There may not be another movie like it for a long time—if ever.
In conversation among many intelligent people, the mention of Jesus. Christ often brings an awkward silence. In film, it is even worse. Attempts to grapple with truth, Scripture, or God are regularly greeted with hoots of derision. But there may be hope.
The British Chariots of Fire is a work of restraint and intensity that offers the Christian moviegoer a variety of admirable cinematic and real-life achievements. The main characters were plucked out of history, not the imagination of a screenwriter, in this film story of two athletes representing Great Britain in the Paris Olympics of 1924. It is a masterful re-creation of Great Britain in the early part of the century, and gives its audience a sense of people and culture not too far removed from our own. And it is rare that a feature film accurately portrays one of its main characters as a committed Christian.
Eric Liddell is a devout Scottish evangelical who is also a rugby star and world-class runner. When not involved with student evangelism or training for missionary work in China, he churns up and down the Scottish highlands, preparing for the Olympics. He runs to bring glory to God, but in his time and family, the dichotomy between world and soul is more finely drawn than it is today. It is not always an easy task for Liddell—balancing his faith’s service with his body’s speed. He is a man who serves God first.
Harold Abrahams is the son of a Lithuanian Jew who has labored to give his son every opportunity at honor and success. Abrahams enters Cambridge University and strives to excel at running in order to come to terms with his heritage and the subtle but disturbing prejudice he feels in the Anglo-Saxon culture. He is at once arrogant and broodingly sympathetic in his struggle. Surrounded by the elite society of university and royalty, Abrahams is single-mindedly set on success.
The film is honest in showing both men, their contrasting lives and motives for success. Both of them went on to bestow long-term effects on their generation. Abrahams served as a lawyer and athletic figure for the balance of his life. Liddell was a man whose influence Catherine Marshall described as having had an impact on the life of her husband Peter. Abrahams outlived Liddell, dying four years ago in England. Liddell died in a Japanese prison camp in China at the end of World War II.
Director Hugh Hudson has created a world of utter believability, while allowing director of photography David Watkin to interject a near-mythic quality through his sensitive composition and lighting. Though the film may be hard for younger children to follow because of the alternating stories of the two runners, the dramatic action will more than compensate for any obscurity. The parallels of their lives are a thought-provoking juxtaposition of two very different noble and committed men.
The film’s effective re-creation of an age past is admirable. We see Cambridge in all its beauty, with glimpses of its chapels, cloisters, mullioned windows, and dining halls. There is also Scotland in a rustic loveliness. The re-creation of the Paris Olympics is a nostalgic revelation. Gone are the thousands and thousands of spectators; the few movie cameras in sight are run by crank-turning cameramen in tweed caps.
The film does not moralize. We are not compelled to mock either Abrahams or Liddell. In other hands, the film would easily have taken sides—after all, each man represented a certain different approach to life—but their spirit of competition is peripheral to the real drama. It is to the film makers’ credit that they centered on the internal struggles and aspirations of the pair. In so doing they created a work that allows these two people to be just that—two real people and not idealized figures in a calculated, contrived sports or religious story. It is this integrity that is the film’s transcending strength. We can be thankful that the story was not written with propagandistic intent, for it would have been emptied of its power. As it stands, it is supremely persuasive.
Empathy is generated for both characters through their races. The audience can experience through slow-motion photography, precise camera angles, and superb use of the synthesizer the pain and joy they might otherwise miss. They understand what a race really means to these runners. We feel their intense desires, both on the track and in their personal lives. When Abrahams loses for the first time, the audience watches the race at regular speed, but afterwards, a desolated Abrahams sits alone in the stands and the audience flashes back with him to his moments of defeat. In so doing, this becomes more than a mere sports film. Running affects these runners’ entire lives, yet in the film it becomes a symbol for more than their individual lives. When Britain’s Olympic team runs along the shore in their white running suits, they portray the timelessness of human dignity.
This film will strike a chord in many Christians much deeper than nostalgia or athletics. Eric Liddell was born in China. His parents were missionaries and he followed their work in China with his own. His achievements in running were not easily realized. Along with grueling training, he endured the tension between his call to missionary service and the God-given talent of his speed.
When concerned friends and relatives confront Liddell in the film with the possibility that his running might be encroaching on his spiritual life and devotion, he struggles. Eventually he reaches the conclusion that it was God who made him fast. A friend urges him to “run for God and let the whole world stand in wonder.” Run he does, but at the Paris Olympics he finds that his qualifying heat is scheduled for Sunday.
It does not matter whether the issue of athletics on the Lord’s Day is important to the viewer. (It was, no doubt, a big issue at the time.) Liddell is a man who knows what he believes—a man of conviction. The combined forces of the press, the British Olympic Committee, and the Prince of Wales cannot budge him. The confrontation scene is unforgettable.
Through this film, Liddell touches our world as well. His “muscular Christianity” was completed with a heart both humble and strong. In seeing his life on the screen, we Christians should view him as an example of human dignity, a challenge of Christ-like integrity and commitment wherein we might “mount up with wings like eagles … run, and not be weary.”
Chariots of fire is a must-see. But adequate preparation must be made—namely, a large handkerchief, some friends to share the experience, and an early showing to allow plenty of time for discussion. For those who miss it, there may not be anything like it again for a long time—if ever.
Besides being a great movie on every count, this film should alert artistic minds to new frontiers—the vast, uncharted, unwritten, unfilmed, unacted territory of the Christian life and experience; regions of truth, courage, and beauty where few have dared to tread. Clearly, the possibilities are there, even for a mass audience.
LLOYD BILLINGSLEY and KENT HUGHES
Mr. Billingsley is a writer in Poway, California; Mr. Hughes is senior pastor of College Church, Wheaton, Illinois.
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