Chariots of Fire – Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams
Chariots of Fire (1981) tells the story of two sprinters, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleston), training for and competing in the 1924 Summer Olympics. Abrahams, a Jewish student studying at the University of Cambridge, is deeply competitive and runs to escape the anti-Semitism he’s faced with, while Liddell, a Scottish Christian, runs as a way of celebrating his faith in God. The film begins with Abraham’s funeral in 1978 and quickly flashes back to 1919, starting with Abraham’s enrollment at Cambridge and Liddell residing in Scotland.
Despite Abrahams’ frustration with the anti-Semitism at Cambridge, he finds success in his running. He’s celebrated by his peers after being the first person in 700 years to complete Cambridge’s Great Court Run, a competition that requires him to run 340 meters in 43 seconds. During this time, Liddell, a rugby player, resides in Scotland, where his sister insists that he shouldn’t be running in spite of his athletic accomplishments. Ignoring her disapproval, he continues to do so and is encouraged by others in his community that it’s how he can best glorify God.
Abrahams’ success quickly garners him attention. During this time, he finds enjoyment not only in his running, but also as a member of the local theater club. There, he meets and begins dating Sybil, a peer of his. Liddell finds similar success in Scotland and is eventually noticed by Abrahams, who attends a race of his. Impressed with Liddell’s performance, Abrahams asks Liddell’s coach, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), to help him take Liddell on and train him in preparation for the Olympics.
Abrahams and Liddell first compete against one another in London in 1923. Liddell wins, and Abrahams struggles to cope with the loss despite Sybil’s attempts to console him. Abrahams’ obsession with winning strains his relationship as a result, and it isn’t until Mussabini agrees to coach him and improve his stride that he recovers. Liddell faces personal struggles of his own back in Scotland, where his sister scolds him for missing church because of training. Liddell informs her that he’s been accepted into a missionary program in China, but that he intends to celebrate the Lord first by continuing to run.
While training under Mussabini, Abrahams is noticed by the headmasters at Cambridge, who take issue with him having hired a professional coach. They insist that Cambridge is founded on the ideals of amateurism and that Abrahams has focused too intensely on his running career and not enough on his university life. Sensing the school’s anti-Semitism toward him, Abrahams ignores them and continues training.
Soon after, both Abrahams and Liddell are selected to represent Britain in the 1924 Summer Olympics. While on the boat to Paris, Liddell learns that he’s been scheduled to race on Sunday. This goes against his religious convictions, and he refuses to run despite the years of training and personal sacrifices he’s made. Despite pleas to the President of the Olympic Association to reschedule the event, the committee refuses and Liddell elects not to run on the Sabbath. He is criticized for his decision by both the media and British leadership, and it isn’t until a teammate of Liddell’s offers to trade events so that Liddell can compete on a day other than the Sabbath, that the issue is resolved.
The Olympics begin poorly, with Abrahams losing badly to the Americans in the 200-meter race. Mussabini consoles him after his loss, which he again takes harshly, while Liddell performs a sermon at a nearby Parisian church. In the 100-meter race later on, Abrahams races once more against the Americans, this time coming out victorious. Soon after, Liddell runs and wins the 400-meter race despite skeptics that think he can’t run that distance, and the British finish the Olympics triumphant.
The end of the film returns to Abrahams’ funeral, where it is revealed that Abrahams married Sybil upon his return to Britain and became the Elder Statesman of British Athletics. He died in 1978. Liddell, conversely, died in occupied China while doing missionary work during World War II.
Contributing author: Adam Shaw
Chariots of Fire – Real Life, Reel Differences
- The movie depicts three students with whom Abrahams studies at Cambridge: Henry Stallard, Aubrey Montague, and Andrew Lindsay. While Stallard and Montague both competed in the Olympics alongside Abrahams, Montague attended Oxford, not Cambridge as the movie suggests.
- The character of Andrew Lindsay is fictional. Some suggest that he’s based off of Lord Burghly, who had a similar disposition, though Burghly did not attend Cambridge with Abrahams, Stallard, or Montague. Lindsay was created when the real medal-winner, Douglas Lowe, had no interest in being involved in the production of the film.
- The Great Court Run, which Abrahams completes toward the beginning of the movie, is said to have not been beaten in over 700 years. However, the court in which it takes place wasn’t constructed in its current form until the 17th century, approximately 300 years before the film takes place.
- Speaking of the Great Court Run, Abrahams never attempted it. Prior to 2007, the only person to have completed it was Lord Burghly, the individual off of whom Lindsay was based. Lindsay, interestingly, was the one who challenged Abrahams to the race and lost.
- The movie suggests that Abrahams’ biggest motivation for running at Cambridge was the anti-Semitism he faced there. While this might be true, some believe his popularity at Cambridge led him to be treated fairly, and that the anti-Semitism he faced was prior to his enrollment.
- Abrahams’ fiancee, Sybil, is mistakenly referred to as Sybil Gordon, whereas the real Sybil was named Sybil Evers. Both Sybils sang at the same opera company, though the inaccuracies don’t end there. Abrahams and Evers didn’t meet until 1934, 10 years after Abrahams won his gold medal.
- In the film, Abrahams meets Mussabini after watching Liddell race. In truth, it was Liddell who introduced Abrahams to Mussabini.
- Liddell’s sister, Jenny, is consistently shown to disapprove of Liddell’s running career. In reality, Jenny was in full support of her brother’s decision to continue running. The real Jenny, in fact, had a small cameo in the film during Liddell’s sermon in Paris.
- Late in the movie, Liddell refuses to run his race because it falls on the Sabbath. He learns this news just before getting on the boat to Paris, but this is inaccurate. The real schedule was published months in advance, giving Liddell the chance to either reschedule or not make the trip to Paris. Nevertheless, the decision was not well-received by the Olympic Committee, and Liddell was harshly criticized.
- The film depicts Abrahams losing in the 200-meter race at the Olympics. What it doesn’t show is that Liddell also competed in that race, finishing third. Despite the film suggesting otherwise, this is the only time Abrahams and Liddell competed in the same race against one another.
- Additionally, the movie shows Abrahams losing in the 200-meter, his first race, then wins gold in his second race, the 100-meter. In reality, these events were switched. Abrahams first won the gold medal in the 100-meter, then went on to lose in the 200-meter.
- The well-known theme song from the movie was originally named “Titles” because it was played in the opening scene of the movie. However, it was changed to “Chariots of Fire – Titles” two months later. It was written and performed by Greek composer Evangelos Papathanassiou, more commonly known as “Vangelis”. Not long after the soundtrack’s release, Vangelis admitted his total inability to read or write music. He wrote this one literally playing by ear.
Where Are They Now?
Eric Liddell completed his college degree in 1925 and quickly returned to China, where he was born, to begin missionary work with his parents. Unlike Abrahams, he continued racing while there, winning against both the French and Japanese Olympic teams. Liddell began his missionary work as a teacher in China, though he returned to Scotland in 1932 where he was ordained as a Minister of Religion before returning to China once more to resume what he had started. It was here that he met and married Florence Mackenzie, the daughter of a Canadian missionary. The two had three daughters: Patricia, Heather, and Maureen.
During World War II, Florence and their daughters fled China while Liddell stayed to assist the Chinese throughout the Japanese invasion. In 1943, Liddell’s mission station was overtaken by the Japanese, and Liddell was interned at Wei Xian Internment Camp. He continued his missionary efforts while there, doing what he could to teach Bible classes, organize sports, help the elderly, and encourage individuals to share resources and band together during their oppression.
Six months before the internment camp closed in 1945, Liddell died of malnourishment. At this time, it was discovered that he also had a brain tumor, the effects of which may have been heightened by the labor required of him by the camp. 60 years later, before the start of the 2006 Olympics, the Chinese reported that Liddell had surrendered an opportunity to leave so that a pregnant woman could leave instead.
RBC Ministries created this documentary on Liddell’s life:
Harold Abrahams’ athletic career ended shortly after the 1924 Olympics. He broke his leg while attempting a 26-foot long jump in 1925 and was unable to compete afterwards. However, he didn’t leave athletics altogether – he quickly began a career as a sports journalist, working for the British Broadcasting Corporation and authoring a number of sports books.
Abrahams’ most notable moment as a sports journalist both brought him back to the Olympics, where he served as a commentator for the 1936 games in Berlin. The events were presided over by Hitler himself, and the BBC tried to prevent him from attending so that he would not offend the Nazi leader. Abrahams went nonetheless, where he introduced a new, energetic form of commentating that contrasted the much mellower forms previously used.
Abrahams met Sybil Evers in 1934, and the two married in 1936. Abrahams’ wedding ring for Sybil was made of gold from his Olympic medal and the two adopted a son, Alan, and a daughter, Sue. Abrahams died in 1978.
Nigel Havers (who portrayed Lord Andrew Lindsay in the film) hosted a 2012 documentary, The Real Chariots of Fire, where he further explores the lives of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell.