Chariots of Fire is perhaps the best film which has been made about an athletic feat. It twines together – with extensive substitution of the dramatic scene for already remarkable fact – the stories of Eric Liddell’s and Harold Abrahams’ preparation for the Paris Olympic games of 1924. The Olympics merely provide the stage. The true subjects of the film are faith and inclusion. Liddell famously refused for conscience’ sake to run his best event due to a heat scheduled on a Sunday; Abrahams saw himself – here the film may understate the matter – as bound to show he could be fully both Jewish and a loyal Englishman.
I first saw the film as a child and have rewatched it several times over the years: it remains a favorite. As a child, it was easy enough to understand the themes and classify the characters. Liddell and Abrahams are clearly the protagonists of the story. Their friends and teammates play roles of positive support.
However, the films strikingly different moral themes provokes asymmetric sympathies in quantity and type. The British and Olympic bureaucracy are, if not quite villains, at least antagonists for Liddell. The supremacy of the conscience in morality I had been taught already. I would suppose I would not yet have known the formal phrasing of the Reformed dictum, “Christ alone is Lord of the conscience,” but the principle was already fixed, as well as the fact that Christ had warned us quite clearly that those who follow Him will face opposition which should be counted as an honor. Liddell’s heroism was therefore clear and his vindication obvious and justified.
In contrast, the masters of Caius appear to wish to repress Abrahams but take no overt action: on a surface viewing Abrahams has no clear opposition beyond his own frustrations. He was therefore a much less compelling character to my younger mind. I had not yet been led to consider the question of inclusion as unsettled. In fact I doubt the racial animosities Abrahams faces would have been portrayed in the same way had the issue appeared as unsettled politically as it does today. Abrahams’ friend makes a thoughtless joke based on a stereotype and remains a friend; an unknowing order of pork (on a first date, as we would say today) is treated as a colossal joke; the masters of Caius may attribute Abrahams’ intransigence to his Jewish race but the legitimacy of their positions is not called into question as a result. Abrahams desires to prove his loyalty despite being mistreated; the legitimacy, even the requirement, of that loyalty is not up for discussion.
On a more mature viewing, subtleties emerge. The friend and the girl make the mistakes, but they realize them immediately. The masters of Caius make their assumptions in oblivious self-righteousness and not to Abrahams’ face. Worse, after attempting to force Abrahams away from his chosen methods, they comfortably assume the glory of his medal, assuring themselves that they foresaw the victory. On a naive viewing, this seemed a kind of victory for Abrahams; to a more experienced eye, the hypocrisy stands out. It is all too easy to imagine their reactions had Abrahams failed at the Olympics. Worse, Abrahams’ Arab-Italian coach is found excluded from the Olympic stands, apparently even as a spectator: again the naive viewing can see this as a result of the professionalism question, but the mature eye is forced to consider the possibility of racism when Mussabini’s ancestry was so pointedly highlighted earlier.
Chariots of Fire opens and closes not with Liddell or in balance but in reflection on Abrahams. The film’s creator David Puttnam – who produced this film which had a sort of direction by committee of its stars – had a Jewish mother himself and it is not hard to see his sympathies lying more particularly with Harold Abrahams. In fact it seems almost miraculous that the difficulties of Liddell’s conscientiousness towards his ministry and strict keeping of the Lord’s Day are portrayed as well as they are – or then again, perhaps not, as one understood difficulty of loyalties might easily inform one’s understanding of another, per Terence’s declaration of human unity.
But a hint of a question remains about Abrahams. He desires to prove he belongs by succeeding. He succeeded, and found a kind of belonging. But there is a reading of subtext, I think, which suggests that to Puttnam his understanding was, if not wrong, incomplete. Mussabini follows the same logic, but it buys him no acceptance. The masters of Caius follow the same logic, but they are not shown to be trustworthy. Sibyl appeals to a form of the argument, but markedly does not fully accept or understand it. Her truer appreciation of Abrahams’ own worth is shown by her comprehension and advocacy for the love of a good thing. There is no real virtue in accepting only that which has already proved the benefits to one’s own self or society. It is quite clear to the audience that Abrahams would in every sense be a true Englishman and credit to his country had he failed even to make the Olympic team: it is sincerely to be doubted whether we have all learned that lesson as comprehensively as we should have.