Daily Dispatches

Chariots of Fire recapturing British imagination

Movies

With the London Olympic Games approaching, Chariots of Fire, the 1981 Best Picture Oscar-winner and perennial family favorite, is recapturing the British imagination.

The reality-based story of two British sprinters going for gold in the 1924 Paris Games was re-released in British theaters on Friday and a digitally remastered DVD will be on sale this week. A stage adaptation has also opened in London's West End to rave reviews.

Harold Abrahams was an English Jew who overcame the ingrained anti-Semitism of the British establishment, while Eric Liddell was a committed Scottish Christian and son of missionaries to China who refused to run his original event - the 100 meter sprint - because his heat fell on a Sunday. He went on to win gold in the 400 meters.

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The story of their struggle against the obstacles, and each other, was first told in a 1981 film that struck a chord around the world, becoming a surprise box office hit and winning four Academy Awards.

Martin Polley, an Olympic historian at the University of Southampton in southern England, is not surprised audiences still love the film.

"All history films tell us a lot about now as well as about then," he said. Now as much as in 1981 - a year after a Cold War-marred Moscow Games were boycotted by the U.S. and other Western nations - "looking back to "a time when the Olympics were apolitical and noncommercial is very attractive."

Of course, that idealized past is partly an illusion. In 1924, as now, international politics interfered with the competition. Germany, banned from the games after its defeat in World War I, did not compete.

Polley says commercialism was part of the games long before McDonald's and Visa were around to stamp their brands on the event. "The 1900, 1904 and 1908 Olympics were all sideshows to trade fairs," Polley said. "Coca Cola has been involved in the Olympics since 1920."

Ben Cross, who played Abrahams, thinks the movie's appeal lies in its depiction of "the purity, the innocence" of Olympic competition. "We have security worries today, and it's turned into somewhat of a business enterprise," he said. "(But) at its core there is this sort of purity of endeavor."

"It's a simple story about simple ideals, simple morals. Stand up for who you are. Stand up for your rights," the film's director, Hugh Hudson, said at a very British gala premiere in London's Leicester Square - complete with red carpet, Union flags, torrential downpours.

Producer David Puttnam, according to Sports Illustrated, said the movie makes audiences ask themselves whether they too could make such a hard choice.

But for many Christians, the movie's enduring appeal comes at least partly because of its sincere and sympathetic depiction of a believer who sacrificed for his theological convictions, despite severe criticism.

Perhaps more importantly, Liddell provided a model for understanding how to be "in the world, but not of it." He believed that his service to God included being a missionary and an athlete, and that he must be faithful in both roles. As his character famously said, "I believe God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Les Sillars
Les Sillars

Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is the editor of WORLD's Mailbag section.

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