Thursday, September 18, 2014

Chariots of Fire - Love Right Through

Affection goes as deep in me as you I think, but only God is love right through, Howard; and that's my self.
~Sir Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons

The story goes that when U2 rock guitarist The Edge met Christian author Brennan Manning, he asked him, "Can I glorify God by being the best rock guitarist I can be?" Manning replied, "Absolutely you can. If that’s your calling, you can."

I suspect Eric Liddell would've agreed with Manning. Most everyone knows Liddell as the subject of the 1981 film Chariots of FireWhile the film certainly has its issues (over-use of slow-mo, groan-inducing voice-overs, a conviction of its own self-importance), it remains the best sports movie I have ever seen. Vangelis's score, much-parodied and imitated, is still absolute magic in the film, and the direction, if not astounding, is competent (I enjoyed several impressive long-takes.) I've sorted through half a dozen topics, but what ultimately compels me is the two central characters—and therefore they form the focus of this review.
Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) was a Scottish athlete in the 1924 Olympics who refused to run his signature race because it was held on a Sunday. The other prominent character (and, I'd argue, the real protagonist), is Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), Liddell's rival—an English Jew with a driving passion to prove his worth through athletic achievement. The rivalry is interesting on many levels. It is less a conflict of physical talent than of personality and identity. While Abrahams runs with a single-minded purpose to defeat racial injustice, Liddell, the son of missionaries to China, wishes to bring honor to God.

Of course, everyone knows this, because everyone knows this movie. One of the hardest things about reviewing this is separating it from its fans, the sort of evangelicals that see this as merely the story of a Christian winning stuff while the non-Christian plays second fiddle and is miserable. And it is. But it isn't. To say that's all there is to the movie is a radical oversimplification, especially given the fact that screenwriter Colin Welland is an agnostic (but with "a little flame of faith"). Unlike many Christians (or atheists), he was clear-eyed enough to paint a true, but not sanctimonious, picture of a man of faith, yet also fair enough to give the man's faith a say.

In this, I was struck by a similarity to atheist Robert Bolt, the writer of faith epics A Man for All Seasons and The Mission (and also, as it happens, Lawrence of Arabia). It’s not an idle comparison, for not only were both Welland and Bolt fascinated by the faith of Christians who refused to concede their principles to a king, but Chariots of Fire owed part of its existence to the earlier film. Producer David Puttnam was seeking a tale similar in theme to A Man for All Seasons when he came across the story of Liddell. (Incidentally, Nigel Davenport plays the role of friend/tempter to the hero in each.)

This format—Christian versus king—seems to really work when written by agnostics, and often focuses on the saints living in the world but not of it, denying the division of the sacred and the secular (can I hear an amen?). Rather than a hagiography of a devout disciple, we receive a story of a Christian man living grace through a less “theologically significant” role—in Chariots of Fire, a runner. Eric Liddell does not care about winning in itself, but only glorifying his Maker. He doesn’t have to be doing one of the accepted “Christian” things to honor God. (For another example, see the titular character in Babette's Feast, based on a short story written by agnostic Isak Dineson.)

But Eric Liddell's story is really secondary to that of Harold Abrahams. He's an equally compelling character, and has much more nuance and growth than Liddell, who remains static throughout the film. Abrahams feels like one of the most realistic representations I've ever seen of a man battling a racist culture. While not belittling the reality of anti-Semitism, neither does it deny the corrosive effect of a persecution complex. His obsession with fighting (real) racism is so narrow that when he finally does realize its finiteness, his entire identity begins to crumble. (Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, was far from allowing his oppression to define him, insisting on loving his enemies.)

Identity—the basis for self—is a major theme. In an exchange strongly reminiscent of A Man for All Seasons, the Duke of Sutherland (Peter Egan) tells Lord Birkenhead (Nigel Davenport) that by trying to force Liddell to deny his principles and run on the Sabbath, “We sought to sever his running from himself.” Abrahams, on the other hand, seeks to gain affirmation, a self, through winning races—an endeavor obviously doomed to fail. It is finite. Eric Liddell’s self is infinite—"love right through."

One doesn’t hear much about Abrahams in summaries of Chariots, possibly because he is both more conflicted and less captivating than Liddell. Personally I’ve always found him the more identifiable of the two. Realizing his value as an audience stand-in, Welland wisely gives Abrahams more screen time and relationships and leaves Eric somewhat aloof, a separate being.

Eric's virtue alone is alienating. Harold Abrahams is endearing in his folly and recognizable in his frailty. His relationship with irascible, pugnacious trainer Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) is the most poignant of the film, and we feel Abrahams’ elation and dismay just as keenly as we do Liddell’s.

Indeed, Liddell himself is quite a shy character (as he was in real life), cautious to divest his feelings before the camera. The boyish Ian Charleson’s gentle sincerity nicely defangs any hint of superiority. While recognizing his platform as a Christian athlete, the character doesn't buy into self-righteous competitiveness like many modern evangelicals, and is wary of giving pat answers to tough questions. (An interesting tidbit: Charleson read the entire Bible for the part, and wrote the speech in the rain himself, rejecting the scripted version as uninspiring and affected. He also had a truly beautiful singing voice. I think I'm in love.)

While his character could have been more flawed (Liddell was a terrible public speaker), or more developed, it seems quite true to life, for all the descriptions of the real man verge on worshipful.

The film has an overall atmosphere of British reserve, mirroring Eric’s particular quietness, so that when he does tap into the ecstatic joy, when he does “feel His pleasure,” it comes as a shock. Liddell's gangly arms wheel through the air, his head falls back, his mouth hangs open awkwardly, a pose of utter, complete abandon (“the ugliest runner who ever won an Olympic championship” wrote the Guardian in 1945, placing themselves firmly on the wrong side of history)—and yet Vangelis’s sublime score converts this foolish spectacle into a thing of beauty. Eric is a holy fool.

And it is a thing of beauty, this heightened ecstasy when fallen Adam is renewed to what he was meant to be, when in Him we live and move and have our being and run and sing and evangelize China. God's grace sanctifies ordinary earthly effort. There are very few films that capture these transcendent moments of utter rightness. Chariots has several.

The uniqueness of Eric's happiness isn't lost on our protagonist. At the emotional apex of the film, while Eric runs his final race, the camera cuts away to the stands, and there is Abrahams, his eyes glowing with something that can only be described as yearning. Maybe that's why I identify so strongly with him, for I spend much more time yearning than feeling the pleasure of God. In his eyes I read the words, This is what I want. This is what I’ve been looking for.

That moment defines the movie. Ironically enough, it wasn't in the script; it wasn't even shot on that day. The director spliced in a clip from an earlier scene, because, he said, he intended the audience to see that Abrahams was wondering whether he ever could have beaten Liddell, which of them was faster.

Which is ridiculous, because Harold Abrahams is obviously thinking no such thing. I found a Subjects with Objects pic that tells you exactly what Harold is thinking:

Abrahams' epiphany, which never fails to bring a lump to my throat, only summarizes what the film has already shown: that there is only one eternal, joyful, rock-solid foundation for self-worth, and that is God. Only in God is there satisfaction; in him there is not only Montague's contentment, but Eric Liddell's joy. We run for many reasonsto fight prejudice is one of the bestbut we come to the end of all these things. They become obsession or aimlessness. As Abrahams tells Montague: "I'm forever in pursuit and I don't even know what I am chasing."

Watching Eric, he catches a glimpse.

5 of 5 stars

Hannah Long


  1. Aaaah, my favorite film of all time! Though I confess I'm not sure which "groan-inducing" voiceovers you had in mind. Eric's voiceovers are always essential to the scene (like reading Isaiah 40 while the young men utterly fall in the mud), and Aubrey's voiceovers are just chatty and set the scenes as he journals away about the day's events.

    Speaking of Aubrey, one thing you didn't really touch on in your review is the supporting runners around Eric and Harold. To me, they're some of the best parts of the movie. I especially love how Andy, the classic young British aristocrat, sweeps in with his noblesse oblige to help out this earnest Scottish chap who needs a bit of a hand, what? "Just to see you run. I've already got my medal." I think that actor could have done a nice Scarlet Pimpernel.

    I also like the character of Sibyl, because she provides a balance to Harold's constant persecution complex. They actually give her some tough lines. She bluntly tells him to get over himself and grow up, whether it be about his persecution complex or not being as fast as Eric Liddell. He never gets sympathy from her, just honesty rooted in genuine affection. In my opinion, the film-makers overall take Harold's persecution complex too seriously. It's hard for me to hear some of his lines and not chuckle over them, when I think the makers intended them to be serious. ("Then I catch it on the edge of a remark. Feel a cold reluctance in a handshake..., etc.") I'm inclined to respond like Sibyl: "Fiddlesticks." But it's to their credit that they included such a well-realized character and voice on the other side.

    P. S. Thanks for the clip of Charleson's voice, I greatly enjoyed it. Unfortunately he was homosexual and succumbed to an immune breakdown a couple years after the making of this film.

    1. I meant the voice-over during the last race. It was far too on-the-nose. They might as well have been holding up a sign that said This Is What It Means. Not very subtle.

      As for Aubrey, he falls under this paragraph:

      "I've sorted through half a dozen topics, but what ultimately compels me is the two central characters—and therefore they form the focus of this review."

      I swear it took me ages to pare this review down to something manageable. I have an entire post composed of the miscellanea that was trimmed away. Included is some information on the bloke that played Lindsay, pointing out that he played a role that resembled the real-life Eric Liddell's life in China:

      "In an odd twist of fate (bringing balance to the force, perhaps,) The Ultimate Aristocrat Nigel Havers would minister to the poor and sick in a WWII Chinese prisoner-of-war camp in Empire of the Sun. He was also a father-figure to Christian Bale's Jim Graham, continuing the similarities to "Uncle Eric." Recently he was in Downton Abbey."

      Yeah, I knew about Charleson - it makes that small clip all the more poignant.

    2. Oh, I couldn't disagree more on the final voiceover! But hey, that's what vigorous film criticism is all about---just look at Siskel & Ebert. :-)

      I know, so much to discuss! I teach English as a second language and recently assigned an advanced student to do an essay on this film. When I sat down to give him some topic choices, I must have come up with just about half a dozen, at least!

      Thanks for the summary of Nigel Havers' other work, will have to check him out. The old fox is aging quite well these days---have you seen him hosting the "Real Chariots of Fire" documentary. Wonderful collection of vintage footage spliced with film clips and full of cool info.


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