My mum talked me into watching Chariots of Fire, a movie following two men who compete in the 1924 Olympics. I was originally going to say no because I wasn’t interested, but my mum said, “It won four Oscars. You’d think someone interested in making films would want to see a movie with four Oscars.” Now, I know better than to consider the Oscars a reliable marker of quality, but I went along with it.
I regretted it. For one thing, I’ve seen a lot of sports movies about entitled white men winning shiny medals and honestly it’s not a story I needed to see again. For another, I hate being proselytized to.
There are two protagonists: a Jewish fellow, Abrahams, and a missionary Christian fellow, Liddell. I liked Abrahams, but I didn’t like Liddell.
Liddell first: he is super Christian. Every time he was on the screen he was talking about feeling God’s pleasure as he ran and God made him fast and he wants to win to honor God, blah blah BLAH. We had to sit through multiple sermons. Look, I don’t care if other people are religious on their own time, but I strenuously object to them waving it in my face all the time. As the saying goes, your right to wave your arms around ends right at the tip of my nose.
This wouldn’t have been such a problem if the text of the movie hadn’t agreed with him so strenuously.
But first, Abrahams. He’s a fascinating character– Jewish, and really angry about antisemitism. Now, righteous anger tends to endear me to a character but apparently the filmmakers didn’t like him nearly so much. Liddell and Abrahams win Britain’s two gold medals, but whereas Liddell gets the super-triumphant music and the cheering and partying, Abrahams gets…a discordant violin theme that made my brother, savvy movie-goer, predict, “heart attack!” Because it was the kind of music that plays right before something bad happens, and we were getting shots of screaming crowds but couldn’t hear them (another sure indicator of Bad Stuff Afoot) but no, there was no heart attack. Abrahams won, but it wasn’t triumphant. His teammates didn’t even speak to him in the locker room– he and his coach get stupid drunk afterwards, all alone. And it’s supposed to be that his teammates are being nice to him– “giving him space.” I completely didn’t get it.
Liddell had his race a few days later, movie-time (since he refused to run on Sunday), and when he won it certainly wasn’t treated like a mixed blessing.
It was just such a frustrating message. Missionary Christian wins: a triumph for God! Now he shall go to China to do missionary work! Jew Fighting For Respect wins: well, good for him, but now what’ll he do?
The movie ends with people shuffling out of Abrahams’ funeral, one of his old teammates saying, “Well, he ran them off their feet,” and then we get our little subtitles, “Abrahams married his sweetheart and became Important Athletics Guy!” and “Liddell went to China as a missionary, and when he died, all of Scotland mourned.”
Argh, I’m not writing very coherently. I had a very bad day, and this was only the topper. But just look at these quotes! Compare their original reasons for running:
Eric Liddell: You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape – especially if you’ve got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe you’re dinner’s burnt. Maybe you haven’t got a job. So who am I to say, “Believe, have faith,” in the face of life’s realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. 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.
Sybil Gordon: [about running] Do you love it?
Harold M. Abrahams: I’m more of an addict. It’s a compulsion with me, a weapon I can use.
Sybil Gordon: Against what?
Harold M. Abrahams: Being Jewish I suppose.
Sybil Gordon: [laughs incredulously] You’re not serious! People aren’t like that, people don’t care. Can it be as bad as all that?
Harold M. Abrahams: You’re not Jewish, or you wouldn’t have had to ask.
Liddell wants to run “to honor God,” and because he likes running. Harold wants to “run them all off their feet” (a great quote that nonetheless doesn’t make it on IMDB’s quote page) in order to demand a bit of respect from the world despite being Jewish. Now, I would’ve liked to see a movie just about Abrahams, seeing him vindicated. I was willing to see a movie where both men triumph and maybe there’s a wishy-washy “respecting our differences” scene. But no, instead the men build up to the race separately.
Eric Liddell: I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.
Harold M. Abrahams: I’m forever in pursuit and I don’t even know what I am chasing.
And then once they get there, Liddell spends all his time fretting about the fact that his race is on Sunday, whereas Abrahams spends all his time fretting about…winning?
Eric Liddell: God made countries, God makes kings, and the rules by which they govern. And those rules say that the Sabbath is His. And I for one intend to keep it that way.
[a teammate offers Liddell his place in the 400m, which is Thursday, and Liddell agrees.]
Lord Birkenhead: No sake is worth that, least of all a guilty national pride.
Harold M. Abrahams: And now in one hour’s time I will be out there again.
Harold M. Abrahams: Aubrey, I’ve known the fear of losing but now I am almost too frightened to win.
I just don’t understand why winning is treated as somehow a problem for Abrahams when it isn’t for Liddell. Both had people who thought they shouldn’t run– Liddell’s sister was constantly worried that it would distract him from God, and wanted him to return to China with her as missionaries. Abrahams was quietly discouraged by anti-Semites at Cambridge. But Liddell’s sister is happy to see him win, whereas the stodgy old men at Cambridge continue to hold their noses up.
It’s one thing if the movie-makers just didn’t feel like making a “triumph over racism” movie. But to make a “hurray for Christian white men, boo for Jewish ones” movies is taking it too far in the other direction. This movie was made before I was born, but that’s really no excuse.
All in all, I would have preferred seeing a movie about the female athletes. There were some– we saw them in the opening games– and wouldn’t it be fascinating, to see how women managed to balance culturally-enforced femininity with the rigours of sport in the 1920s? Or they could have made the movie about one of the other nations– it was the first Olympics for six different countries, including Ireland-as-a-sovereign-nation. There are stories there! Or they could have picked just one of these protagonists and given him a fair shake!
But to set the two of them up as rivals, and then award all the cheers and happiness to the missionary Christian…that’s a little repellent.