Friday, October 14, 2011

Great Chariots of Fire!

As a part of my quest to become less foolish on the topic of running, I decided to catch-up on a classic running film. I just watched Charliots of Fire and I have one important piece of advice for anyone who is considering taking up running. Run first. Love to run. Then, watch running movies. It's like eating chocolate stoned (so I have been told). You have much more appreciation for the emotions involved when you have connected with running in a relatable way. Connecting with running like that does not mean you have to be an expert runner.
Opening scene from Chariots of Fire
I don't think I have seen this movie since I was a kid. Holy cow. That theme music is like Eye of the Tiger for runners. Is there a piece of music that makes you want to put on running shoes and haul ass like that theme does? It's powerful stuff. What a way to start a movie. The England track team are all running down the beach in those ridiculous white running clothes that look like underwear. The coastline reminds me of my home. I believe it is on West Sands at St. Andrews in Scotland. I wish I had been a runner when I was younger. The beaches I had access to in Wales were flat and long. Sir Malcolm Campbell did land speed records just down the coast from where I grew up. Perfect for running. Notice that they are all running barefoot. That was a little nod the minimalists among you. It's actually pretty practical on a wet beach.

You can see the Welsh coastline over the top of my mother's family farm

I'll admit it right now. I am not a movie critic. You won't find me giving my opinions on advanced directing style here. This is more of a trip down memory lane for me.

I was amazed by how much I remembered and how much I had forgotten. If you haven't seen it, the storyline is simple. It follows the English track team to the 1924 Paris Olympics. The focus is on two runners, Liddell and Abrahams.Their paths to the Olympics are very different. It's the individual struggles of those two men that makes up the guts of the film. There are some great cast members. Nigel Havers, Ben Cross, Sir Ian Holm, Sr. John Gielgud, Nigel Davenport. There are also some powerful themes going on too:

Heart Vs Drive. Eric Liddell is a pure talent who runs with his heart for God. H. M. Abrahams (Harold) is a talented runner who has an amazing amount of drive to succeed because of his insecurities and life's unfairness.
Christian and Jewish. The faiths of the two men are not at odds in this movie. Eric's Christianity plays a critical role in the storyline. Harold is sensitive about how Jews are viewed in 1920's England and is determined to leave his mark on his college and country.
Upper Class Vs Middle to Lower Class. It is so strange to see the amount of ownership that the upper class had over the sport and how anyone who was not from that class appears like an outsider, even when they are someone as talented as Eric Liddell.
Old School Vs New School. H.M. Abrahams is at odds with the Dean of his house at Cambridge because he employs a coach to help him improve technique. The Dean believes that talent should remain natural and to do otherwise is to act professionally.

The focal point of the movie is an unthinkable decision that Eric Lidell's makes based on his religious convictions. Initially, he is torn between running and missionary work with his family in China. He finally decides to give running one shot for God's glory but even then, he will not compromise on his principles. Even though he knows that the 1924 Paris Olympics will be his last, he decides that he can not run the 100 meters (which he may well have won) because the heats are being held on a Sabbath.

1924 Olympics. Liddell takes the 400 meter World record in 47.6

My favorite scenes
  • The intro scene of course. A classic. 
  • Running the college quad was a scene I remembered well. Abrahams and Lord Lindsey race in the courtyard to beat the chimes of the college clock. Apparently they reenacted it with Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe at some point. At the reenactment, the current Dean expressed regret that the college had not collaborated with the film at the time it was made. 
  • Lord Andrew Lindsay gets his butler to put glasses of Champaign on the hurdles in his garden, so that he can practice. So ridiculous in the way it plays to the stereotype but you can't help loving that character, especially for what he does for Eric. 
  • I love the scene where Eric Liddell is pushed and falls in a race. He gets up, puts his head back in his weird running style and just blows everyone's mind by how much heart he has to make an impossible comeback. 
  • Sam Mussabili, H.M Abrahams’ personal coach can't attend the Olympics because of the controversy around amateurs not having professional level coaching. Sam punches his fist through his hat when he hears God Save The Queen playing because he knows Harold has won. Sam doesn't get much back story in this movie but in real life he helped secure eleven Olympic medals over five Olympics. Not too shabby. 
  • When Eric is making a stand about not running in the Olympics, the aristocracy that is basically the British athletics committee apply pressure. It's a system setup for abuses. The Duke of Southerland, Lord Birkenhead, Lord Cadogan and even the Prince of Wales are all there telling Eric to run. Lord Andrew Lindsey saves the day by pushing his way into the meeting and offering his spot in the 400 meters. He had already taken a silver in the 400 meter hurdles. 
  • There is a touching scene where Jackson Scholz, an American runner who had just won gold in the 200 meters slips Eric Liddell a note. It says "He that honors me, I will honor". It was a note of solidarity for Eric giving up the 100 meter race for religious reasons. 
  • The church hymn at Harold's funeral is really stirring. As a Welshman, I am meant to give the English a hard time but I do love hymns and Jersalem gets me every time. I love the part that goes “and we will build Jerusalem, on England’s green and pleasant land.” That hymn also contains the words “bring me my chariot of fire.” If you are confused by a Jewish man having a Christian funeral, so was I. Apparently he converted to Christianity at some point in his life. This would have complicated the film storyline for sure.
1924 Olympics. Abrahams (far right) wins the 100 meters in 10.4

Some minor annoyances.
  • The upper class of this era in Britain are always depicted as complete moronic pompous fools. I think there is more than an element of truth in that ridiculous playboy persona but I think it is definitely a stereotype just like the perfect 1950's American family stereotype. 
  • H.M. Abrahams’ love interest is so annoying. It’s either terrible acting or terrible directing. I'll let you be the judge. 
  • They decided to bend the truth quite a bit in this film. Harold's girlfriend (eventually wife) was a minor soprano, not a star. Aubrey Montague, who is portrayed as the emotional base of the team was actually called by his first name Evelyn (EEV-lin) and attended Oxford, not Cambridge. The American runner Scholz is referred to as Schulz. Lord David Bughley (Lord Lindsay in the film) was the first man to do the Great Court Run, not Harold Abrahams. I know there were some legal reasons why names were changed but why change some of the facts? When there is a story as powerful as this, just let it shine. 
  • Eric's sister is a pain in the ass. I know she is trying to get him to join the mission with the family but for crying out loud girl, you have to stop! 
  • Poor Henry Stallard is not featured much in the film. Maybe scenes were cut. I don't know. 
There is a tie-in to another post of mine. Ironically, H. M. Abrahams became important in British sports and even though he was a part of the reason John Tarrant (The Ghost Runner) got to run in Britain, he was also a part of the establishment that blocked him from ever competing internationally. Shame that his experiences feeling like an outsider weren’t enough to make him a true champion for other outsiders. Such is life. See my post about John Tarrant here:

So, what did I take-away from my revisit to Chariots of Fire? Well, I'd definitely like to go running with the theme music on my iPod. Even though I don't run with music, I would really love to try it. I don't know why it hasn't occurred to me before now. I was impressed with Abrahams' drive but I was more taken with Lidell's heart. I love the purity of his running. He seems like he would have been a great role model for Prefontaine. When he broke the record at the Olympics, he ran the first 200 in 22.2. They regarded that half time split as suicide. He amazed them all when he kept on going, his face to the sky running for God. In the movie he is quoted as saying “When I run, I feel his [God's] pleasure”. Regardless of whether you believe in God or not, it's an amazing feeling to be a simple human, running and feeling that something greater than you has pleasure in that simple act. I really do believe in the spiritual nature of running. It's something we are made to do and very primal connections are made. I touch on this in my post about running in the rain. Check it out here.

Watch Chariots of Fire again. It really is a very good film.


  1. Thanks for the write up. This is easily the best movie about running ever made. Leave it to the British to capture the true nature of the sport on film. This is something I feel Hollywood does a terrible job of. Movies about Running or Rock Bands are generally the worst when they come from Hollywood. There are some exceptions though. I thought the 2 movies about Pre were not terrible. I don't know if you've seen the Billy Mills story "Running Brave" but that is a must if you're looking for running inspiration on film. There's another movie that I remember from my childhood that I'd like to see again called "The Jericho Mile." I vaguely remember it being about a prison inmate who's trying to break the 4 minute mile running laps around a prison yard. It's probably a terrible movie but I'm going to have to watch that again for a trip down memory lane.

    I have to say though... one of my favorite running related pieces of cinema is found in the movie Forest Gump. I love the fact that he's portrayed as a "simple minded" person who "...just felt like running." Something nice about that purity of spirit.


  2. The movies I have on my list to watch (either first time or re-visit) are:
    - Jim Ryun
    - Fire on the Track
    - Endurance
    - Running Brave
    - Prefontaine
    - Jericho Mile
    - Running (Michael Douglas)
    - Personal Best
    I like the idea of collecting movies that have an element of running in them. I agree, Forest Gump is a great example of running with heart.


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