“Now there are just two of us – young Aubrey Montague and myself – who can close our eyes and remember those few young men with hope in our hearts and wings on our heels.” ~ Lord Lindsay
I am hardly a world traveler but one of the places I fell in love with early on was the British Isles. London is a wonderful city with so many memorable landmarks from Big Ben to Buckingham Palace. Harry Potter to Sherlock Holmes. There are the Salisbury plains hosting the monolithic Stonehenge, and the Lake District which is undoubtedly some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen. No wonder Wordsworth and Blake were so enamored by it. However, St. Andrews Scotland has to be one of the most starkly beautiful places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. It’s steeped in golf history due to the Old Course and despite being the home of a university, it is surrounded by a charmingly quaint town.
And of course, most pertinent to this discussion, its beaches became the perfect setting for the opening moments of the now iconic Chariots of Fire. Really it is so much more than its stellar theme by Vangelis because these sequences bookend a truly remarkable story. We enter the narrative in 1978 where two old men eulogize about the old days and their good friend Harold Abrahams who has recently passed.
Back in the 1920s, a brash young Abrahams (Ben Cross) is about to enter university at Cambridge intent on becoming the greatest runner in the world, and taking on all the naysayers and discrimination head-on. He’s a Jew and faces the antisemitism thrown his way with defiance and a bit of arrogance. He’s a proud young man who loves to run, but more than that he loves to win. His best friend becomes Aubrey, a good-natured chap, who willingly lends a listening ear to all of Harold’s discontent. Soon enough Abraham’s makes a name for himself by breaking a longstanding record of 700 years, at the same time gaining a friend in the sprightly Lord Lindsay. Together the trio hopes to realize their dreams of running for their country in the Paris games of 1924. They are the generation after the Great War and with them rise the hopes and dreams of all those who came before them.
Simultaneously we are introduced to Eric Liddell (Ian Charleston) a man from a very different walk of life. He’s a Scot through and through, although he grew up in China, the son of devout Christian missionaries. Everything in his life is for the glory of God, and he is a gifted runner, but in his eyes, it’s simply a gift from God (I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure). His sister is worried about his preoccupation with this seemingly frivolous pastime, but Eric sees a chance at the Olympics as a bigger platform – a platform to use his God-given talent to glorify his maker while living out his faith. Abrahams is a disciplined competitor and he goes so far as to bring on respected coach Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) to help his chances. Liddell is a pure thoroughbred with life pulsing through his veins, and of course, they must face off. It’s inevitable.
But this is only the beginning as all these men we have built a connection with travel across the sea for the Olympic Games grappling with their own anxieties and consciences. For Abrahams, it’s the prospect of failure and success. Failure will burn because his whole existence has always been about running — about winning. He has only a few seconds to justify his very existence. However, the fear of winning is almost greater, because at 24 years of age, where else is he supposed to go after winning a gold medal? It scares the life out of him. Liddell’s tribulation is of a different nature as he must stand true to his beliefs even if it seems to be sabotaging his own success. And of course, Aubrey and Lord Lindsay have their own successes and failures that run the spectrum. Perhaps most importantly these men prove their worth not only to their American opponents but the entire world. They can return home with their heads held high — champions of a feel-good tale to be sure.
Yes, this is a story about two strikingly different individuals, but Chariots of Fire becomes so engrossing due to all its characters. Aubrey resonates with me due to his general contentedness. Lindsay has an air of playful charm that is refreshing. Harold embodies my own hopes, fears, and anxieties. Eric reflects every person’s struggles with spirituality and personal conviction. In essence, the narrative goes back to the glory days to bring light to the universal and continual rise and fall of man. We’re far from perfect, but in spite of all our failures, there is still space for redemption.
The refrains of the theme music paired with William Blake’s majestic “Jerusalem” get me every time. I love being steeped in this atmospheric periodness and my heart yearns to be back in England so I can run on those very same beaches with wreckless abandon. But even if I don’t get there soon, I will be content in running life’s race to the best of my abilities wherever I am. That’s all that any of us can do.
“I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, “Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.” If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.” – Eric Liddell