A small personal miracle happened this afternoon. Ian found a copy of Chariots of Fire
, region 3 encoded for South Korea, in Kyobo bookstore when we were there today. This DVD is no longer available at Amazon.com, and I've been waiting for months for a backorder. We've looked hard for it here, too, but have never seen it until today.
It's with some trepidation that I accepted the gift, because the sheer power of the story, which always moves me to tears, has preceded at two points the blackest periods of my life when everything fell apart, and I've often wondered if there was a connection there. This time, partly thanks to the English closed captioning, I was able to get much more out of the story, and to realize that I had been too narrow in my earlier interpretations of the film, which surely ranks as one of the most humanistic, transcending, and empowering movies ever made.
The movie begins with one Lord Lindsay, an elderly man, speaking in a special service of the Church of England, in January, 1978:
"We are here today to give thanks for the life of Harold Abrahams, to honor the legend. Now there are just two of us, young Aubrey Montague, and myself, who can close our eyes and remember those few young men, with hope in our hearts, and wings on our heels."
(January 1978 is my birthday, and I feel somehow blessed to learn that this hero of mine, a Jew,* shares the month of my own birth in this way.) The invigorating and majestic electronic music of Vangelis, groundbreaking at the time of the production, with its unforgettable melody then breaks in, and we are transported to the seashore of England, 1924, where we see those flaming spirits running on the sand. As they pass, a dog follows them, barking happily. Then a boy and a man do the same. The film has an acute eye for detail, and viewers should not miss the significance of the invitation at the film's beginning to follow the athletes in their quest.
Or rather, quests. The story follows the lives of a few principle historical characters: Harold Abrahams, son of a Lithuanian Jew, and Eric Liddell, a missionary kid from China come home to Scotland.
Harold, being a Jew, always knows he's different, and hates the patronizing form of anti-Semitism which was content, in his words, to "lead him to the trough without letting him drink." Indeed, the porter's own words, after admitting Abrahams to Caius College, Cambridge University, constitute a revealing anecdote about the young man's life in England: "Well, one thing's sure: with a name like Abrahams, he won't be in the chapel choir, now, will he?" Living now, as I do, here in South Korea, I know that "cold reluctant handshake," that some people give, and understand a bit where Harold is comming from. In fact, just today the cashier in the local convenience store refused to acknowledge me with even a word or a smile, despite two greetings. Although this sort of thing happens only sometimes, it bothers me. But I trust that we are not on the verge of a holocaust against foreigners, nor am I a member of a group with two thousand years and more of religious persecution directed at it. Harold, accordingly, felt these things much more intensely, and with good reason. He runs to win, to prove to the world that he's not inferior. His inner drive propels him to new heights and glory, to a life-giving relationship with a personal trainer coach, and to an Olympic Medal, won, in his words, "for my family, my country, and my university."
Eric Liddell, a devout Presbyterian, had to overcome the protests of his very affectionate and religious sister in order to train for the Olympics, putting temporarily on hold his seminary training and his stated goal to return to China as a missionary: "I believe that God made me for China." Eric had received some wise advice from a spiritual gentleman, who exhorted him to use his "God-given" talents to run: "What the world needs right now is a muscular Christian--to make them sit up and take notice!" For Harold, to run is to experience God: "...but God also made me fast! When I run, I feel His pleasure." Divine pleasures aside, Eric refused to train on Sunday, "the Sabbath" in Presbyterian terms. After staking his whole life on principle and on his relationship to God, he was shocked and disappointed to learn that a qualifying heat at the culminating point of the story, the Olympics in Paris, 1924, was to take place on a Sunday. Eric refused to participate. The head of the English Olympic team, the Prince of Wales, no less, a duke, and all the powers that be could not force him to change his mind.
Harold's year of 1918 at Cambridge opens with a speech by the Master of Caius, pointing to the freshly-etched names on the walls of those who had, only months and years before, perished in WWI,
"names which will be only names to you, the new college, but which to us summon up face after face, full of honesty and goodness, zeal and vigour, and intellectual promise, the flower of a generation, the glory of England--and they died for England...and now by tragic necessity their dreams have become yours. Let me exhort you: examine yourselves. Let each of you discover where your true chance of greatness lies. For their sakes, for the sake of your college and your country, sieze this chance, rejoice in it, and let no power or persuasion deter you in your task.
Ironically, it would be this very Master, offended at Harold's use of a professional coach in a college of "amateur esprit de corps
," who would have stood in the young runner's way of greatness. It would be the Prince of Wales, the future King of England, who, according to the story, would seek to sever Eric Liddell from his hidden source of energy by advocating that he betray his principles and run for the glory of the Crown. Indeed, one sees a special satire, although not wholly unfriendly, reserved for the Royalty and the English aristocratic class, and one is not surprised to learn that Dodi Fayed was the film's Executive Producer.
What I misinterpreted about this scene before now seems obvious to me. I interpreted greatness competitively. And indeed, the first time I saw the movie, I had recently been given a similar speech, although much less inspiring, by the Dean of the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto, asserting that we, the graduate students assembled in the hall, were the best young researchers in Canada. I am not, now, as I was then (if I was at all), unique. I am no longer the only graduate student in the country admitted to the Classical Hebrew major of the M.A. in Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations in the largest university. I am no longer doing research, nor have I delivered another scholarly paper to the members of the scholarly guild as I did in my second year at UofT. I would like to be great, and while competition is not a bad thing, I need to ask in what direction personal greatness lies for me.
At another key point I misinterpreted the movie previously. I emphasized, wrongly, Eric's story of personal faithfulness to God. Before, the dissonance between Eric's story, and my own intellectual findings on the nature of the Christian religion disturbed me profoundly. Now, however, I can listen with more sensitivity to the script-writer's intentions. There's no doubt that Eric is portrayed with more admiration than Harold. Where Harold runs for himself, and suffers deep anguish after his gold medal win, wondering what purpose his life now has, Eric's medal is a spiritual triumph, as he runs "for God." On the other hand, Harold's "personal reasons" (in the words of a nervous American competitor, who understood human nature better than his own overconfident coach), propel him to greatness--"personal reasons" together with his touching affection and love for his coach and his girlfriend.
The story is not provincial in religious matters. No secret is made of the fact that while Sunday is is the "Sabbath" for the Presbyterian Eric, it is not so for Harold. Where Eric is serious on religious matters, Harold laughs when he discovers that he has ordered pork by accident. When Eric persists in refusing to run on the Sabbath, Lord Lindsay suggests letting Eric take his place in the 400m race. It is implied that Lindsay will then run in Eric's place--on Sunday. There is no suggestion that Lord Lindsay, who is a loyal and honest friend, and one with gentlemanly manners, is seen as anything less than honorable. Nor could similar accusations be brought against Harold, who is portrayed with gentle humor and great sensitivity. Then, too, there is Mr. Mussabini, Harold's coach, half-Italian, half Arab. Structurally, the inclusio enveloping the story, commemorating the passing of the Jewish Abrahams, takes place in the white walls of a church, the Church of England.
Indeed, the movie evinces a holistic view of life, putting into the mouth of the President of the English Olympic Association an admission of the source of the athlete's greatness, when he said of Eric's principled stand, "His speed is a mere extension of his life, its force. We sought to sever his running from his self." An interesting juxtaposition of ideas may be found in, on the one hand, the quotation of Isa. 40, and, on the other, of the statement that athletic success comes from "within."
Chariots of Fire is so inspiring because it is a true story, and indeed, Eric's sister, and an American runner known to Eric, contributed to the story. Eric died a missionary in Occupied China at the end of WWII. Harold Abrahams went on to marry his girlfriend and to become the "elder statesman of British athletics." I can't help thinking that Harold did the more good. The movie is also very inspiring because the stories, so sympathetically told of a Jew and a Christian, are presided over by an Executive Producer who was himself Arab. It's a post 9/11 world of Islamic terrorism, and Mr. Fayed died in a tragic car crash with England's favorite princess. In the context of this harsh world I admire ever more the generosity of the human spirit towards his fellow men when it soars upward, as in a chariot of fire.
*I always say with some amusement that despite my first and last names, my circumcized penis, my training in biblical Hebrew and two trips to Israel, I am not, in fact, a Jew. My father was a Mennonite and my mother was an Amorite--er Nazerine.