Chariots of Fire (1981): A Conservative Masterpiece

Early in Chariots of Fire, the 1981 winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Harold Abrahams, one half of the film’s dual-headed hero, gives an almost perfect description of what would now be called “microaggression.”

“It’s an ache, a helplessness, an anger. One feels humiliated. Sometimes I say to myself ‘hey, steady on, you’re imagining all this.’ And then I catch that look again. Catch it on the edge of a remark, feel a cold reluctance in a handshake.”

Abrahams, a member of the 1924 British Olympic Team and the son of a wealthy Jewish immigrant, is probably the victim of more than just “microaggression.” The masters of Trinity and Caius Colleges at Cambridge, who serve as a kind of antisemitic Greek Chorus throughout the film, call Abrahams into their office and accuse him of defiling the traditions of the university. “There goes a Semite,” the master of Caius played by John Gielgud – himself the descendant of Polish and Lithuanian immigrants – remarks after Abrahams defiantly refuses to fire the professional track coach he has hired to help him improve his time in the 100-yard dash, “a different God, a different mountaintop.” While not exactly Kristallnacht, to have been accused of embarrassing both his country and his university by the master of “Trinity” College must have been a humiliating experience for Abrahams. It must have been the confirmation of all of his suspicions that as a Jew he wasn’t accepted at Cambridge, that “cold reluctant handshake” finally put into words.

Abrahams’ response is what makes him the perfect conservative – or to be more accurate “neoliberal” – hero. He won’t wallow in “an ache, a helplessness, an anger,” but he won’t attempt to organize other Jewish students at Cambridge against two obviously antisemitic high officials. We never really find out if there are other Jewish students at Cambridge in the early 1920s anyway. I’m sure there were but they’re never mentioned, and except for a banner put up by the “Fabian Socialists” at Abrahams’ freshman orientation, Chariots of Fire purges any reference to contemporary politics. Abrahams wants to assert his identity as an Englishman, not a Jew. More importantly, he wants to “beat them at their own game.” Describing his father, an immigrant but a fervent English patriot, he declares that he will overcome entrenched British antisemitism by his own individual achievement.

“This England of his is Christian and Anglo-Saxon and so are her corridors of power. And those who stalk them guard them with jealousy and venom. I’m going to take them on, all of them, one by one, and run them off their feet.”

This is also Hillary Clinton’s method of fighting sexism. By becoming the first woman President, she will win a victory for all women similar to the way Harold Abrahams won a victory for Jews by winning the gold medal in the 100-yard dash at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Harold Abrahams did not, of course, end antisemitism in the United Kingdom any more than Barack Obama ended racism or Hillary Clinton will end sexism. He did go onto a distinguished career as a barrister and elder statesman in British athletics, dying in 1978, shortly before Chariots of Fire was made, and the year before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. The film opens with his funeral. Indeed, it was also re-released in London during the 2012 Olympics and adapted as a stage play. While Chariots of Fire seemed dated, almost quaint, back in 1981 during it’s first theatrical run – I’m old enough to have seen it in the theater the year it won Best Picture – it’s a rare movie that’s gotten more relevant with age, a perfect expression of the neoliberal world view wrapped in middlebrow nostalgia for the British Empire.

If Chariots of Fire has any flaws, it’s probably Ben Cross, the actor who plays Abrahams. He’s not exactly a bad actor, but he’s not a very good one either. Broad, well-built, of average height, he’s more believable as a middle-weight boxer than as a sprinter. His performance is a good solid effort that would be more than adequate in a masterpiece theater mini-series, but he never quite gets at the heart of Abrahams’ drive to overcome his feelings of inferiority through athletic achievement. The same cannot be said of Ian Charleson, who plays Chariots of Fire’s other hero. Charleson’s performance as the Evangelical Christian Eric Liddell dominates Chariots of Fire. If Abrahams is the film’s conservative heart, then Liddell is its transcendental soul. In maybe the film’s most representative scene, Liddell is knocked to the ground by a French runner at the beginning of a 400 yard race. He gets up, makes up the 20-yard loss, and wins. It doesn’t sound like much but it’s one of the best dramatizations of an athletic competition ever put to film. Charleson so incarnates a man driven to honor God by his running that his spirit seems to overcome his body. After he collapses over the finish line in exhaustion, and is helped to his feet by his coach, he becomes the image of Jesus from Michelangelo’s Pieta, a man crucified by his drive to succeed who becomes one with God after an almost superhuman effort to overcome the weakness of the flesh.

Abrahams, who’s in the stands watching the performance, is unnerved.  He knows he’ll never be able to beat Liddell, and, in fact, he never does. Liddell easily beats him the only time they race, and there’s no rematch. The ambitious Jew and the soulful Evangelical both go to Paris for the 1924 Olympics and they both win their gold medals but through a neat little narrative trick – Liddell won’t run on Sunday so he’s switched from the 100-yard to the 400-yard race – they don’t have to compete against each other. It doesn’t matter. Margaret Thatcher’s Britain has plenty of room for both, for superior men willing to succeed, not as members of their communities, but as individuals.

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4 comments

  1. Yes, Stan, but what I remember is the music by Vangelis, a nice piece. I never saw the movie. The glories of athletics just don’t amuse me since I stopped being a rabid Canadiens fan (a long time ago). I cut back on media when playoffs and Olympics happen, like I imagine a universe to escape Christmas. Leonard Cohen turned 82 on September 21, and released his new album. I’d like to do that. (17 years to go). Bop til ya’ drop, dance til you’re dead.

    1. I saw Chariots of Fire when I was 16 and quite Anglophilic, so it had a strong effect. Only later did I realize I was being propagandized.

  2. Very interesting point about the “bootstrap” philosophy of conservatism!

    1. Hugh Hudson is that rarest of rarities, a Thatcherite poet. Sadly he never made another good movie after Chariots of Fire.

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