Directed by Hugh Hudson

Written by Colin Welland

Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Ian Holm, Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Havers, Alice Krige, Sir John Gielgud

“I believe God made me for a purpose – for China.  But He also made me fast!  And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

In 1978, producer David Puttnam was looking for the next film classic, a story concerning a character with a clear, stubborn conscience for good who never compromises it – much like Sir Thomas More in the 1966 critical smash adaptation of A Man for All Seasons.

Flu-ridden in a rented flat in Los Angeles, Putnam was searching for reading to pass the time; among his choices was a reference piece on the history of the Olympic games.

There he found his story: the true- to-life character of devout missionary and 1924 Olympian Eric Liddell, but also something more – the basis for a story that has become a phenomenon, the classic, always resonant Chariots of Fire, the most inspiring and unabashedly pure film of it’s and our generation.

The film centers on two remarkably different characters.  The previously mentioned Liddell, born in China to missionary parents and only recently returned, has indomitable faith matched in interest only by his love for running, facilitated by his incredible speed.

His future foe and then compatriot, Harold Abrahams, the son of an immigrant Lithuanian Jew, is a Cambridge scholar whose arrogance as a self-described athlete comes from the massive chip on his shoulder.

Their histories are less important than their diversity in character.  Liddell: honest, humble, a man who seems himself and all he’s worth only as a tool of his faith, his needs only to be the man that he believes God has destined him.  Which, as a missionary, is complicit in his spreading the word.

Earlier in the film, whilst coming home from church in Scotland, Liddell runs into a young boy who was kicking around a football.  He carefully, kindly rebukes the activity, reminding him that it’s the Sabbath, and then asks the boy if he’d like to play on Monday at seven in the morning.

When his sister reminds him that he has a train to catch at nine, Liddell tells her that he has time, explaining, “Do you want the boy to grow up thinking God’s a spoilsport?”

Conversely, Abrahams seeks to prove himself to everyone, to verify a superiority of his own by his running ability – to outdistance a prejudice both existent and imagined by fleet of foot alone.

Both men, out of completely dissimilar motives, find themselves at the forefront of their profession and clash at their first race in Britain.  Abrahams, mystified, watches Liddell cross the finish line first.  It is the first time the Cambridge man had lost, and after his girlfriend (Alice Krige) accuses him of acting like a child following the match he retorts, heatedly: “If I can’t win, I don’t run.”

Ben Cross is spot-on as Abrahams; fiercely headstrong, often brooding and pridefully arrogant.  There is a darkness in his eyes that has allowed him to be cast easily in villainous roles such as Malagant in 1995’s First Knight, but in Chariots it is less darkness than masked light; a small but always-lit flame in his soul that beams or pierces depending on his mood, which in turn depends on the outcome of a race.

Professional trainer Sam Mussabini – Ian Holm’s most celebrated pre-Bilbo role – takes notice of the runner and promises to help him gain “two yards”, taking him on just in time for the announcement that Abrahams, as well as his colleagues and classmates Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers) and narrator Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell), have been selected to compete at the 1924 Olympiad in Paris.

On the trip to is Liddell, who has delayed his continuance of missionary work in China to compete.  Upon finding out that the heats for his 100-meter race will be on Sunday, Liddell disappointingly but resolutely explains to the Olympic committee – including the Prince of Wales – that he cannot of sound mind disobey the laws of God.

Faith and nationalism are two sweeping themes of the film, and in the climactic scene where Liddell is in front of the committee – they spar.  Not wanting to, to quote the grumpy Lord Cadogan, “go hat in hand to the Frogs”, the committee impresses the guilt of national pride onto Liddell, who regretfully but firmly stands.  It is only by the grace of Lord Lindsay – played joyfully, wonderfully by underrated actor Havers – who gives up a race of his own just to see Liddell race, that a potential problem is resolved quickly.

Liddell, while watching a fellow Briton race after giving a special sermon of mass that Sunday morning, is asked if he had any regrets that he isn’t down there on the track with them.

He says yes, nodding, but then, with distinct sincerity, adds; “No doubts, though.”

Ian Charleson, noted stage actor at the time he was cast, immersed himself in the Bible to better understand such a powerful, special personality.  In fact, achieving incredible realism, Charleson asked writer Colin Welland if they could dispense with a scripted speech that Liddell gives following a race earlier in the film in favor of one he’d write himself.  The result is divinely wholesome and original, inspiring and meaningful in every way that a missionary like Liddell would have wanted.

It is this magnificent character development, and the earnest, perfect acting by its cast, that make the eventual dramas of the Olympic races themselves so suspenseful, interesting, and, in the end, invigoratingly emotional.

Chariots of Fire is unashamedly rousing cinema.  To be stimulated and motivated, to cheer in a sports film is a synonimity – but the film’s all-encompassing premise of faith, honor and pride make it doubly stirring.  It becomes less a matter of whether the main characters win or lose, but how and why they went about competing in the first place; the hubris of Abrahams, sculpted carefully into confidence by Mussabini, and the unwavering strength of Liddell, who runs with all his heart and soul in every race because he knows God himself is running with him.

Welland’s Academy Award-winning original script is truly in a class all its own.  His creation of events seemingly trivial in import, but so monumental in substance, drive the film through its plot with  clear, meaningful dialogue accompanied by simple, yet resoundingly emotional imagery from cinematographer David Watkin.

The slow-motion, oft-copied opening and closing sequence of the running across the beach – accompanied by Greek composer Vangelis’ immortal theme – is unforgettable.  As are other distinct, memorable sights.

Abrahams, losing his first race against Liddell, contemplates alone on the bleachers, reliving each moment of the agonizing defeat as the custodian near him shuts each seat around him with thundering clacks.  The suspenseful, almost eerie final race of Abrahams’ at the Olympics, as each competitor solemnly takes a trough and digs shallow holes in the dirt for their footing.

But most remembered, and most effective, are the emotions.

Mussabini, forbidden to attend the race because of Cambridge’s strict rules on amateurism in athletics, watches from a hotel room that parallels the track as the Union Jack runs up the pole in celebration of Abrahams’ final win.  “My son,” he tearfully says as he merrily punches a hole through his straw hat.

It’s the final race of the match, Liddell’s 100-meter win over the heavily favored Americans Jackson Scholtz and Charlie Paddock, that to me is the most poignant.

Liddell is lifted above the heads of his English compatriots, including Abrahams, to celebrate his gold-medal win.  In the stands he sees his sister and brother, at one time rigorously opposed to his choice of competing in sport rather than remaining in missionary work, and he waves at them with untainted, pure love.  His brother, his face breaking into emotion seeing such beauty in God’s name, turns to his sister and together they smile, weeping in joy at the splendor.

The title comes from William Blake’s preface to “Milton A Poem”, which during the First World War was augmented by Sir Hubert Parry as the patriotic anthem “Jerusalem”.

But, fittingly, Blake took his description from the Bible – in particular the second book of Kings in the Old Testament:

“And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.”

No doubt something that Eric Liddell would have appreciated.

Winning at the 1982 Academy Awards for Best Picture over the heavily favored On Golden Pond and Warren Beatty’s Reds – one of the rare times the A.M.P.A.S. was on form – Chariots of Fire is, probably, the greatest British film.

It is an amalgamation of the the perfection of cinematic elements, and its sweeping, daring New Age score by Vangelis doesn’t detract from its period-piece element – it adds to it, and in doing, makes it even more timeless.

Images courtesy of ivewatchedit.com and milcahjago.wordpress.com, respectively.

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