One of the 15 films listed in the category "Values" on the Vatican film list.
Religion is everywhere in sports these days. Players gather for pre-game prayer, point skyward after a touchdown or home run to acknowledge God for the accomplishment, and mention Jesus for the cameras at every opportunity. Christian athletes trade on their star power to promote faith rather than sneakers or deodorant, and hold prayer meetings before and after games.
Religiosity in sports isn’t without ambiguities. At times the message can be a bit glib, as when athletes credit God with helping them when they win, though when they lose no one ever says God helped the other team. On the other hand, it’s hard to be too cynical about the sight of NFL players kneeling on the field after the game with players from the other team in acknowledgment of a fraternity that transcends competition.
Two very different approaches to religion and sport are at the heart of Chariots of Fire, a period piece that explores timeless themes of temporal ambitions and higher purposes, of commitment and sacrifice, of ability and spirit. The film is based on the true story of two British sprinters in the 1924 Paris Olympics, one Christian, one Jewish. Neither is out for personal or national glory; for each competing is a matter of a higher calling, but in two very different ways.
For Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a proud English Jew from a well-to-do family, running is a weapon against antisemitism — a way of validating his worth, and by extension his Jewishness, to his Anglo society and to himself. There’s something to be said for this approach: After he shatters a long-standing speed barrier at Cambridge’s Trinity College, the master (John Gielgud) remarks, "Perhaps they’re the chosen people after all." In a way, he’s right: As an athlete Abrahams is driven by defiant anger and shame engendered by the legacy of antisemitic prejudice that has paradoxically gone hand in hand with the Jews’ divine election. (Thus Tevye’s rhetorical question in Fiddler on the Roof: "Couldn’t You choose someone else for awhile?")
For Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a devout Scot with missionary aspirations, running is something he can do to give glory to God as flowers glorify him by growing and the sun by shining. In the film’s most quoted line, Liddell tries to explain the value of running to his pious sister, who can’t quite see the value in so worldly a pursuit: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure."
The contrast between the two men’s motivations is highlighted in a number of ways. Each man’s commitment goes well beyond whatever obligation either feels to the expectations of their society, but where Abrahams’s commitment leads him to dispense himself from unwritten rules about amateur athletes not receiving professional coaching, Liddell brings his own additional unwritten rules to his participation. For Abrahams, the chief crisis, after losing a race to Liddell, is whether he can win. For Liddell, who discovers en route to the Olympics that the qualifying heat for his event is on the day he calls the "Sabbath," the crisis is whether he can even qualify. Where Abrahams must swallow his pride and find the courage to run, Liddell must swallow his hopes and find the courage not to.
Wisely, the film contrasts the two runners without directly pitting them against each other. In the end, their goals aren’t in competition with one another, and it is possible to believe, in this case, that the Lord’s favor truly rested on both of these two runners in 1924, one of the old covenant, one of the new.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.