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.

A Brief Speculation on Flashman’s Career, part 4: 1860-1868

We have now reached the hinge-point in Sir Harry Flashman’s career. Up till now, we have had a fairly consistent account with occasional breaks. From here, we have little but hints and references, with the occasional account. I propose to continue by using actual recorded events as the punctuation point between phases.
We left Flashman falling unconscious in the whore-house in Hong Kong being run by the Reverend and Mrs Carpenter. Flashman has attempted to blackmail Phoebe Carpenter into bed and she has retaliated by having him drugged, preparatory to his being shipped out somewhere.
When I first read the Eighth Packet, I naively assumed that Flashman would be spirited away to America, there to commence his long involvement in the Civil War. However, it’s now been reasonably established that Flashman did not become involved until 1862, at the earliest, so some other destination was involved.
I had originally intended to place Flashman’s Solomon Islands/Fly River country experiences alongside his visits to Australia and the Philippines, between 1850 – 1853, purely on geographical grounds, until I made the connection. According to his Who’s Who entry, Flashman was acting as trader and Christian Missionary during his time in that area, west of Papua New Guinea.
The connection with a shanghaing by a Christian Minister is too obvious to ignore. Flashman is shipped out to the Solomon Islands or Fly River, where he sees the jungle, before escaping and finally making his way back to England, and Elspeth, presumably in 1861. He holds a blackjack bank at one point, on board the South Sea Trader!
We have his offhanded mention to confirm that, early in 1862, he was at the Curragh, assisting HRH The Prince of Wales inspecting troops. Flashman has not mentioned acquaintance with the Prince at any earlier stage, and I would assume the appointment to have been organised by Victoria herself. This incident is infamous: Prince Albert himself came out to inspect his son’s progress, but contracted an illness that killed him shortly thereafter. Victoria blamed her son for the rest of her life and withdrew from public view for a long time. Does anyone else suspect that Flashman may have had a poltroonish role to play in all this?
Now we come to the great Lost Adventure, the one all Flashman fans wanted to read but which, unaccountably, Fraser became unwilling to write. When it comes to considering this, Flashman has given away more hints about his involvement in the American Civil War than any other unchronicled aspect of his career, enough for us to build a decent outline.
According to Flashman’s Who’s Who entry, he joined the Union Army as a Major in 1862, in circumstances unknown, but you can bet that it wasn’t willingly. Flashman does mention being blackmailed (presumably over his escapades as Beauchamp Comber) by President Lincoln into ‘saving his Union and risking my military reputation’. Given that the Union Army and its Generals prosecuted a poor campaign for at least the first two years of the war, Lincoln may simply have forced Flashman to sign up to the Army to improve its fortunes.
Or, which I find marginally more likely, the blackmail may have been to force Flashman to enter Confederate territory as a spy, travelling to the Southern White House in Virginia, i.e. the home residence of the South’s only ‘President’, Jefferson Davies.
We know from numerous references that Flashman was found on the roof of the building, but that he successfully persuaded Davies and his staff that he was there to repair the lightning conductor, escaping the consequences of being discovered as a spy, and subsequently receiving a handwritten letter of thanks from Davis!
Flashman went on, in 1863, to serve as a Colonel in the Confederate Army, under, so far as we know, his own name. How this was reconciled with his impersonation of a handyman we can only imagine, but in this role he served directly under Robert E Lee, at Gettysburg, hinting that his military advice was the main reason why this was not a massive military victory for the South, and the taking of Washington.
He was also present at the earlier Battle of Chancellorsville, where famously ‘Stonewall’ Jackson died as a result of friendly fire (undoubtedly thanks to Flashman).
At some point, Flashman was imprisoned in the infamous Confederate Prison, Libby Prison. As this had been reserved exclusively for Union officers since 1862, we have two options for when this occurred. Either Flashman was captured at some point in 1862 as an open Union officer, or, which I personally find more likely, he was exposed as a Union officer at some late point in 1863 and imprisoned then.
This would place him in custody at the time of the notable Libby prison Escape of February 1864, when a hundred Union officers escaped and returned to Union lines. Certainly, Flashman has several times referenced accompanying General Sherman in his devastating March Through Georgia, to the sea, that accelerated the end of the War, which took place between November and December that year. His appearance at Yellow Tavern took place earlier that year.
From there to the end of the War, Flashman has left no notes of his whereabouts or doings. We know him to have been present at Appamattox Courthouse, and to have witnessed Lee’s formal Surrender to Grant, and to have been back in Washington a few days later – presumably as part of the delegation sent to report victory to President Lincoln – where he had a private audience with the President. It appears, however, that Flashman arrived there with Lee’s hotly-pursued delegation, which indicates that he was back on the Southern side of affairs again!
Flashman was also present at Ford’s Theatre, though it seems to be beyond Fraser’s powers to have placed him in the Presidential box for Booth’s actual shot, and we may assume he was close at hand until Lincoln was declared dead, but we have no further evidence of his presence in America at this time.
Flashman implies at one point that he returned to England for brief reunions (plural: at least two) with Elspeth during the five years from 1862 to 1867. It is more than likely that once the Civil War was officially over, and Lincoln, the only other man to know the full details of Flashman’s service was dead, he returned to England.
Whether he returned during the Civil War is entirely speculative. The only time there seems to have been room for such a visit would be the 1864 – 1865 period, but the problem with this is that, having escaped from American, what could have got him back to the New World when the War was still in progress?
After the Civil War, Flashman returns to England and is reunited with Elspeth, albeit for a fairly short time. His next known adventure is in Mexico, as aide de camp to the Emperor Maximilian, towards the end of his short reign.
Fraser has supplied a surprising amount of detail about this escapade, though most of it is concentrated upon the fall-out, and Maximilian’s execution. What we do know is that he joins Maximilian in February 1867, on the run from the Foreign Legion, who want him as a deserter, and that prior to joining Maximilian, he took part in a bandit raid organised by Jesus Montero, who is under the impression that Flashman knows the whereabouts of Montezuma’s Treasure.
We know the end: can we suggest a plausible beginning?
I have already tentatively assigned Flashman a period in the Foreign Legion twenty years previously, with his bullet wound incurred during desertion. Once more, this is being made up out of whole cloth, but what if…?
Flashman has once again left the country, perhaps for recreational purposes, possibly France. There, his vicious tastes lead to an encounter with an old adversary, someone who was his superior during his previous service with the Legion, and who, perhaps, was punished for allowing Flashman’s desertion.
This adversary is supervising a fresh shipment of Legion troops to join those currently in Mexico, supporting Maximilian. Flashman is seized and transported back to the Americas.
How does Flashman escape the Legion a second time? We know he was with Jesus Montero’s bandits for a time, so I’m positing that the Legion platoon Flashman was with was ambushed and slaughtered by the bandits, but that Flashman survived by promising Montero to lead him to Montezuma’s treasure.
During his time with the bandits, Flashman takes part in an attack on Maximilian and his train, possibly when they are en route to Juarez, where Maximilian removed his court in February 1867. As Flashman was sentenced to execution, and was even led out to face the firing squad during his time in Mexico, it would seem he was captured. However, he somehow convinces Maximilian that he was aiding his men, which presumably leads to his letter of reprieve (and the oft-mentioned San Serafino Order of Truth and Purity). In gratitude, Maximilian appoints Flashman aide de camp, and when the Legion come to demand his return, the Emperor refuses. This may prove to be a factor in the Legion withdrawing from Mexico, leaving the Emperor vulnerable.
Flashman remains in Juarez until the end. He encounters,and is unable to seduce, Princess Agnes Salm-Salm. The Republic overwhelms and captures Maximilian.
Flashman then joins in the near-successful attempt by Aggy Salm-Salm and Montero (an unlikely pair: I’m not even going to try to guess how they come together, though I’d be surprised if Montero wasn’t still playing for the Treasure). However, Maximilian refuses to escape, as being below his royal dignity, and Flashman watches the execution from concealment on a nearby roof.
He is then chosen to escort Maximilian’s body home, to Trieste, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which leads to his next recorded exploit. Anxious to escape the consequences of seducing the Captain’s teenage daughter, Flashman agrees to escort British funds to Egypt, where General Sir Bob Napier is mounting an expedition into Abyssinia, to recover British hostages help by its mad Emperor, Theodore.
Unfortunately, his fame having traveled before him as usual, Flashman is persuaded into another intelligence role, keeping distant of the main advance on a cross-country trek to the Galla tribe, where he is to persuade them to cut off Theodore’s escape routes. It is his first military service for his country since Pekin.
Flashman is successful, at the cost of alienating his native guide, Uliba-Wark (trying to kick people over waterfalls can do that). When she spirits him away to exact revenge, he falls into the hands of Theodore, and witnesses the end of the campaign, and Theodore’s suicide, from inside the fortress Magdala. Still, he survives, with his undeserved credit further advanced, still hoping for peace and quiet.