally fresh-faced. Abrahams appreciates his good fortune in missing the war, a comment which earns the approval of the assistant porter when he first arrives at Caius , even while the senior porter is annoyed by Abrahams’ self-confidence, and comments snidely about his Jewish surname. In the next scene of the college dinner, the Master of Caius delivers a sober welcome over shots of the lists of war casualties in the wood-panelled hall, exhorting the new students to apply in peace-time the same standards of self-sacrifice and effort shown by their predecessors on the battlefield .
A key scene comes later when the two university dons, the Master of Caius and the Master of Trinity, challenge Abrahams for infringing the university’s long- established amateur sports code. Abrahams defends his employment of an Italian-Arab professional coach as modern and fore-sighted against the dons’ “archaic” values and states, “I’ll carry the future with me”.
When Eric Liddell refuses to compete in his Olympics 100 metres heat on a Sunday, the upper-class British Olympic Committee of Lord Birkenhead, Lord Cadogan and the Prince of Wales all try to convince him to change his mind out of patriotism. However, the Duke of Sutherland, the committee President, clearly of the same generation as Abrahams and Liddell, suggests that the carnage of the war has shown that many of the old loyalties are flawed and outdated. He sees Liddell as “a true man of principle” who should be respected. Although his sympathy is not enough to win the day for Liddell until the athletic aristocrat, Lord Andrew Lindsay, provides a practical solution.
Some other young members of the British athletics team still represent pre-war values. Although the aristocratic Lindsay is always shown in an attractive and sympathetic light, he is a stereotypical gentleman amateur who does his serious running only a few feet away from cigar and champagne. Fellow athlete Aubrey Montague’s voice-over suggests that he still responds to traditional bonds of national loyalty : “we’re here (at the Olympics) for Britain, and we know it”.
Although characterised as someone fighting against anti-Semitic prejudice, the ambitious Abrahams is never shown as a practitioner of the Jewish faith. While Abrahams uses his individual effort and Mussabini’s professional help to “take on” the Christian establishment, Liddell puts his faith in God to carry him through. Liddell believes his religious faith is entirely relevant to modern life. He explains to his sister, “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure…to win is to honour him”. That this may give him an advantage in competition with people of lesser faith is acknowledged by his US rival Jackson Schultz whose “good luck” note acknowledges that God said in the Bible, “he who honours me, I will honour”.
On the film’s initial release in 1981, I felt that the rivalry of Abrahams and Liddell had an obvious real-life parallel in British Olympians Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. The gritty and sometimes surly Ovett seemed like Abrahams, and Coe, the graceful and more approachable record-breaker, seemed like Liddell. In later athletics, Coe probably showed as much determination as Ovett/Abrahams, although you could argue that in his political career he has shown a Liddell-like wish to see beyond the world of training and races and individual glory.
Despite its many strengths, the one feature which I do feel dates the film now is the fashion-conscious 1980s music by Vangelis. One or two rough and dissonant sections, such as the one which accompanies Abrahams’s defeat to Liddell, still work well due to their unfamiliarity, but the more swooping and bombastic parts undermine rather than enforce the visuals. I wonder how the score might work with a more restrained, perhaps Edwardian-style arrangement? Perhaps changes were made for last year’s theatre production.
I remember the film’s writer Colin Welland saying that he found Eric Liddell rather than Harold Abrahams the more sympathetic and admirable character. Perhaps because, as someone of left-of-centre political views, Welland saw Liddell as a champion of community with Abrahams as more individualistic. If the narrative resonates with younger audiences now, I suspect it is for its two examples of individual striving against institutional opposition and prejudice – and certainly not the importance of religious faith.
Of course, it’s easy to forget in the middle of the drama how even struggling outsiders Abrahams and Liddell would have lived very privileged lives in comparison to most others in 1920s Britain.