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OSCARS REVISITED, 1981: CHARIOTS OF FIRE

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by Marilyn Ferdinand
February 3, 2012 6:12 AM
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[EDITOR'S NOTE: In a yearly feature titled "Oscars Revisited," Press Play takes a look back at the Academy Awards race from earlier eras. Our inaugural series focuses on the five Best Picture nominees from calendar year 1981: Reds, Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Chariots of Fire.]

When Bud Greenspan loosed his 22-part documentary TV series The Olympiad on the world in 1976, he created a template by which all future Olympic-related works would be judged. Scoring the title sequence with Charpentier’s Te Deum, he signaled the godlike grandeur of the Olympian with Baroque pomp. Chariots of Fire, influenced by Greenspan in its lofty view of pure athletics and idealized, Oscar-winning score by Vangelis, is typical of the kind of Anglophile, prestige film the Academy favors. It is also a rare, accurate biopic with an above-average script (it won the best screenplay Oscar as well). This inspirational 1981 film tells the true story of the track team Britain sent to the Paris Olympics in 1924. Tellingly, it concentrates on two runners who stand apart from the upper-crust Cambridge men who comprise a major chunk of the team. The first is Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a hard-driving Jewish law student at Cambridge who uses winning races as a cudgel against anti-Semitism. The second is Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), the son of a Scottish missionary who intends to follow in his fatherʼs footsteps, but has earned the nickname “The Flying Scotsman” for his prowess as a rugby player and sprinter.

Ben Cross portrays Harold Abrahams in "Chariots of Fire."

A turning point for Abrahams comes when he watches Liddell run. Not only does he see that his unbroken winning streak can be threatened by the awkward but fast Liddell, but he also meets Sam Massabini (Ian Holm), a professional track coach who has tried unsuccessfully to recruit Liddell. Abrahams persuades Massabini to come see him run, and Massabini agrees to coach him, an arrangement that displeases two Cambridge dons (Sir John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson) with a strong commitment to the notion of amateurism. Abrahams ignores their protest, gives them a tongue lashing for trying to impede progress, and starts to train for the Olympics with Massabini, who becomes something of a surrogate father to him.

Liddell faces resistance as well when his sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell) worries that his Olympic dream will tear him away from what is truly important—God and his ministry. While admitting that he has let running crowd out other aspects of his life, he tells Jennie, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” He also has to endure pressure from the Prince of Wales himself for refusing to run a qualifying heat in Paris on the sabbath.

Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell defeating Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams in "Chariots of Fire."
Chariots of Fire takes few liberties with the facts, but screenwriter Colin Welland and director Hugh Hudson arrange them in such a way as to make the underlying story a conflict between mortal men and God. Indeed, the very title of the film quotes from a very pertinent book of the Torah,  Kings, and is requoted in the hymn that closes the film “Jerusalem.” The film toggles between holy churches and earthly temples—in one scene, Hudson’s camera lingers amusingly on the figures of stained-glass cricket players adorning a Cambridge restaurant where Abrahams dines.

Abrahams, a fully assimilated, nonpracticing Jew, is always on the outside looking in. Surrounded by the Christianity of his country, he can only stand silently by as choirs praise the name of Jesus at his welcome to Cambridge and dramatically prefers to slip back to England unnoticed rather than face the ecstatic crowds that welcome Liddell and the others home at the boat train. His fiancée Sybil (Alice Krige) and a small sign calling him the toast of England comprise his hero’s welcome, the latter likely a true-to-life sentiment that has the unfortunate effect of seeming to be a bone thrown to the character. The film rather heavy-handedly has Gielgud and Anderson give voice to the anti-Semitism Abrahams faced, a convenient device to keep audiences from turning on his very WASP teammates who likely held similar views. In real life, Abrahams converted to Roman Catholicism, rather perversely still an outsider to English Protestantism; the film doesn’t wish to open that kettle of fish, but does allude to it by opening and closing the film at a present-day church memorial service to the recently deceased Abrahams.

The clear hero of the story is Liddell, a man who might have been handed a white feather of cowardice had he been a conscientious objector during World War I. Instead, he is judged to run for the right reason—to honor God— and sends down a chilling indictment of kings and men who put their own vanity and self-interest above God’s in a sermon delivered at a church somewhere in Paris on the very day he refused to run. This sermon is intercut with his teammates falling short in their races, more affirmation of who’s really the boss.

When Liddell finally prepares to run, he is handed a note containing the Bible quote “Those who honor me I will honor.” The film takes liberties with this true incident by affixing the unsigned note with American runner Jackson Scholz’s signature, a move certain to please an ascendant religious population in the United States. During the race, the reason for his flailing running style is revealed. When a voiceover of his remark to Jennie culminates on the words “His pleasure,” the perfectly cast Charleson throws his head back as if in orgasm, the embodiment of religious ecstasy, and easily wins the race.

Although the final words spoken in the film honor Abrahams (“He did it. He ran them off their feet.”), “Jerusalem” gives the final glory to God:

And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountain green? And was the holy Lamb of God On England's pleasant pastures seen? And did the countenance divine shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills?


Marilyn Ferdinand is founder and a principal of Ferdy on Films and cofounder and a principal of For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, a unique fundraising blogathon now entering its third year. Marilyn has contributed film criticism to Fandor, Time Out Chicago, Wonders in the Dark, and Bright Lights Film Journal. She is a member of the Online Film Critics Society. A Chicago native and lifer, she carries on in the grand journalistic tradition of columnists in her city by using a headshot that reflects a reality long past.

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