Chariots of Fire (1981) – Ace Mini-Review + Thoughts on Identity

Chariots of Fire
Starring: Ben Cross, Ian Charleston, Nicholas Farrell
Written by: Colin Welland
Directed by: Hugh Hudson
U.K., 1981

How good is this movie?

This is another of those movies I can’t hope to be objective about.  The story and the characters have been with me for as long as I can remember, and any attempt to separate them from the deep-seated affection I have for them would be quite futile.  Is there anything I can say about it that isn’t just a statement about myself?  Well, I think we can agree that this is a very pretty movie: beautifully set, beautifully lit, beautifully filmed, beautifully edited, and – of course – beautifully scored.  And, if you’re in the right mood for it, it’s also solidly uplifting.

How ace is this movie?

Romance doesn’t play a big role in this movie.  The one romantic sub-plot is the relationship between Harold and Sybil, but it’s only a part of Harold’s story.  An equal amount of focus is given to Harold’s relationship with his school friends and his trainer, Sam.  As for Eric, he shows no signs of romantic interest in anyone.  His most important human relationship is with his sister, Jennie.  But, of course, his real most important relationship in the movie is with God.

Any other thoughts?

One of the main concerns of the movie is how the two protagonists experience and express their identities.  Both are outsiders in English society, albeit in very different ways, and both use running as a way to affirm their identities.  Harold is Jewish, the son of a Lithuanian immigrant.  Despite being born in England, he knows that other Englishmen see him as an outsider, and he experiences the microaggressions associated with xenophobia and antisemitism.  Nevertheless, he is fiercely loyal to his native country, once declaring, “I am an Englishman first and last”.  For him, running is a “weapon”, a way to fight back against prejudice.  By winning an Olympic medal for Great Britain, he hopes to affirm his Englishness and be accepted by English society.

In contrast, Eric is comfortably outside of English society.  Born in China, he is a proud Scot, and also a devout member of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland (as opposed to the Anglican Church of England that most Englishmen belong to).  Most importantly, though, he is a man of deep faith who puts devotion to God before all other callings.  For him, running is an extension of his missionary work.  He runs in God’s name and seeks success in order to glorify Him.

Eric encounters a dilemma when he is scheduled to run on a Sunday.  Despite having worked for years to qualify for the event, he believes it would be wrong for him to compete on the Christian sabbath.  He withdraws from the race, much to the consternation of the British Olympic Association, who are counting on him to win them a British victory.  It is only because somebody thinks to let him switch to a different event that he ends up running at all.

This leads to one of the most important statements about identity I’ve ever heard in a movie:

“The lad, as you call him, is a true man of principle, and a true athlete.  His speed is a mere extension of his life, its force.  We sought to sever his running from himself.”

The British elite want to separate Eric the runner from Eric the Christian.  They value the running because any medals Eric wins will contribute to British prestige.  The Christianity – at least in this instance – is an annoyance that threatens to get in the way of that prestige.  They ask him to set aside his loyalty to God, considering instead his duty to country and king.  In their minds, Eric’s desire to run and his supposed sense of patriotism must take precedence over any religious convictions.

What they don’t understand is that “Christian” is not simply one of Eric’s characteristics; it is his identity.  His running is an extension of his Christian faith, which is both his means and his motivation.  As he says to his sister, “God… made me fast.  And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”  Eric the runner cannot be separated from Eric the Christian because Christianity is a defining part of who Eric is.

Just before his final race, Eric is handed a piece of paper by Jackson Scholz that reads, “It says in the old book, ‘He that honors me, I will honor’.  Good luck.”  Scholz, like the other American runners, has mainly been presented as an antagonist, a member of a competing team from a rival country.  But, at this moment, the lines of nationality cease to matter.  Scholz speaks to Eric in the language of faith – a faith that transcends and trumps national boundaries.  And, in doing so, he shows that he recognises Eric as a complete person.  Unlike the British Olympic Association, who value his running but not his faith, or even Eric’s sister Jennie, who values his faith but not his running, Scholz sees and affirms the whole man, the Christian athlete.  And it is this affirmation that Eric holds as he crosses the finish line and wins his gold medal.

Both Harold and Eric’s stories complicate the idea of nationality.  Harold’s is a reminder that nationality is expansive, and need not be limited by ancestry, ethnicity, or religion.  Eric’s is a reminder that nationality is only one form of identification, and that many people prioritise other identities.  Over the course of the movie, one character affirms his membership in English society, the other his separateness.  One does it by running, the other by refusing to run.  But, ultimately, both characters retain their sense of who they are and are affirmed in their chosen identities.

4 Stars; 3 Aces

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