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Chariots of Fire

The 1924 Summer Olympics were a star-studded affair. Gertrude Ederle, who won bronze in swimming, went on to greater fame by swimming the English Channel. Johnny Weissmuller won two golds in swimming and a bronze in water polo before moving to Hollywood to star in the Tarzan movies. Ben Spock was a member of the gold medal winning US 8 man rowing team, and after the games became the preeminent pediatrician in the world. It was also the games of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, immortalized in the Oscar winner for best picture from 1981, Chariots of Fire. After the opening scene where we see the British Track and Field team running on the beach accompanied by the soundtrack from Greek composer Vangelis, we are introduced to Abrahams and fellow runner Aubrey Montague as they arrive for their freshman year at Cambridge. They both sign up for the track team and Abrahams immediately makes waves by challenging for a race against the clock, literally. He becomes the first runner in 700 years to make it all the way around the courtyard in the time it takes the clock to strike twelve. A university administrator quips that there may not be a faster man in the entire nation. Meanwhile in Scotland, rugby star Eric Liddell is presenting awards at a track meet when a family friend invites him to run in the 200. Liddell runs, and wins. Soon he is running for Scotland in meets against teams from Ireland and France, and delivering sermons to the audience afterwards. As the son of missionaries, Liddell's sister had hoped that he would join the family business and head off to China, but he convinces her that there will be time for that, after the Olympics. Meanwhile Abrahams has been running in meets for Cambridge, and filing anonymous dispatches for the school paper. Soon his reputation and Liddell's are well known throughout Great Britain. Eventually they face each other, and Liddell wins. The loss devastates Abrahams, and he contemplates giving up on running altogether if he cannot beat Liddell, but a new coach named Sam Mussabini agrees to train him. Sam also tells him that in the Olympics Liddell is not the real concern, the Americans are. We Americans have come to be very proud of the shear dominance our men's basketball team once had in Olympic play, but there is one sport where our boys have been even more dominant; track. Of the six Olympic champions in the 100 meters up until 1924, five were from the US. The 1920 gold medalist Charlie Paddock and the then world-record holder (and Michigan native) Jackson Scholz were heavy favorites in 1924, and as much publicity as Abrahams and Liddell had in Great Britain, you could be excused for thinking the Americans would leave them in their dust. However we never get a chance to see how Liddell would do against the top two American sprinters, as the qualifying heat for the 100 is on a Sunday and Liddell refuses to run on his religion's day of rest. Abrahams' friend from school, Lord Andrew Lindsay, comes through with a solution, giving Liddell his spot in the 400. In the end, they both end up taking home the gold, and celebrate all the way back to England. The movie serves as not only a typical sports movie, complete with training montages, slow motion finales, and the big bad opponent that can't be defeated (USA! USA! USA!). But it is also a compare/ contrast between the two British runners. Abrahams is very much a modern athlete. Though it is often mentioned that he is Jewish, his religion never seems to be a major part of his personality. He dates an actress, hires his own coach, and his training causes concern with Cambridge officials who fear he has turned his back on amateurism. Meanwhile Liddell is a man defined primarily by his religion. He sees track as a means to bring attention to himself which in turn will bring attention to his missionary work. Ian Holm was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Sam, and his performance is very good, but so were the performances of Nigel Havers as Lindsay and the two leads, Ben Cross as Abrahams and Ian Charleson as Liddell. The screenplay and musical score won well deserved Oscars, but the cinematography was not nominated, even though it was very worthy of a nod. Other nominees that year included On Golden Pond and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The first Indiana Jones movie is a lot of fun, but it cannot match this movie for the sheer beauty of the music and the shots, and the wonderful writing. This isn't a perfect movie. The script actually undersells how dominant the Americans were, and Henry Stallard, who took bronze in the 1500 (an event won by the great Paavo Nurmi), pops up towards the end with no explanation as to who he is. The script even spends a great deal of time with Abrahams wrestling with his inner demons while all but ignoring Liddell. However despite these faults, the movie still stands as one of the best sports movies of its time and still edges out Raiders of the Lost Ark as the best movie of 1981.


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