Chariots of Fire (1981) is a fictionalized account of the story of two British runners who participated in the 1924 Summer Olympics, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross). Both are men with something to prove which separates them from the “gentlemen athletes” on the rest of the British team. In Liddell’s case, it was his evangelical Christianity; in Abrahams’ case, it was the fact that he was a Jew.
The film won 4 Oscars out of 7 nominations. It was nominated for the Palm D’Or at Cannes, and won two other prizes.
Chariots of Fire is one of those historical films that succeeds in conveying the emotions of a time, without necessarily getting every fact exactly right. As a history of the 1924 Olympics, it gets things pretty badly scrambled, but its depiction of “polite” anti-Semitism is spot-on. Abrahams is hailed as a sports hero, but the Cambridge establishment constantly frets over his “pushiness” and his lack of “gentlemanly” demeanor.
The film takes place in the period between the two World Wars before the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. It offers an opportunity to look at British upper-class attitudes towards British Jews, and particularly the attitude towards those Jews who presume to full participation in British society. These attitudes would play a significant role in the British debate about Nazism a few years later, and a role as well in the Allied response to the Holocaust.
The film is a good springboard for discussion and has the added benefit of being child-friendly.
What’s odd about the funeral at the end of the film? If you spot it, what do you think about it?