Friday, August 17, 2007


CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981, UK, Hugh Hudson, Colin Welland)
“All nations before him are as nothing
They are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings as eagles,
They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

CHARIOTS OF FIRE was something of a phenomenon when it took the screen in 1981, a film about British Olympic runners in the Twenties which unexpectedly became a touchstone for believers and artists everywhere. Christians were astonished to find themselves sitting in theatres where crowds rooted for an unabashedly Evangelical character, cheering him on as he took a moral stand they would laugh at outside the theatre. And artists found themselves strangely moved to hear an athlete speak the very essence of their sense of calling.

Though there had been a time when the occasional historical figure might be both admirable and Christian – in 1964 Richard Burton could defend the honour of God in BECKET, for example, and Paul Scofield was allowed a similar stand when A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS hit the silver screen two years later – the day was long past when movie Christians were allowed to be Good Guys. By what cinematic alchemy was Your Average Theatre-goer in TV-preacher-cynical 1981 persuaded to take Eric Liddell as a hero for refusing to run on the Lord's Day? Christians sitting in those crowded movie houses, braced for the usual mockery of their faith, experienced an intoxicating thrill as their values and way of life were celebrated. And when the film itself was honoured with seven Oscar nominations, winning four categories including Best Screenplay and Best Picture, it felt like something of an exoneration for a group of people who’d only felt themselves belittled by their on-screen depiction in recent memory.

For me the film also had a more personal resonance, and in the ensuing decades I’ve met many others who were struck the same way. I was in the middle of working out a choice between two careers, deciding whether to be a pastor or an actor. On the one hand was the practical, obviously worthwhile kingdom work of caring for souls, on the other the frivolous self-indulgence of play-acting. As I sat there in that theatre, words were spoken that profoundly shaped the rest of my life.

Eric – a winsome, self-effacing and handsome Ian Charleson – has talked of going to the mission field. With his sister, he wants to bring the gospel to China. Practical, obviously worthwhile kingdom work. But there's a problem, and Jenny confronts him with it – he seems obsessed, his head “full of running and starting and medals and pace,” frivolous self-indulgence that's distracting him from the things that matter in God's eyes. She’s troubled by his passion, and frightened for what it all might do to him.

He walks with his sister out into the countryside, and there he speaks words that both reassure her and break her heart. He’s going to China – the missionary service has accepted him – but he’s got a lot of running to do first. "God made me for a purpose: He made me for China. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure. To give it up would be to hold Him in contempt."

I’m not the only artist who experienced something extraordinary hearing those words. There it was, the answer to all the well-meaning folk who wondered if a passionate love for the arts – or running, or anything on God’s green earth – might not be a sort of idolatry. How could it be, if God made you that way? If the very act of rehearsal, or putting pen to paper, fills you with a pleasure that could only come from God, and a certainty that the acting or the writing itself gives pleasure to God? And after all, why wouldn’t the God who sighed “Behold, it is good” at the end of each day’s Creation take similar delight in my humbler acts of creation? Surely Dad would be proud as punch to see me take after Him, showing His image and likeness by doing just as He did?

At its core, this film is less about sports than it is about vocation, a word that comes from the latin word vocare, to be called. People who feel a particular sense of calling in their life’s work resonate deeply with this story, be they athletes or artists, evangelists or math tutors. Especially those who feel that their unique place in the world is somehow a gift from God.

CHARIOTS OF FIRE has not one protagonist, but two. The counterpoint to Eric Liddell is Harold Abrahams, the son of Jewish immigrants who sees his athletic prowess as a weapon, a means of proving himself in a class-conscious British society whose courteous anti-Semitism guards the corridors of power against him. “I’m going to take them on. All of them. One by one. And run them off their feet.”

Even though it’s darkened by a certain driven quality, Harold’s directness and ambition is immensely appealing. His compulsion to be more English than the English makes him a Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast, and when he finds himself enchanted by an actress in THE MIKADO he doesn’t even wait until the performance is through to make his way backstage and ask her to dinner. Ben Cross and Alice Krige are superb in their restaurant scene, he awkward and smitten and intense, she sparkling and smart and certainly falling in love. Their dialogue is revealing;
Sybil: You don’t look very ruthless.
Harold: Should I?
Sybil: According to my brother. Tim says that’s why you always win. Why running?
Harold: Why singing?
Sybil: It’s my job. No, that’s silly. I do it because I love it. Do you love running?
Harold: I’m more of an addict. It’s a compulsion, a weapon.
Sybil: Against what?
Harold: Being Jewish, I suppose.
Sybli: You’re not serious?
Harold: You’re not Jewish. Or you wouldn’t ask.

Challenged by two Cambridge Masters (wonderfully played by Sir John Gielgud and film director Lindsay Anderson) who maintain that he runs only for his own glory, Abrahams is outraged, protesting that all his achievements are for his family, his university and his country, but in the moments before his final Olympic race, Abrahams confesses, “I don’t know what it is I’m chasing.” His losses devastate him, even his victories seem lonely and hollow. There’s a terrible emptiness in the celebration he shares with trainer Sam Mussabini, rendered by Ian Holm as the very essence of plain-spoken working-class savvy. We feel not only admiration but also pity for these two driven, marginalized men: they have surely earned more than this lonely moment of glory, but the scene has an unspoken note of desperation and denial – surely winning ought to feel better than this? Contrast the moments in Eric Liddell’s races when he throws his head back, face to the sky, contorted in animal exertion and elation. We don’t need to see any victory party – the running is the celebration.

It is a superficial reading of the film that finds some sort of veiled anti-Semitism in the contrast between these two men: Harold Abrahams’ discontent comes not from his religion, but from his lack of it. The film-makers honour both men as heroes, but they it’s clear that talent and accomplishment in and of themselves can be empty – that we find our true place in the universe only when, like Johann Sebastian Bach, we dedicate our works to the greater glory of God.

One of the film’s most potent sequences involves Lidell’s meeting with the Prince of Wales and the Olympic Committee, who pressure him to run his Sunday race despite his misgivings. These performances are richly detailed, the dialogue a marvel of concise characterization and veiled power manipulation as Liddell’s distinctly Scottish stubbornness comes up against the will of nations. For Liddell, however great his desire to run, however great his dedication to his country, there is a higher allegiance – one that is spelled out in the powerful sequence that takes place the following Sunday, as we cut back and forth between the church and the Olympic track, Liddell reading Isaiah’s glorious, terrible affirmations of the greatness and tenderness of God as we watch the agonized exertions of athletes expending themselves for the glory of nations.

Few films have portrayed so attractive a faith as that of Eric Liddell – his appetite for life, his humility, his “muscular Christianity,” a man who would do whatever it might take to feel God’s pleasure.

Available at Videomatica


Rich & Joyce Swingle said...

We were just talking about you after a performance of my play Beyond the Chariots, my play about the rest of Eric Liddell's life, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Mary Hom is working on her PhD at Cambridge and was up for the weekend. She got her undergrad at Regent and we spoke about you. Imagine my surprise to see you blogging on Uncle Eric today!

Rich & Joyce Swingle said...

I blogged you twice: and

Ron Reed said...

Hey, Rich, good to hear from you! Crazy coincidence, that you should speak my name in vain and then, lo, find yourself - or your alter ego - to have been blogged. More in heaven and earth...

Must be a thrill to be performing your show in Auld Reekie itself!