People today are dogged by a persistent feeling of helplessness in many arenas of life. Financial difficulties, crime, pollution, and other problems look like they are out of control. At work, employees complain about being viewed as insignificant and expendable. In marriages, family units, and even friendships, estrangement is a common condition. It appears there are oppressive forces that manipulate us.
Filmmakers often offer the public escapist entertainment as antidotes to this malaise. Other cinematic works reinforce the sense that individual worth is being assaulted from all quarters. Chariots of Fire , directed by Hugh Hudson, is a special film that celebrates the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. This uplifting saga is a perfect elixir in harsh and troubled times.
The funeral of Harold Abrahams in 1978 is in progress. Among those in the congregation is Aubrey Montague (Nick Farrell), a journalist, who recalls first meeting Harold at Cambridge in 1919. At the train station, the new students are helped with their luggage by two veterans of World War I. Later, at Caius College, Harold (Ben Cross) reveals both defensiveness and self-confidence when a porter patronizes him. He and Aubrey are worlds apart in background and personal style. Harold, the son of a German born Jewish financier, is accustomed to bigotry; Aubrey is a middleclass dreamer. Nevertheless, the two soon become friends.
The master of Caius hall (Lindsay Anderson) welcomes the new class, the first one to follow those who died in World War I. On their behalf, he urges them "to examine yourselves, assess your true potential, seek to discover where your true chance of greatness lies." Following a student societies fair, Harold stuns everyone by challenging the Trinity Court Dash. The idea is to run around the 312-yard perimeter of the court in less than 46 seconds the time it takes for the bells to chime. No one has accomplished the feat in 700 years. Andy Lindsey (Nigel Havers), the elder son of the Duke of Cumbria, decides to run with him. To everyone's surprise, Harold beats the clock. He can run like the wind.
The scene shifts to a Scottish Highlands gathering, a folk festival of music, dance, and athletic competition. One of the hosts of the event is Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a famous Scots rugby player and the son of a Protestant missionary to China. Sandy (Struan Rodger), a university coach, watches Eric win the 200-yards race handily. Afterwards at a family gathering, the young athlete for the first time acknowledges his pleasure in running. Although his sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell) is against his giving time to running when he could be testifying to the Lord at the Evangelistic Mission, his father states: "You can praise the Lord by peeling a spud if you peel it to perfection. Run in His name and let the world stand back in wonder." And so Eric enters some races. He continues to serve the mission by preaching to his fans afterwards.
Meanwhile in England, Harold spends most of his time training for the Olympics. He travels to Edinburgh to see a meet between Scotland and France. He is amazed as he watches Eric Liddell get up and win after a competitor purposely knocks him down. Following the events, Harold meets Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), an English sprinting coach who is also there to watch Liddell. The Cambridge man asks for assistance in his training. The coach says he'll think it over.
Back at the university, Aubrey takes Harold to the Savoy Theatre where Sybil (Alice Krige), an actress he adores, is starring in The Mikado. Harold is also attracted to her and asks her out to dinner. They hit it off immediately. Asked why he runs, Harold explains that he uses it as a weapon against anti-Semitism.
The day of reckoning comes when Harold and Eric square off in a race. Eric Liddell wins, and his adversary is plunged into a sea of despair that not even Sybil can pull him out of. But then Sam appears on the scene and declares: "I can find you another two yards."
The coach begins work with his student by showing him slides of the competition projected for the 100 metres at the upcoming Paris Olympics. Besides Liddell, the field includes two Americans Charlie Paddock (Dennis Christopher), "the California Cannonball," and Jackson Scholtz (Brad Davis), "the New York Thunderbolt." Sam begins working on Harold's stride and his running rhythm.
Now in training for the Olympics himself, Eric has a serious meeting with his brother and sister. He tells them that he has decided to return to China in the Missionary Service but for now he wants to devote all his efforts to running. He explains: "I believe God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure. To win is to honor him."
Harold has a showdown of his own with two Cambridge officials who criticize him for his individualism and lack of "esprit de corps." The runner, angry at the charge, responds: "You know, gentlemen, you yearn for victory just as I do. But achieved with the apparent effortlessness of Gods. Yours are the archaic values of the prep school playground. I believe in the relentless pursuit of excellence and I'll carry the future with me!"
On the boat to Paris, Eric learns that the heats for the 100-metres race will be held on a Sunday. Sadly he informs Lord Brikenhead (Nigel Davenport) of the Olympic Committee that he will not run on the Sabbath. Eric repeats his stand to the Prince of Wales and other dignitaries when they ask him to run for King and Country; he reminds them that his primary allegiance is to God. Andy, who has already won a medal in the hurdles, comes up with a solution. He suggests Eric take his place in the 400-metres race.
On the day of the 100-metres competition, Harold takes on the Americans while his coach Sam listens to the crowds from a nearby hotel room. He realizes that his protégé has won when the British anthem wafts up from the Stadium. That night the two outsiders Harold and Sam celebrate together.
On the last day of competition, Eric Liddell runs in the 400 metres. As he is warming up, he is handed a note from the American runner Jackson Scholtz. It reads: "In the Old Book it says 'He that honors me, I will honor.' Good luck." It turns out to be a prophecy.
Chariots of Fire is an aesthetically well realized work of art. The stylish visual imagery of cinematographer David Watkin is given an emotionally rich aural context by the vibrant music of Vangelis Papathanassion. This authentic drama deals directly with such issues as athletic competition, the nature of winning and losing, and the central place of ethics in sports. It touches sensitively and powerfully on the longing for perfection, the search for meaning, and the struggle for acceptance.