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Those Feet

The images are vivid: the bodies in motion, the faces contorted with effort, the arms upraised in triumph…. Athletes work with their bodies, making sports seem to transcend particular histories or cultures. Yet this year’s London Olympics draw on a chain of associations about sport, youth, and England that stretches back through specific times and places, from the 1981 film Chariots of Fire and the Paris Olympics to the poetry of William Blake. The evidence was everywhere even before Danny Boyle’s opening ceremonies on July 27: a staged version of the film now at a West End theatre, the Olympic Torch carried along the beach at St. Andrews where the film’s famous running scene was shot, and new digital releases of the film on Blu-Ray and in theaters. Boyle’s Olympic pageant, “Isles of Wonder,” began with an homage to the idea of England as “a green and pleasant land,” a line from the hymn “Jerusalem,” with words by Blake. Its ethereal notes launched Boyle’s idiosyncratically joyous celebration of British history. As the London Olympics unfold this summer, then, they add echoes to an already echoing chamber. The Olympics are connected through a golden chain of nostalgia that extends further and further into the past, and we will inevitably look back on the 2012 Olympics when we view the next ones.


Harold Abrahams wins the 100 meter (1924)
Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson, won four Oscars in one of those rushes of Anglophilia that periodically sweep the Academy of Motion Pictures— see, for example, Shakespeare in Love (1998) or The King’s Speech (2010). It fits the major criteria: it is a period costume drama as well rendered as a Merchant-Ivory production, and it tackles the complexities of the British class system. Yet it surprises too, especially in its chronological structure. It opens in a church, at the funeral of Harold Abrahams, the 1924 gold medalist in the 100 meters. A line across the screen tells us we are in 1978, but almost immediately history becomes blurry. Two of Harold’s teammates, now elderly men, reminisce about when they had “hope in their hearts and wings on their heels.” The familiar drumbeat of Vangelis’s theme song begins, and we are transported to the film’s most famous scene, which will frame Harold’s life and victory: a group of hearty Britons running barefoot across a beach in formation, as the camera pauses to reflect on each face. Here is Aubrey Montague, the everyman who starts the narration. Here is Andrew Lord Lindsay, the aristocrat who runs for the sheer joy of it. Here is Eric Liddell, the evangelist who runs to honor God. And finally here is Harold himself, serious and intent, who runs because he has something to prove. At first glance the men could be in any time and any place, but the camera soon pulls back from their faces and splashing feet to reveal an English coastal town populated with Edwardians. Despite the synthesized soundtrack and the contemporary opening, it is 1924. Soon we will move back again to 1919, when some of these men first met at Cambridge.

 

Chariots of Fire is framed by Harold Abraham’s story, and actor Ben Cross may get the most screen time, but Ian Charleson’s Eric Liddell is arguably its star. It is Liddell, hoisted on his teammates’ shoulders, who graces the film’s posters and DVD covers. The contrast between the two runners—one Jewish, one evangelical Christian; one Cambridge-educated, one a Scottish populist— holds the film together as much as the drive for Olympic victories. In order to prove himself a winner in anti-Semitic England, Harold must curb his arrogance and defensiveness enough to learn from others. Eric, on the other hand, struggles to align his missionary work with his passion and gift for running. His racing puts him in conflict with his sister, who complains that training takes him away from the Lord’s work. Eric’s gold medal in the 400-meter race comes after another runner trades races with him, and despite the fact that he didn’t train for it. His victory confirms his principles: that running is a way of honoring God and expressing his faith. Although Harold wins the 100 meters using the modern training techniques of his professional coach, Eric wins his race with his customary awkward, almost orgasmic posture— arms flailing, mouth open, head thrown back.


Eric Liddell wins the 400 meter(1924)
The film sets up a rich set of associations between faith, athletics, and country that will play out in the climactic scene where Eric Liddell refuses to run a qualifying race on the Sabbath. Although the Prince of Wales himself begs him to compete for his country’s sake, Eric offends the ruling elite by insisting on a higher authority. The great theme of competing loyalties made it a perfect Oscar contender in the best English highbrow tradition, and to its credit the film has the tight narrative, meticulous art production, and strong performances that make it still worth watching today. The elevated mood is set early, from the rhetorical flourishes of the script (“wings on their heels”) to the insistence that running races is a metaphor for something bigger and grander than mere bodies in motion. The film takes its time exploring how each character uses running to express something else, but the metaphor behind all the other metaphors traces back yet another century to William Blake’s Romantic poetry.

Although we don’t hear the connection until the film returns at the end to the choir singing at Harold’s funeral, the title Chariots of Fire refers to Blake’s poem “And did those feet…,” itself a verse written in prologue to his epic poem Milton and later set to music. Based on a mythic tradition that Jesus may have once visited Britain, the poem wonders “did those feet” touch England’s green mountains, her pleasant pastures and clouded hills? Blake poses the question four times in different ways, but the response doesn’t exactly answer the rhetorical question. Instead, four symmetrical lines declare “bring me” my bow, arrows, spear, and chariots of fire. The poem closes with a resounding vow to fight on until “Jerusalem,” or a heaven on earth, is built in England. History, religion, and myth have been harnessed to a national purpose of restoring England to some past dignity (when Jesus could have appeared in the flesh) and some utopian future. The “feet” that open the poem are as significant as the feet that open the film: this effort is heroic and tactile, but also ordinary. Running, like keeping faith, is simple and available to everyone. In the film, it is Eric Liddell, the missionary, who spreads that word.

Both Harold’s and Eric’s wins, as well as the medals earned by Lindsay, in hurdles, and by the relay team, are treated as national triumphs (despite Liddell’s earlier refusal to answer the call of King and country). This is no surprise as the Olympics are always a pageant of competing patriotisms, and the film emphasizes Britain’s closest rivalries: the United States and France. But behind this context lies another: the recent loss of a generation of young men in the trenches of World War I. That loss is implied as early as the first running scene on the beach: we admire these handsome, healthy men because they remind us of those who are gone. The film underlines these losses as soon as it moves to Cambridge in 1919 and we see disabled World War I veterans begging in the train station. The contrast in bodies is clear: these runners are the “flowers” of their generation, as the headmaster calls them, who will replace those cut down in their prime.

If this military history is the explicit context for the glorification of male athletes, there is another more implicit one. The film shares a homoerotic undertone with other media successes of the early 1980s like Brideshead Revisited, which also takes place partly in Cambridge in the 1920s. The shared setting marks a historical coincidence: in the 1980s, another generation of promising young men would be cut down by AIDS. Although as yet unknown to the filmmakers, it now feels like an obvious parallel. By the end of the decade AIDS was a recognized epidemic, and among those it claimed was the gifted actor Ian Charleson, one of the first celebrities in Britain to acknowledge he had it. War and AIDS have the tragic similarity of taking the best of us.

Considering that Chariots of Fire is a film about victories and success, its elegiac tone is somewhat surprising, but it lingers in the background and colors the nostalgia haunting the Olympics too. The tone of Blake’s poem is consistent with the film and its subject— the overpowering sense of loss, the martial response, the classical rhetoric, and the yearning for a better society to come.

Look back at those glowing young men running on the beach, as a group and as individuals. They reveal something about the 1920s, the 1980s, and 2012. They remind us that athletic victories are particularly fragile: all athletes battle time, their own aging and the ticking clock. They know they have one millisecond to make their marks, and even when they succeed another athlete will soon come along to surpass them. Their records won’t stand: the current Olympians will inevitably overshadow their predecessors, and then will themselves be overtaken. But we long for that permanence anyway, and try to find it in repetition and on film. The Olympics grew up with the film industry and they share some imperatives, including the desire to make the past present. It is that desire that Blake too reveals in his poem: did those feet touch this ground? Did they fight? Did they run? Maybe they did, once.

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Victoria Olsen is the author of From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography (2003). She teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University.

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