Film 2020: Chariots of Fire


Until the last moment, I intended something different for this weekend’s viewing, but my head wasn’t there for that DVD. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Chariots of Fire, too long in fact when it still shares the record for the film I saw most often in cinemas, and the choice was inspired.

Chariots of Fire – produced by David Puttnam, written by Colin Welland, directed by Hugh Hudson – appeared in 1981 and was voted Best Picture at the Oscars, a deserved award. It’s an historical drama, depicting the efforts of two British Olympic runners who won Gold Medals at the 1924 Paris Olympiad. The film is historically true where it can be but no historical picture ever reflects history with fidelity, and many things were changed, for dramatic effect, for simplification, because figures of the time refused to participate or allow their name to be used (in one instance out of modesty), and due to a complete error.

The film starred a cast of more-or-less unknowns, though Nigel Havers as the fictional Lord Andrew Lindsay, was already familiar from television. But the film’s two principal roles, Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams and Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell, had no great footprint with the public. This was Puttnam’s intention: the senior players are veterans of great skill, such as Ian Holm as the trainer, Sam Mussabini, and Sir John Gielgud and Lyndsay Anderson as two Cambridge Masters, and there are well-established actors like Nigel Davenport (Lord Birkenhead), David Yelland (the Prince of Wales), Peter Egan (the Duke of Sutherland) and Cheryl Campbell (Jennie Liddell, Eric’s sister), but the runners at the centre of things, which include Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell), have no face recognition, no prior associations, making them better able to be these bright, gifted, sometimes privileged young men of that first generation after The Great War, who helped to forge a society severed from its own past by the destruction and death.

The film begins with an awkward device: not just a flashback but a double flashback, which constitutes the majority of the film. Harold Abrahams, who became the elder statesmen of British Athletics, died in early 1978. The film begins at his memorial service, with a laudatory address from the aged Lindsay, referring to himself and Montague, as the only survivors of that running squad, before dissolving back to that iconic scene, accompanied by our first introduction to that extraordinary theme music created by Vangelis Papathanassiou. Twenty or so fresh young men, running in slow-motion along the water’s edge on a curved beach, dressed in the athletic gear of the early Twenties. They are Atheticism in motion (all the runners received three months intense training to make them look authentic and brother, they certainly do), and their heels splash water and wet sands into the faces of those in the rear, as the camera slides back through them, resting on faces we will grow to know.

The spine of the film is real. Aubrey Montague (in real-life he used hids first name, Evelyn) wrote to his mother daily. When Welland was researching the film, his son provided all these letter, and they are read through the film to link the various stages the Cambridge runners go through.

And through Montague’s letters, we pass through our second flashback, to 1919, to the simultaneous arrival at rooms in Cambridge of Montague and Abrahams.

The tone of one part of the film is set instantly. Abrahams, no matter how English he is, even to being an Army Lieutenant, is the son of a Lithuanian Jew. Moreover, he is a Jew. He sees prejudice and anti-Semitism all around him, and is engaged in a constant fight to prove himself, to force them to accept him. Which ‘them’ is that? The film constantly shows, in carefully drawn, bordering upon but not quite overt manners, that Abrahams is looked down, his achievements carefully diminished. In a fictional version of the Collee Dash, Abrahams succeeds in racing round the Quad in the time it takes midday to strike, raced by the last-minute Lindsay: Abrahams succeeds by a whisker, Lindsay fails by the same margin (in real life, Abrahams never did this and Lindsay’s original did, several years later, one of only two people to do the challenge). The Masters, looking one, openly express regret that the ‘wrong’ person has succeeded.

This is Abrahams’ life, the force behind his drive to win, to run them off their feet. He can be their equal, but only by being their better. Cross expresses this intensity, this obsession, even the petulance in the face of failure, the prospect of defeat, to perfection. He is what you imagine Abrahams to be, and you are on his side from his first appearance.

But this is only one half of the film. Abrahams and Liddell were both gold-medal winners but they were both, in their differing ways, unusual characters, driven by a force both within and without themselves. Eric Liddell is a gifted sportsman, anationally known Rugby player, a Scottish international. He’s gifted elsewhere, a China-born, Scotland-educated son of a Christian missionary, who has inherited, perhaps in even greater magnitude, his father’s faith, his father’s vocation. He will go back to China, he will be a missionary, he will preach the love and honour of the God in whom he believes so devoutly. He has a purpose.

And his younger sister, Jennie, fears that he will gorget that purpose, that he will ruin himself, by divertig his attention to this meaningless running, this unChristian pursuit of personal glory. (This was a generous consent by Jennie Liddell Somerville who, in real-life, believed in Eric’s running and supported him, allowing herself to be portrayed as a fanatic, the epitome of Scottish Calvinism).

Liddell is faster than Abrahams. Charleson is equally commanding in his part, calm, collected, built around a solid core of unwavering belief. He also did wonders in depicting the real Liddell’s ungainly, ugly running style. His ever word rings of conviction, not an arrogant conviction that because he is a Christian he is right but that honour to his God and a willingness to submit to his lead is right, because God is right.

It’s through Liddell that Abrahams is able to contact Sam Mussabini, a professional trainer, an abhorrance in the face of amateur athletics. Abrahams wants Sam to coach him, to get him two extra yards for the 100m. The rough-cut, Italo-Arabic Sam, sees the potential in Harold, and the two form a partnership despite the warnings of the Masters that it’s not ‘the done thing’. What do they mean? Do they dream of the pure and irreproachable gentleman amateur who contrasts to Abrahams acting like the tradesman, or is their distinction between Christian and Jew? it’s one of the very few times in the film where you could make a case for the former, but the shades are too grey to say that the latter is far from their minds.

Abrahams’ obsession leads to rocky paths in his relationship with Sylvia Gordon, leading soprano with the D’Oyly Carte. Here’s the slip: in real-life, Abrahams didn’t meet Syliva, who he married, until ten yearslater but the film confuses Sybil Gordon with another D’Oyly Carte soprano, Sybil Evers, who Abrahams marries.

In contrast, despite Jennie’s constant onjections, Liddell has the easier path, convincing her with the heartfelt words that ‘God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.’

But this cannot be all. On the gangplank onto the boat to France, Liddell is shocked to hear that the heat for his race will be run on a Sunday: he cannot and will not run on the Sabbath, God’s day. It’s a stance, or rather a conviction he holds to firmly, unflinchingly, even in the face of a committee consisting of Lord Birkenhead (the squad’s mentor), the Duke of Sutherland (President of the British Olympic Committee), Lord Cadogan (Committe Chairman) and Liddell’s future King – though not for as long as everyone would have expected then, the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII.

In real life, Liddell knew months in advance and the solution, running in the 400m instead, was agreed in advance rather than coming as a generous, self-sacrificing suggestion from Lindsay that he take the young Lord’s place.

The events of the Games flash by almost impressionistically. Runners run. Lindsay gets a Silver medal, Abrahams is beaten in the 200m, Montague falls and fails. The American pair, Charlie Paddock and Jackson Scholz, collect medals like gundrops.

But Liddell wins the 400m, and his vindication is the sight of his sister Jennie, whose presence is the blessing he so wants. And Abrahams, coming up to the point that everything his life within this film has pointed to, almost as scared to win as to lose, because he hasn’t looked further than this moment, wins the 100m.

But there’s a third person in this film, one who’s studiously placed himself in a background role throughout, but who’s every bit as much a part in Abrahams’ race as the runner himself and that’s Sam. Mussabini’s a professional, unwelcome in the home of the Games. He has to listen to the crowd roar. We inside the film know Abrahams has won, have already seen his friends crowd him to hug, and cheer and back thump, have seen Liddell come to give his hand too, whilst Charlie Paddock gives him a long stare. But for Sam it’s the long wait, until he hears the Anthem being played shakily, sees the Union jack rising, before he knows that Abrahams has done it, that he’s done it, the thing he’s longed for and for longer that Abrahams has been alive, the thing that can nver be taken away.

And after he’s called his charge Mr Abrahams throughout, decent, respectable, man to master, he sits on his bed and half-whispers, ‘Harold’. He punches out the crown of his ubiquitous straw boater. And says, ‘My son. My son.’

I’m going to mention one last piece of historical distortion. Just before he races in the 400m final, Liddell receives a folded note, given to him by his rival, Jackson Scholz. It contains a quote from the bible: “In the old book it says: ‘He that honours me I will honour.’ Wishing you the best of success always.” In real life that came from his team-mates and was delivered by a masseur.

And we slide out of our long flashback, that has long since swallowed the earlier one, back to Harold Abrahams’ funeral, as a choir sings Jersualem, and in which we hear the words, ‘Bring me my Chariots of Fire’. The aged Lindsay and Montague leave the Church, Montague who, in real-life, died in 1948 and who went to Oxford, not Cambridge. And Lindsay delivers the final line: “He did it. he ran them off their feet”, as captions record the futures of our runners: for Harold, marriage, success, a commitment to his sport: for Eric, his mission in China, to death in a Japanese Internment Camp in 1945, and Scotland’s mourning.

Then we flashback once again, to the beach and the runners, the young men in the height of their power and glory, captions provided as we pass the faces we now know, withheld to the end so that the athletes could only be the athletes, and Vangelis’ theme, that extraordinary yet strangely perfect intrusion of 1980s electronic music into the lovingly created world of sixty years before, swells again before fading into silence and the dark.

Looking at the film overall, and withut detracting from the fact that I still enjoy it immensely, I couldn’t avoid noticing how musch the early part of the film relied upon exposition. There was a tremendous amount of telling, to establish who these unfamiliar people are, where they are and what background to come from. It was scene after scene of Tell, not Show, with characters explaining themselves for the audience. In Abrahams’ case, it had the effect of sealing Montague’s role in the picture: first he listens to Harold, then he listens to everyone else, and rarely does he get to do more than nod, smile or look grave. Farrell has to go through every expression in his locker, and return for a repeat cycle. I felt sorry for him.

And it can’t help but be mentioned that the Cambridge elite is an elite, and that whilst Liddell is a humble highland Scot, the closest the film comes to including a ‘working class’ viewpoint, his sporting prowess has already drawn him into the elite.

Throughout this review, I’ve gone on about the points at which the film retreats from absolute fidelity to the history. There is a purpose to mentioning these, I’ve not just parroted the details from Wikipedia, you know. There are a considerable number of them, some of them quite fundamental to events. Some are enforced by restrictions: Lord Burghley, Lindsay’s original, refused use of his name, as did another survivor of that Running Squad, whilst the New Zealander, ‘Tom Watson’, was portrayed accurately, but the real Olympian begged the film not to use his real name as he did not wish to be picked out among his countrymen, as being above them. An honourable wish, honoured gracefully.

But go back through those times the film distorts the history. Every single one is dramatically superior, makes the film tighter, heightens the emotion of the scene. The most egregious one is Liddell’s supposed ‘last minute’ discovery of the Sunday heat. Portrayed as such, it deepens Liddell, makes his belief al the more deep and admirable, and effecting, maintaining it in the face of pressure from Peers and Princes, who cannot make him compromise.

That never happened, but it is a better film for it to happen. All the changes do that. The note coming from Scholz, on the track itself, held as he races, makes the emotion of the scene stronger: it is an enemy, an opponent, who steps out of that opposition to signal his understanding and appreciation of Liddell’s belief, not his own team-mates. The dramatic core and the film’s truth are thus enhanced, and the film we watch is so much more noving for these things. Dramatic Licence is not such a bad thing when deployed sympathetically.

On a Sunday morning of August sun, I would read the true story with admiration and enjoyment. But to translate that into a film on the same day, I want the proper emphasis, no matter how ‘fake’ it might be.

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