Harold Abrahams wins the 100 meter (1924)
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)
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.
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.
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.