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‘Twere many fine names
In the Olympic games,
The runners and sprinters who dashed for their fames.
With wings on their feet
That few others could beat,
They strove in 1924 to compete.
At Cambridge, a Jew
Who did not run but flew,
One Abrahams trained to be best in each queue.
He ran to resist
Those who were prejudiced,
And friends thought no faster young man could exist.
In Scotland, however,
One man would endeavor
To run to please God, but on Sundays, he’d never.
This brave Eric Liddell,
Whom none could belittle,
Held faith and resolve which a king could not whittle.
They all took their place
In the glorious race,
The high point of lives, formed by training and grace.
Each swift Englishman
Did their utmost and ran,
For medals, for country, for God, or for clan.

The Best Picture of 1981, Chariots of Fire captures not only two moving stories of talent and trial but also the thrill at the core of a race. The true accounts of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell reveal their similar skills as athletes and disparate purposes in employing them.

Ian Charleson is eminently devout Eric Liddell, who balances his desire to run by dedicating his victories to God’s service. I love his assertion that he feels God’s pleasure as he utilizes his talents; I sometimes feel the same when writing. Whereas his sister in the film insists he focus solely on God, anything can be used to give our Creator glory, whether it be peeling a potato or running a foot race. As Liddell runs, flailing his arms about in a wholly unorthodox manner, at times it is as if the Lord takes hold of him, pushing him faster than any contender would expect. Even so, he remained solid in his convictions concerning his Sunday heat. Beyond running for God, his refusal to compromise was disseminated to the world as a faithful stand that was ultimately rewarded. Abrahams, on the other hand, played by Ben Cross, runs with all the determination of a man who dares never lose. His desire is not to please God, fans, or even himself, but to prove his merit in the face of discrete anti-Semitism. When he sees Liddell run firsthand, he strives even harder, unable to cope with not being the best. Yet even when he wins his victorious Olympic medal, he’s just as overwhelmed by the weight of victory as by the weight of defeat. Ian Holm is likewise outstanding as his trainer Sam Mussabini, looking considerably older than in Alien just two years prior. By depicting both of these runners, as well as their comrades who run more or less for the fun of it, the film serves as a well-rounded view of this promising generation of young athletes.

Chariots of Fire is exceptional in its Oscar-winning electronic score by Vangelis and its painterly cinematography. The film abounds with scenes worthy of being hung on the wall, not least of which is the opening jog along the beach with the man and boy watching from a distance. Though the film is rather slow overall, its artistry is wondrous to behold. Speaking of slow, it also is notable for the frequent use of slow motion, which realizes the suspension of time during a race and how a contest lasting mere seconds can become a deep-seated memory of joy or grief. In the case of Liddell, the protracted running seems to portray a miracle in progress, especially with the transcendent accompanying music.

A film that well-deserved its four Academy Awards, Chariots of Fire is the greatest film about track and one of the finest sports films ever made, choosing the contemplative furor of a race over the energetic action of a ball game. Also, for Star Trek fans, Ben Cross’s appearance with Alice Krige (as his fiancée Sybil) affords the unlikely sight of Sarek dating the Borg Queen. Implacable values like those of Eric Liddell are sadly harder to come by now than they were in 1924, but his stand for his beliefs continues to serve as an example to all who are called to compromise too far.

Best line: (Liddell, when accused of arrogance) “My arrogance, sir, extends just as far as my conscience demands.”

VC’s best lines: (Eric, to his sister) “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

(Lord Cadogan, fed up with his decision not to run) “Don’t be impertinent, Liddell!”  (Eric) “The impertinence lies, sir, with those who seek to influence a man to deny his beliefs!”

Rank: 58 out of 60

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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