Saturday, August 02, 2008

"With Hope in Our Hearts and Wings on Our Heels": Chariots of Fire

We were recently watching Chariots of Fire, and it occurred to us that the movie is a great example of an extraordinary work of art that engages with religion in a serious and thoughtful way. In this regard, it’s a model for young artists seeking to use their art to present their faith without being polemical.

A brief plot summary in case you haven’t seen it: the movie follows two British sprinters as they prepare for and compete in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross) is the son of a Lithuanian Jew, and who constantly feels as if he is treated unfairly by his countrymen because of his religion. (We see this unfair treatment for ourselves in the behavior of two Cambridge dons, who I think are played by Statler & Waldorf.) He races in part to prove his worth to his countrymen. As he says, to prove himself he’ll “take them on, one by one, and run them off their feet."

Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), meanwhile, is a Scot and devout Christian. Like Abrahams, his religion defines him, but in his case there’s more of a conflict between faith and sport: he is torn between his talents as a runner and his family’s missionary work in China. He eventually decides that because his talent is a blessing from God, he should continue to run to glorify Him. As he explains to his sister (in a beautiful scene shot on Arthur’s Seat overlooking Edinburgh), “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” Liddell’s greatest challenge comes when he learns that his qualifying heat is on a Sunday. (I won’t give away the outcome.)

Some qualifications. First, the movie comes awfully close to reinforcing some stereotypes: the wild and talented but unrefined Scotsman who trains by running through the hills, the Robert Burns of running; the ambitious Jew who comes dangerously close to becoming a professional athlete by hiring a coach. And of course, the film takes liberties with history, among them that Liddell knew that his heat was on a Sunday long before the Olympics. This site has plenty of left-wing complaints, too (basically, “the movie says that liking your country is a good thing, which movies really shouldn’t do when Margaret Thatcher is prime minister!”) Though the article is silly, it does clarify that Abrahams converted to Catholicism, which would indeed clarify why his funeral is in a church!

Still, the movie has cracked our all-time favorite list. It helps that we’re an Anglophile (and a Scotophile, too)—there’s lots of British culture here, and many beautiful scenes in English manor houses, ancient universities, the Scottish Highlands, plus the famous opening and closing running scene along the beach (filmed in St. Andrews, but which is presented as Kent in the film).

But what makes the movie extraordinary and moving is its presentation of these two very driven men whose religions are central to their lives and their senses of themselves. The movie is not preachy, yet still makes clear that these men are admirable for both their ambition and their devotion. Still, the movie doesn’t present these men as exactly the same. It suggests that Harold will never be satisfied, that he will never think he’s done enough to feel like he’s accepted by his countrymen. (That’s why the complaint that the movie is excessively nationalist is so misdirected—this sense of dissatisfaction is the country’s fault more than it’s Harold’s.) Liddell’s desire, though still rooted in his faith and the faith of his family, is fueled less by a sense of dissatisfaction or resentment, so he’s much more satisfied and content after the Games, having done what he set out to do for God.

And although the movie gives voice to the critics of these men—Liddell’s decision is said to smack of “fanaticism,” and they’re both criticized for putting their religions over their countries—the movie presents their beliefs sympathetically and realistically (the two are not contradictory!).

It’s an inspiring movie for many reasons, including Liddell’s belief that his running matters because it’s an opportunity to glorify God. As his father tells him, “You can praise the Lord by peeling a spud, if you peel it to perfection.” (That sounds like Josemaria Escriva!) It’s also inspiring to recognize that the movie was widely acclaimed in 1981 (it won the Oscar for Best Picture), which suggests that even in a “post-Christian” popular culture, there is a place for great art that presents religion as an important force in the lives of great men.

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