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Great Sporting Films: Chariots of Fire

PUBLISHED: 18:00 10 April 2020

Great Britain's Eric Liddell crosses the line first to win the Gold Medal. Eric Liddell was due to compete in the 100 metres race but as a committed Christian he refused to run on a Sunday. He was later portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire.

Great Britain's Eric Liddell crosses the line first to win the Gold Medal. Eric Liddell was due to compete in the 100 metres race but as a committed Christian he refused to run on a Sunday. He was later portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire.

PA Archive/PA Images

Sports movies occupy a peculiar and often frankly unwatchable place in the annals of Hollywood history.

But amid the global lockdown, Press Association has run the rule over some of the films that might provide that much-needed sporting fix – and those that absolutely shouldn’t.

Chariots Of Fire (1981) won four Oscars, including Best Picture for producer David Puttnam and Best Music, Original Score for Vangelis’ instantly-recognisable soundtrack, and was based on a true story of British athletes preparing for the 1924 Olympics in Paris.

The journeys of devote Christian Eric Liddell – the ‘Flying Scotsman’ – and Jewish sprinter Harold Abrahams are charted through university, including the Great Court Run at Cambridge, and onto the Games.

Liddell faces the wrath of the British establishment as his faith precludes him from running in a heat of the 100 metres which falls on a Sunday. Abrahams, meanwhile, battles both anti-semitism and the controversy of hiring a professional coach to go on to claim gold, while Liddell would later win the 400m title.

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Ben Cross played Abrahams, with Ian Holm nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor in his role as coach Sam Mussabini.

Liddell was portrayed by Ian Charleson, who also featured as Anglican priest Charlie Andrews opposite Ben Kingsley in ‘Gandhi’, and was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, dying four years later aged just 40.

Nicholas Farrell played steeplechaser Aubrey Montague, while there was a cameo for Sir John Gielgud as the Master of Trinity College. Nigel Havers, meanwhile, revelled in a memorable scene jumping hurdles topped by champagne glasses as Lord Andrew Lindsay – the fictional character based on Lord David Burghley, who later won a gold medal in the 400m hurdles at the 1928 Olympics, became the 6th Marquess of Exeter, chairman of the British Olympic Association and president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation.

As soon as the chimes of Vangelis’ haunting melody begin, viewers old and new are whisked off to that beach, running barefoot over Broadstairs in Kent (which was actually shot at the West Sands in St Andrews on the Fife coast of Scotland).

Now ingrained in British cinema psyche, the 2012 re-release brought the story to a new generation. The screenplay, though, of triumph through adversity and the power of faith from both men, who could not be from more diverse backgrounds, remains timeless – as does the image of ‘Flying Scotsman’ Liddell taking the final bend, his head flung back as he uses the “power from within” to see the race to the end and claim gold.

“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure,” said Liddell, who later became a christian missionary in China.

After being sent to the Weihsien Internment Camp by Japanese army forces, he died in February 1945, five months before liberation.


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