Chariots of Fire (1981)

I find this true story of aspiring English Olympic runners to be the finest depiction ever made of the struggle of reconciling faith with our earthly lives.

If, as I noted elsewhere, Blazing Saddles always makes me laugh then Chariots of Fire is the counterpoint – a film that always makes me cry. This is an all-too-rare movie about people of faith struggling with their beliefs in the context of their earthly lives. The setting is England in the years after World War I leading up to the 1924 Paris Olympics. “Chariots …” is the true story of two young men both driven to excel as runners:

  • Eric Liddell, a devout Christian born to Scottish missionaries, sees running as part of his gift from God and refuses to train or compete on the Sabbath. He holds tenaciously to his beliefs even when the snooty, Anglican powers-that-be who are in charge of the British team scold him for basically putting God before country.
  • Harold Abrahams, a Jew and the son of a financier, sees his quest in running as a means to overcome the anti-Semitism and class bias in the country. However, his zeal imperils the relationship with those around him, especially his beloved Sybil (the woman who the real-life Abrahams eventually married).

In the case of both young men, their minds and bodies — their faith and their running prowess — cannot be separated. This scene is from the very end of the movie. Abrahams has already won his race and now we see Liddell — in the outer lane — pour it on as friends, family, teammates (including Abrahams), and even the royals cheer him on.

Personal connection: the title of the movie derives from both a bible verse as well as words in the rousing Anglican hymn “Jerusalem”. The hymn is heard at the very end of the movie in a flash forward to the funeral of Abrahams in 1978. I have sung “Jerusalem” both in concert and at church. It is also a favorite patriotic tune in Britain and is sung in full-throated glory every year at the Proms concerts in London.

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