Few films have captured both failure and success like Chariots of Fire which is released in July, writes Sophie Lister…
We will be inundated, this summer, with images of winners and losers. There is little room for any middle ground in athletics. Either you’re the first to cross the line, or you aren’t – not many people set out to win a silver medal. Sport demands passion, commitment, and the strength of character to face both failure and success.
Few films have captured this quite like Chariots of Fire. First released in 1981, the winner of a clutch of Oscars, it is now widely acknowledged as a British classic. It may be more than 30 years old, and based on events which took place in the 1920s, but it remains both entertaining and moving. Now, a timely cinematic re-release will give audiences the chance to experience the story all over again, or maybe discover it for the first time.
At the heart of the film are Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), two very different British runners. Eric, a Scot, is a devout Christian, and wrestles with the spiritual implications of competing. Meanwhile, Harold – the son of a Jewish immigrant – runs to prove his worth in the face of prejudice. As the two young men train for the Paris 1924 Olympics, they must push themselves to their limits, and decide what it is they
really stand for.
Harold is driven by a painful compulsion, so strong that he confesses himself an ‘addict’ to running. A lifelong outsider, he sees winning as a deeply serious business. As far as he’s concerned, what’s at stake is far more than medals and glory – it’s his very dignity as a human being.
The intensity of his drive might seem extreme. But his philosophy is far from uncommon. Our culture increasingly values people on the basis of what they do, or produce, as opposed to recognising their intrinsic worth. We find it natural to evaluate ourselves in the same way, basing our self-esteem on what we have achieved, and on whether we have ‘outrun’ the others around us. As Harold learns, it’s an addictive way to live. But it also has a flipside.
If justifying our existence on earth is entirely our own responsibility, then failure is devastating. When Harold loses a race, he symbolically loses everything. And even when he wins, victory clearly feels strange to him, even anticlimactic. It hasn’t done for him what he hoped it would. “I’m forever in pursuit,” he confesses to the more contented Aubrey (Nicholas Farrell), “and I don’t even know what I am chasing.” Each win is only a temporary reprieve, failing to provide him with the peace that he craves.
Eric’s running technique appears odd and almost laughable – body tilted backwards, mouth open, face to the sky. But it’s a symptom of what is happening in his heart as he races. He looks upwards instead of forwards because reaching the finish line is almost incidental. He simply loves to run, because he knows that it’s what God made him to do.
His journey isn’t free from conflict, as he struggles to reconcile his faith with the demands placed upon him. Neither is his approach to running by any means tranquil, or painless. But it’s clear, simply from the way he conducts himself, that he’s free from the crushing pressure which Harold experiences. Eric doesn’t need to run in order to feel complete – he wants to run, because he already is.
The contrast between these two men touches on something profound about the human experience. And it’s for this reason, perhaps, that Chariots of Fire has such enduring appeal. Each one of us is Harold, striving with all of our strength to be acceptable, finding that we can never quite make it. But as we look at Eric, we wonder whether somewhere, beyond the equally unforgiving categories of ‘winner’ and ‘loser’, there might be another possibility.
The message of grace is surprising and subversive because it cuts right through our attempts to create our own worth. First, it asks us to take the painful step of surrendering these attempts – and then it offers us, as a free gift, the assurance we were fighting for all along.