by Ed Carter
Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 14-17
These two statements introduce us to the two sides of CHARIOTS OF FIRE. First is the popular notion that it comes as a breath of fresh air to the cinema: a film celebrating the lost values of sportsmanship, dedication to ideals, personal inspiration, and courage. Even before winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, it was a critical and popular smash. By March 1982, it had grossed $6 million, twenty-two weeks after its U.S. release. (3) It received the First Annual American Critics Prize at Cannes, (4) was voted most popular at the Toronto Film Festival, and received two standing ovations at the New York Film Festival. (5) Most critics either called it a masterpiece or at least praised the film's joyfulness and excitement. But some reviewers saw CHARIOTS differently, as a poorly made, manipulative, and reactionary work. In both Britain and the United States, critics for mainstream and conservative journals and newspapers invariably approved of the film, and liberal or left wing reviewers condemned its chauvinism and championing of aristocratic values.
If we analyze CHARIOTS beyond all the dramatic trappings, we can understand what the film actually has to say about athletics, British aristocracy, anti-Semitism, religion, and nationalism. "A true story," claim the script, press material, and film, but nearly every incident or relation between the characters is a falsification of historical reality. But even if one ignores the historical "inaccuracies," the film does not actually proclaim the values that audiences believe it does. The two main characters' supposed revolt against the establishment, and CHARIOTS' promotion of sportsmanship and Olympic ideals, are all but facades for the film's real loves — competition, elitism, and aristocratic national and religious traditions. The audience can both love and condemn reactionary values. They may dislike the oppressive, class-ridden society, of 1920 England and still revel in it, just as the film does. On many levels, CHARIOTS skillfully creates this double pleasure for the viewer. As Stuart Bryon said in the Village Voice, this is "a film whose subtext contradicts its text." (6) By covering its multilayered, highly reactionary messages with an audience-satisfying disguise, CHARIOTS has managed to become an innocent, critically acclaimed, taken-for-granted hit.
CHARIOTS OF FIRE opened in Britain in April 1981. Immediately the press divided over its merits. David Robinson of the London Times said:
Robinson makes no mention of anti-Semitism, instead concentrating on "uninhibited Britishness." So begins the acceptance of CHARIOTS' veneer.
Jo Imeson, in the BFI Monthly Film Bulletin, recognized the film's manipulations:
Puttnam could not have picked a better time to validate the British way. With three million unemployed for the first time since the depression, riots in the streets, and British power and prestige dwindling away, CHARIOTS was just what the British needed to make them feel good about themselves again. And with an arch-conservative prime minister and a royal wedding over the summer, the atmosphere proved ripe for nationalism. Puttman proclaimed a revival of the moribund British film industry in his Academy Award acceptance speech; he finished with, "The British are coming back!" Imeson also pointed out the duality of the film's approach.
So from the outset, the lines of critical opinion were drawn, but Imeson's view was overshadowed as CHARIOTS began to travel around the world.
THE UNITED STATES
CHARIOTS was voted most popular at Toronto, played at Telluride, and became the first British entry ever to open the New York Film Festival. It won no awards at New York but gained instant notoriety through a massive advertising campaign and word of mouth. As in England, the U.S. press split on their judgment of CHARIOTS. Almost the same number of reviews praised as damned the film, but the most widespread and influential newspapers praised it, so that critical impression became dominant. Typical of the new "minority" opinion was Carrie Rickey's Voice review.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum, John Simon not only praised the film (with characteristic reluctance) but pointed out (unknowingly) its dangerously seductive nature.
U.S. conservatives and liberals alike were ready for such a film. For ten years PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre" had been importing British series that glorified the patrician classes, most recently (and most popularly, perhaps second only to "Upstairs, Downstairs") "Brideshead Revisited," which incidentally took place in the early twenties, just like CHARIOTS. Despite its aristocratic price tag of $100 a seat, "Nicholas Nickleby" still won over New York in a coincidental run on Broadway. Even Gilbert and Sullivan, Harold Abrahams' passion, had its smash revival on Broadway with "Pirates of Penzance." Americans have always felt culturally inferior to the British but loved the culture all the same. And the general conservative turn, with Thatcher's equivalent in the White House and the Moral Majority on the loose, created a climate as ripe for CHARIOTS as the one in the UK.
"A true story," says the film, but only the main story has any truth to it. After discovering the extent to which so many details have been distorted, one ends up wondering if any of the film is true. CHARIOTS' opening and closing scenes consist of a very Anglican mass for the funeral of Harold Abrahams, whom we have known only as a Jew in the main body of the film. In the confusion, one wonders if somehow Abrahams' celebrity status in England was so great that he received complete acceptance in the establishment, and Anglicans hold mass for him — or perhaps the film is somehow anti-Semitic by denying Abrahams his burial rights as Jew. Historically, neither is true: he converted to Catholicism in 1934 (ten years after the Paris Olympics) and spent nearly all his adult life as a Christian. (13) Not only does this clarify the funeral but questions his battle against anti-Semitism. In fact, Abrahams was "hardly as concerned with anti-Semitism as the film indicates." (14)
In the film Abrahams undergoes an intense training that consumes all his time; he does so out of a fierce personal drive. In the 1920s, however, running was still considered a lower-class sport and athletics were not taken as seriously as they are today. Two or three days' training a week was considered excessive, and Harold barely did that much.
And while it looks as if Abrahams is going to his first Games, he had gone to Antwerp in 1920. In the 100-meter race in which the film has one of its four climaxes, we see Abrahams' determination and confidence at its peak. But in reality, Abrahams claimed, "I did not think I had any chance a gold medal, nor did anyone else. I really never gave it a thought."(16) Therefore, half of the film's story is a fabrication, done only to make this man an admirable character and create a dramatic narrative that would enthrall the audience. After all, who would identify with someone who smoked and drank up until the hour of the big race and had no idea he would win? By extension, all the glory of Britain would receive the same taint.
The details concerning Lord Lindsey demanded two alterations. First, we see him and Abrahams run the "track" around Oambridge yard, and Harold breaks the six-hundred-year-old record. The real Lord Lindsey (actually Lord Burghley) ran the race alone, and he broke the record. He refused to see the film because of this "revision." (17) And he did not place second in the 110 hurdles at Paris, (18) which in CHARIOTS enables him to step out of his place in the 400 meters to allow Liddel to participate.
As for Liddel, he did not need to be pressured into changing his mind about not running in the 100-meter heats on Sunday, and then be graciously offered a place in the 400. CHARIOTS gives us a heartbroken Liddel as he boards the ship for France, just having learned that the 100-meter heats are to be run on a Sunday. The Olympic schedules actually came out far in advance of the team's departure for France, so he already knew. He merely decided to enter the 400 meters instead, and no such meeting with the Prince of Wales took place. (19) And Jennie Liddel did not staunchly oppose her brother's running, as in the film, but wholeheartedly supported him. (20) Apparently she did not find this change offensive and deigned to see the film.
CHARIOT' Paris Olympics certainly seem rather calm compared to the calamity that actually took place. International tensions created a disastrous competition, and French fans booed foreign teams. In the film, a little booing seems to be directed toward the British, and the Americans are well respected; the reverse actually happened. (21) But it only adds to Abrahams and Liddel's underdog status.
In "revising" history, Puttnam, Welland, and Hudson have created a mythical rather than historical film. None of the characters seems truly realistic-more an idealization or archetype. The care with detail and atmosphere simultaneously lends historical authenticity and, since this time is really light years away from our own, gives CHARIOTS a legendary feel.
The most significant change in CHARIOTS is the depiction of anti-Semitism. Abrahams feels he must defeat the forces of prejudice that he senses closing in around him. Although we see no actual discrimination and only a modicum of verbal disparagement, Abrahams' speeches make us believe that 1926s Britain was rife with anti-Semitism. Although even the most tolerant society has individuals who do express their prejudice, in no way was England the place that Abrahams describes. With its society based on democracy, "English national culture absorbed foreign elements without suffering from an identity crisis."(22) In 1917, Parliament issued the Balfour Declaration, which stated that the British government would work toward establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. (23) Although anti-Semitism rose after the Russian Revolution, its "manifestation … ceased during the early 20s."(24) Even a small outburst during this time was "not considered serious enough to require new strategy for the defense of Jewish rights."(25) And anti-Semitism always "had little ostentatious elitist support."(26) In short,
Both of Abrahams brothers preceded him at Cambridge, and Dr. (later Sir) Adolphe Abrahams was Master of Operations for the 1912 British Olympic team. (28) So although the few remarks made by the Cambridge dons and others about Abrahams' heritage could occur in any country at any time, they represent what Harold believes to be a widespread phenomenon. Any time a film distorts history this way, even if it does not claim to be a true story (but especially if it does), dangerous precedents are set. CHARIOTS OF FIRE is not a documentary and does not have to treat its material as such, and its distortions of history will hardly cause riots in the streets. But its reactionary depiction of the beauty of colonial Britain's elite gets quite a lot of its support from the film's assurance of truthfulness, thus giving it authenticity and so more power.
Although CHARIOTS overstates its depiction of British anti-Semitism, it still manages to totally understate the significance of anti-Semitism as a malignant social phenomenon. If we assume for the moment that CHARIOTS shows the state of anti-Semitism accurately (as the audience must), then it gives the hazardously false picture that anti-Semitism does not really amount to much and that one can overcome it relatively easy.
We see no barriers to admission to the school, to clubs, or to athletics. No one says anything to Abrahams' face. The only truly vicious line comes from a wounded war veteran who helps Abrahams and Montague with their bags at the train station. After the two students have gone off in their taxi, he says, "That's why we fought this war, Harry, so Jew-boys like that can get a decent education." (31) Welland significantly puts the worst anti-Semitism onto a disabled working-class veteran while the upper-class slurs are more secretive and genteel. This seclusion of anti-Semitism has the unintentional (?) effect of making Abrams seem the arrogant, defensive snob that the dons say he is. Many reviewers got this impression:
If these reviewers thought this of Abrahams, the audience must have followed suit. With the stereotype already having a long history (as evidenced by Gielgud's "as they invariably are" [defensive]), we need no more portrayals of Jews imagining discrimination. When real Jews then complain about real prejudice, non-Jews begin to wonder.
CHARIOTS also makes Jewishness funny. Though audiences disapprove of the dons' patronizing attitude, Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson make them so overly pompous and silly that people chuckle at their ugly lines. When Abrahams first meets Sybil over dinner, he says he will have "the same" when Sybil orders "the regular." However, Sybil had no idea of Harold's Jewishness when ordering. By the time dinner comes, he has divulged his heritage, so the arrival of pigs' knuckles gets a big laugh, from the couple and from the audience. Abrahams is determined to fight the prejudice he has encountered but still finds it within himself to be amused by his cultural "peculiarities." CHARIOTS gives us the most innocuous vision of racial and religious intolerance. Filmic representations of bigotry should unnerve us and make us want to eliminate it. We see no reason to think that anti-Semitism does any real harm, that Jews can take it all in stride if necessary and, if they want to, can overcome it by proving themselves better than non-Jews.
Finally, Abrahams is really more English than Jewish, more accepted and successful than many of his peers. A nondiegetic rendition of "He Is an Englishman" accompanies the end of his speech complaining about the halls of Cambridge being closed to Jews. When the scene cuts to the play in which the song is being sung, none other than Abrahams leads the singing.
CHARIOTS fools the audience by making it think that it celebrates virtues that do not seem to exist anymore. In actuality, these virtues never existed the way CHARIOTS proclaims. Celebration of sportsmanship and the "Olympic ideal" appear most often in reviews (and in people's minds, no doubt) as the film’s foremost meanings. Liddel and Abrahams do not run for money or glory or national pride, so they think, but for "the sport" and for reasons they value above sport. Upon closer look, though, we see that they actually perform as fanatically as any modern athlete: "It is clear that for both, winning matters much more than how they play the game." (36) In a Scotland-versus-France track meet, one of the French (!) runners trips Liddel, but Liddel thrills the crowd (in the stadium and the theater) with a miraculous come-from-behind victory that leaves him visibly exhausted.
This winning-at-all-costs attitude in no way resembles that of modern athletes, who value their bodies enough not to destroy them for victory. When Abrahams loses his only race with Liddel, he falls into a melancholic state and nearly decides to quit running. He had never lost before, and the pain of losing proves too much for his ego. Although modern athletes receive salaries that nearly everyone thinks excessive, runners and Olympic athletes are technically amateur and still risk expulsion for accepting under-the-table money. But in the 19205 only those who could afford it competed. A kid from Harlem or the East End could never have become an Olympic athlete in 1924.
In so many ways, Puttnam, Welland, and Hudson manage to make us believe that they attack the very things the film glorifies. On the surface, Liddel and Abrahams revolt against the establishment, but they exemplify its traditions and values above anyone in the film. In fact, Liddel is too conservative even for the aristocracy; he believes in God above country, a much more archaic allegiance. And however much Abrahams complains, he still loves Gilbert and Sullivan and desires more than anything to become part of the system he supposedly despises. The film also embraces the aristocracy it purports to criticize. With voyeuristic camera movements and point-of-view editing, we feel as if we live in the 1920s London. Every scene is lushly decorated, from the (Academy Award-winning) costumes to the ubiquitous champagne. An outrageous pan/track through the Cambridge club recruitment event nearly has us drooling on the surroundings, and if we do not already feel we are there, we wish we were. The low, golden lighting on interior scenes bathes the characters and appointments in a rich glow. When Lord Lindsey sets up a series of hurdles, each with a full champagne glass on it, the audience gasps when he spills a drop or two. And genteel, proper servants of every description serve the main players, including porters, waiters, chauffeurs, and butlers. And each one completely humbles himself to those he serves.
In every way CHARIOTS allows the audience to have it both ways: they can guiltlessly adore the reactionary ways of colonial Britain, yet still feel morally superior to its excesses. Andrew Sarris noted this phenomenon in the scene in which the Olympic committee tries to get Liddel to change his mind. This scene has the most "frogs" per minute of any in the film.
The audience can participate in anti-French, pro-upper class, anti-Semitic, and even anti-American attitudes and still not feel shameful about it because the filmmakers expiate any possible guilt by momentarily punishing each of these prejudices. CHARIOTS thus provides lots of remorseless animosity.
The final, subtlest, and most effective reactionary idea that CHARIOTS peddles is fundamentalist religion.
Liddel believes that God comes before all else and reads the Bible literally. Although sober and quiet about his faith, he still enforces his beliefs onto others, and in a hypocritical way. On the way home from church, Eric's friend complains that the kingdom of God is not a democracy but run by a tyrant. Liddel replies that no one forces you to be believe in God, but he immediately does the opposite. He stops a young boy playing football and calmly but firmly tells him he should have been in church and that he must be there next Sunday.
Most of the time, however, Liddel keeps his devotion private, and we admire him for it. His sermons, both public (to miners who have come to see him race) and clerical (on the day of the 100-meter heats), do not contain any fire and brimstone. His personality and attitude make for a very pleasant, sympathetic symbol of ardent religiosity that audiences can believe in. Liddel's faith goes further even than modern so-called Moral Majoritarians. It is one of the heinous aspects of British imperialisms: the proselytizing of nonwhites in the colonies. And Liddel's mission is extracolonial: China. Jerry Falwell's plan does not include spreading the gospel to the Third World. Sarris went so far as to compare Liddel to another modern religious fundamentalist:
So even though Liddel is far more conservative even than the aristocrats of his day, we admire him for his devotion to principle and his charming smile.
CHARIOTS OF FIRE has already become a piece of U.S. culture, to be quoted from as a modern classic. A current Budweiser commercial imitates the now famous beach running sequence, complete with horse (instead of men) splashing in the surf and mock-Vangelis synthesized music. The commercial makers knew that CHARIOTS has become so popular and so acceptable that pirating from it would be a sure-fire advertising gimmick. Even now, many people consider this film a truly inspirational masterpiece or at least a harmlessly entertaining piece of fluff. In the future, the voices of the few insightful reviewers and a fraction of the public who saw the film's true meaning will be forgotten, and they have already begun to shrink under the weight of the film's popular and critical successes. Like Abrahams and Liddel, CHARIOTS OF FIRE will become a legend, and the reactionary elements will be even harder to point out.
1. Jack Kroll, "Ten Seconds to Eternity," Newsweek, 28 September 1981, p. 69.
2. Michael H. Seitz, "Thatcher in the Theatre," Progressives, December 1981, p. 54.
3. Variety, 3 March 1982, p. 9.
4. Rolling Stone, 1 October 1981,.p. 72.
5. Greg Kilday, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, 6 October 1981, p. 93.
6. Stuart Byron, Village Voice, 21 October 1981, p. 50.
7. David Robinson, London Times, 3 April 1981.
8. Imeson, BFI Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1981, p. 90.
9. Imeson, p. 90.
10. Carrie Rickey, “A Raging, Seething, Europhiliac, Socially Conscious, Carefully Orchestrated, Two-Headed Babe," Village Voice, 23 September 1981, p. 43.
11. John Simon, National Review, 13 November 1981, p. 1360.
12. Stephen Schiff, Boston Phoenix, 20 October 1981, p. 4.
13. Murray Frymer, San Jose Mercury, 30 October 1981, p. 45.
14. Peop1e, 19 December 1981, p. 94.
15. John Kieran, The Story of the Olympic Games (New York: J. J. Lippencott, 1936), p. 151.
16. Melvyn Watman, A History of British Athletics (London: Robert Hale, 1968), p. 28.
17. People, p. 94.
18. Olympic Games Handbook (Toronto: Pangurian Press, 1975), p. 53.
19. Press material, courtesy Museum of Modern Art Film Study Center.
21. Literary Digest, 2 August 1924, p. 49.
22. Gisela L. Lebzelter, Political Anti-Semitism in England, 1918-1939 (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1978), p. 175.
23. V.D. Vipman, Social History of the Jews in England, 1850-1950 (London: Watts and Co., 1954), p. 306.
24. Lebzelter, p. 29.
25. Ibid., p. 139.
26. Ibid., p. 173.
27. Vipman, p. 310.
28. Alan Brien, London Times, 5 April 1981, p. 42-C.
29. Stephen Harvey, "Grown-Up Hour," Inquiry, October 1981, p. 36.
30. Sertz, p. 55.
31. After the viewing, I still thought he was just saying "blokes [not Jewboys] like that." Only when I read the script did I know his real words. Certainly the casual listener, on first viewing, cannot hear the difference. But even this line is reactionary. This veteran says, without the least irony in his voice, that his sacrifices have all been made to help put an upper-class man through Cambridge. Abrahams was called up too late to do any fighting, so he is doubly privileged.
32. Variety, 2 April 1981, p. 18.
33. Simon, p. 1360.
34. David Brudnoy, Boston Herald American, 23 October 1981, p. Bi.
35. Constance Garfinkle, Boston Patriot-Ledger, 23 October 1981, p. 19.
36. Seth Cagin, Soho Weekly News, 29 September 1981, p. 41.
37. Rickey, p. 43.
38. Andrew Sarris, "Chariots of Mixed Feelings," Village Voice, 7 October 1981, p. 51.
39. Seitz, p. 54.
40. Sarris, p. 52.