2021 marks the fortieth anniversary of the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, about two track competitors in the 1924 Paris Olympics, but so far very little has been made of this in the media --apart from an attempt in the Spectator to drag the film into the contemporary culture wars, with much anachronistic talk of identity politics and the implication that Harold Abrahams was a snowflake. (It would be very interesting to obtain his reaction to being discussed in such terms.)
The rejection that drove Abrahams’ running was real in 1920s England, as shown by the superb 2012 ITV documentary The Real Chariots of Fire (which, incidentally, contains a photograph of the infant Harold in an incongruously frilly and lacy bonnet). Anti-Semitism was growing in reaction to the wave of refugees from Russian pogroms, and would, of course, become even worse in the 1930s with the advent of the British Union of Fascists. In the more relaxed 1960s, Abrahams looked back on his athletic career and commented that anti-Semitism drove him to prove that he was not inferior to other people, which translated into demonstrating his superiority —overkill that probably every underdog population will instantly recognise.
Indeed, it is Abrahams who dominates the film. Although superb, the picture ultimately does not succeed in balancing its two halves, since Cross’s fiery performance is so much more compelling than Ian Charleson’s gentle take on Scottish missionary Eric Liddell. This is probably because of the nature of Liddell himself: his intensely spiritual motivation for running makes his quest somewhat baffling to a modern sensibility, and was probably extremely difficult for Charleson to convey. By contrast, Abrahams’ objective is unblinkingly trained on this world, or rather, this England. His rage and need for acceptance propel him forwards to Olympic glory, while Liddell communes with his Creator on some other, apparently airborne plane. At one point Liddell preaches on the text “Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you” —a mystical inward focus completely at odds with the perspective of Abrahams, who feels marginalised and threatened by the Anglo-Saxon Christianity that surrounds him in the country to which he desperately wants to belong. The Real Chariots of Fire contains fascinating archival footage of both runners. Their differing but equally eccentric arm actions, so unlike modern running styles, strikingly capture their very different world views —Abrahams viciously attacking his environs with his elbows, Liddell (there is no more elegant way to describe it) pawing at the heavens. Thankfully Cross and Charleson toned down these idiosyncrasies for their respective performances, Cross in particular relying on his sensitive face to convey his character’s intensity. In the end, the lack of equilibrium in the film and the viewer’s corresponding focus on Abrahams are attributable to the gap in relatability between a saint, self-sufficient and invulnerable, and a flawed human being seeking love. (One of the film’s most delightful arcs is the relationship between Abrahams and his Gentile girlfriend Sybil, played by Alice Krige, which on her part develops at breakneck speed, from flirtatious infatuation to complete exasperation.)
Speaking of love, Abrahams’ probably equally driven Lithuanian father makes not a single appearance in the film, nor do any other relatives (in stark contrast to Liddell’s situation). Into this void shambles Ian Holm’s extraordinary pro trainer Sam Mussabini, perfectly positioned to understand Abraham’s lonely prickliness, himself a mixture of Turkish, Italian, Syrian and French ancestry. (There’s a delightful moment in Abrahams’ argument with the two old Bath buns in charge of Gonville and Caius College —played just this side of satire by John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson— when they mention Mussabini as if speaking of a bad smell, and express relief when Abrahams confirms that he is not all Italian. “HE’S HALF-ARAB,” blazes Abrahams, with a flash of malice.) The real-life Mussabini really did say things like "Only think of two things -- the gun and the tape. When you hear the one, just run like hell until you break the other,” and Ian Holm bore an uncanny physical resemblance to him. However, Holm allowed himself considerable artistic licence with that accent, a thing of rare beauty in which Middle Eastern mellifluousness slides in and out of flinty Northern English. Given that Mussabini was born and raised in Blackheath, there is no evidence that he sounded like anything other than a South Londoner, and he probably would not have liked this accent any more than Abrahams would have appreciated being called a snowflake, but Holm’s linguistic invention —toughness not altogether keeping sudden accesses of warmth under control— aids his masterful characterisation considerably.
The film has been loved by politicians across the spectrum, perhaps because it has something to offer everyone. There is stirring patriotism, of course, but also a remarkably acute take on belonging and community, and a sharp critique of the Establishment seen most obviously in the mismatch between Liddell and the weak Prince of Wales, who tries to guilt him into running on a Sunday (although the viewer knows that Edward VIII himself would eventually reject his country for the Woman He Loved). Its popularity amongst conviction politicians could also be to do with its extreme and old-fashioned seriousness of purpose, which, even back in 1981, was a rare commodity in cinema. The late American film critic Roger Ebert observed that the film’s success is built on numerous hyper-real glimpses of human experience, “particular moments that are very sharply seen and heard,” as captured by “photography that pays grave attention to the precise look of a human face during stress, pain, defeat, victory, and joy.” The cinematography by David Watkin, with its famous slow motion sequences in the athletic competitions and judicious use of closeups, indeed creates an extraordinary sense of intimacy, as does Vangelis’ probing electronic score, heightening moments of tension. This gives extra power to the subtle performances by all the cast, including Abrahams’ various friends at Cambridge: Nigel Havers’ lighthearted and winsome turn as Lord Lindsay, or the devoted Evelyn Aubrey Montague (grandson of C. P. Scott of Manchester Guardian fame) as portrayed by Nicholas Farrell.
Chariots of Fire’s fundamental question about athletics and inclusion is still relevant. In a class-based society, sport is one of three main professions —the other two being the police and the Army— in which working-class talent can be given its head. It also provides a theatre in which minority athletes can make an extraordinary extra contribution that proves their patriotism to the capricious tabloids, an expectation which brings with it almost unbearable additional psychological pressure. (That this syndrome has not been left behind in 1924, or even 1981, was shown by some of the discourse surrounding the nightmarish Euro 2020 final, from which this reviewer, at any rate, has still not recovered. Once again, the fallout also involved one of those open and hopeful discussions about Englishness that are only ever prompted by sport, and wither rapidly.) This official, public acceptance is precisely Abrahams’ goal. One of the film’s most moving scenes —second only to Mussabini putting his fist through a straw boater when his lad wins Olympic gold— shows Abrahams disembarking from the boat train to meet an equally hesitant Sybil. They then see the newspaper hoardings (OUR BOYS ARE HOME; ABRAHAMS THE TOAST OF ENGLAND) as Blake and Parry’s Jerusalem, from Abrahams’ funeral which bookends the film, swells gloriously up and bears the couple out of view on a tide of relief and happiness, the last psychological barrier to their marriage swept away. (The choice of Jerusalem is inspired, as a national anthem that does not smugly celebrate a glorious status quo but, with Blake’s mystical lyrics, condemns an unjust present and expresses a yearning for an alternative England, forever just out of reach.) According to Wikipedia, there were further happy endings for Abrahams: a successful marriage to Sybil (whom he actually met a decade later), in the course of which they fostered Jewish refugee children, and a long career in sports journalism. He delivered a feverishly joyous commentary on New Zealander Jack Lovelock's win at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games: "Lovelock wins! Lovelock wins! --He's won, hooray!" (Given the context, Abrahams obviously had a particular personal stake in the victory.) He also enjoyed collecting timings on other athletes, and later footage in The Real Chariots of Fire shows him looking rather like a trainspotter or birdwatcher, keenly scrutinising the race track with a little notebook in his hand. Naturally, he just happened to be present when Bannister ran the four minute mile.
However, it has been little noticed that the film is also about another group required to do something ‘extra’ in order to prove themselves. All of the young men depicted in it were just a little bit too young to fight in the Great War, and part of their determination to win glory at the Olympics was motivated by survivors’ guilt. As made clear by the Master of Gonville and Caius’ speech about the college’s War List at the start of the film, many of them were admitted to Cambridge to take up the places of dead men. Pressures overlap and multiply in the case of Abrahams. “Been doing your bit, ‘ave you?” enquires Richard Griffiths’ poisonous college porter as he checks him in. At least two of this group would die tragically in the Second World War —Aubrey signed up to become a war correspondent in the Italian campaign and eventually died of TB, while it is well known that Liddell, after a long missionary career in China, perished as a martyr in a Japanese internment camp.
It is remarkable that a film now forty years old still feels as fresh as it did when it was made. It is still unique in its intense, serious humanism and remarkably objective view of the complexities of English society, with its brilliant script by Liverpudlian Colin Welland (who also played the kind teacher in Kes). All of those involved were somehow able to distance themselves sufficiently from the subject matter to turn in this subtle critique of class and race, without in any way preaching to the viewer. There will probably never be anything quite like Chariots of Fire in its clear-eyed view of the English past and cautious hope for the future, or a double act so moving as Abrahams and Mussabini, played by two fine actors who both sadly left us last year.--Isabel Taylor