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.

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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.
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  • 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.

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