A greater jihad

Twenty years ago, Chariots of Fire awed America

Issue: "Bush: 'We will not fail'," Oct. 20, 2001

"Jihad" (the Arabic word for "struggle") has a positive side. Islamic terrorists emphasize the war element, but most Muslims emphasize what they call "greater jihad," the internal spiritual struggle of those trying to discipline their character.

Twenty years ago, in October 1981, a movie about greater jihad hit theaters across America and soon won the best picture Oscar for its story of two runners: Harold Abrahams, the fiercely competitive son of a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, and Eric Liddell, a young Scottish minister. The film's name: Chariots of Fire.

Its success was due in part to the contrast in greater jihads that the two runners represent. Abrahams sees sprinting as a way to gain vengeance on anti-Semites: "ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence." Liddell joyfully fuses body and spirit as he disciplines himself to run for God's glory: "[God] made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure."

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Both runners hope for gold medals at the 1924 Olympics, but Liddell's reading of the Bible does not allow him to race on the Sabbath, and he has to decide whether to stick with what he has professed or give in to the entreaties of king and country. Abrahams, meanwhile, has to face not only his internal loneliness but the fastest runners in the world.

Greater jihad has its appeal. Eric Liddell did not say that other people should not run on the Sabbath: He said that he could not. For that reason movie liberals could portray him not as their hated right-winger dictating to other people, but as a man who told himself how to live, and stuck to that resolution even when it hurt.

David Puttnam, the producer of Chariots of Fire, said he found Eric Liddell's story enthralling simply because "This is an expedient world. For people to behave in an inexpedient manner is extraordinary." Executive producer Dodi Fayed, a Muslim who became Princess Diana's lover (and would die with her in 1997), was fascinated by the theme of "How your religion can affect you. How where you come from can affect you."

Making the film was itself a greater jihad, because financing was hard to find. Its screenwriter, Colin Welland, asked, "Can you imagine going to a Hollywood mogul and saying, 'I have this idea about two Olympic athletes from 1924?'" The project languished until Fayed brought in the additional $3 million needed from United Star Shipping. "Believe me," Puttnam said, "you've been fairly well around the track before you get to Egyptian shipping lines."

The perseverance shown by the producers in searching for capital is instructive. We sometimes talk about God opening or closing doors and leave it at that, but David Puttnam and others persevered when doors were not only closed but slammed in their faces, and they produced a movie that was both a labor of love and audience-friendly.

That is also unusual today. Too often the choice we face in movies and books is between the work of an artist applauded by his coterie and the work of marketers who develop a project simply because a bankable name is attached to it. But those who focus on themselves and those who focus on focus groups both miss the point: We should discipline ourselves to live by biblically objective principles, not just those that please ourselves or someone else.

Sometimes, everything comes together for moviemakers only once in a lifetime. Director Hugh Hudson went from Chariots of Fire to Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, and never made another top-notch film. Producer Puttnam went on to become chief of production for Columbia Pictures but was fired after little over a year on that job. The actor who brilliantly portrayed Eric Liddell, Ian Charleson, died from AIDS complications in 1990.

One advantage of Hollywood is that the rare shining moment does not dissipate like the mist. If you haven't seen Chariots of Fire, you should. And if you have, maybe you can push for a sequel. Soon after Chariots of Fire came out, Hugh Hudson talked about Eric Liddell's post-Olympic career as a missionary in China until he died at the end of World War II in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The director noted "Liddell's courage and fortitude in the camp" and said, "Might be an even better movie in that story."

Might be-and as we need to increase our fortitude to meet a new international threat, such a movie could be both enthralling and helpful.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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