‘Chariots of Fire’ Coming Back on Aug. 1 — And the Surprising Catholic Connection

chariots-of-fire-FFJust in advance of the 2016 Summer Olympics, on Monday, Aug. 1, the Academy Award winning 1981 film “Chariots of Fire” is hitting theaters across America for a special one-night showing.

Tickets are available in advance only from ChariotsofFireEvent.com, where there’s also a form to request the film in your city if it’s not on the list.

And, there’s a fascinating Catholic connection to this movie, but first, here’s more details on the screening from my inbox:

CHARIOTS OF FIRE
Presented by TheatriCast and Warner Bros. Pictures
In Theaters Only August 1, 2016
Cities include:
Charlotte, NC
Columbus, OH
Dallas, TX
Houston, TX
Indianapolis, IN
Lexington, KY
Rocklin, CA
Scottsdale, AZ
Simi Valley, CA
Upper Darby, PA
Wheaton, IL
**More cities/locations to be announced**
SYNOPSIS: Winner of four Academy Awards® including Best Picture! The historic film, renowned for its stirring portrayal of athletic heroism and faith during the 1924 Olympics, tells the true story of British sprinter Eric Liddell, who famously refused to run the Sunday of his signature race because of his strict observance of the Christian Sabbath. Though ridiculed by the British Olympic Committee, his fellow athletes, and most of the world press, Liddell triumphed in a new event, winning the 400 meters in Paris. Liddell and teammate Harold Abrams, a Jewish runner who won gold in the 100-meter race, were able to return home victorious and true to their faiths.
Directed by: Hugh Hudson
Screenplay by: Colin Welland
Starring: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Havers,
Cheryl Campbell, Alice Krige
Official Facebook: http://bit.ly/29unnA5
In the film, Eric Liddell’s idealistic Christianity is central to his ethos and the driving force behind what he does, and that’s no coincidence. From a 2012 piece in RunnersWorld.com:

“I had had success with Midnight Express, but it was not the type of film I’d come into the industry to produce,” [producer David Puttnam] says now. “In this story [of Eric Liddell], I saw something not dissimilar to A Man for All Seasons,” the tale of Thomas More’s refusal to set aside his conscience by agreeing to the divorce of serial wife-botherer Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon.

Puttnam has an idealistic, almost romantic view of what movies can achieve. As he said of A Man for All Seasons in a 1988 PBS interview: “The cinema allowed me for one moment to feel that everything decent in me had come together.” His movies after Chariots reflected that view of the transforming power of moviemaking, from the quixotic environmentalism of Local Hero to the redemptive power of friendship in The Killing Fields and the crisis of conscience at the heart of The Mission.

For Puttnam, filming Liddell’s story would send a flare into the Hollywood sky, a declaration of principle in a fickle universe. “It answered questions I was asking myself: What was I doing in this business? Could I really make a movie like this?”

But, for Harold Abrahams in “Chariots of Fire,” religious practice is not as central to the character as the notion that just being ethnically Jewish makes him an outsider in upper-crust British society, along with his choice to hire a professional coach. The script doesn’t portray Abrahams as being driven so much by his beliefs as the fact that his Jewishness — and his refusal to train like a “gentleman” — sets him apart from the other elite British runners.

In real life, Liddell went on to be a missionary in China — where he was born to missionaries — dying in an internment camp there in 1945.

But what of Abrahams?

In 1934, 20 years after the Olympics, Abrahams converted to Catholicism, which, in a way, made him a double outsider. But it’s not a change of heart that everyone accepts. From a review of a 2011 biography of Abrahams called “Running With Fire”:

One of the more interesting revelations in the book was that the Jew, Abrahams, espoused Christianity while at university where he “took his initial steps towards Christianity”.

His adopted daughter, Sue Pottle, is quoted as believing that “Harold’s decision to embrace Christianity was influenced by his need for acceptance beyond the Jewish community.”

Eric Liddell is known as the man who sacrificed his chance of a 100 metres gold medal because of his religious principles. Abrahams, in contrast, speaking at function organized in his honour by a Jewish organisation called the Maccabeans explained why he could not follow Jewish religious law as to do so would rule out athletic distinction. He referred not only to competing and travelling on the Sabbath but also to the Jewish dietary laws.

The author’s conclusion is: “But the truth was that Harold Abrahams was neither a committed Christian nor ]ew in the second half of his life. If he firmly believed in anything, it was that he didn’t want religion to restrict him in life. He never had let it. At best he was a ‘hoper’ for an afterlife.”

Considering the attitude of posh Britain — and the U.K. in general — toward Catholics, if Abrahams was seeking wider acceptance, he picked the wrong Church. Becoming an Anglican might have made the former Cambridge student more palatable to his fellow Brits, but becoming a Catholic would have had just the opposite effect.

I can’t say what was or wasn’t in Abrahams’ mind, but it’s a conversion that would have even given an Anglican pause in that day and age. But some still made the trek.

In 1922, British writer G.K. Chesterton left Anglicanism for the Catholic Church, stating:

“The difficulty of explaining why I am a Catholic is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.”

The details of Abrahams’ personal journey are lost to history, and we can only speculate on what led him across the Tiber.

By the way, the movie’s title comes from a hymn “Jerusalem” — a poem by William Blake, set to music by Hubert Parry — sung at the memorial service to Abrahams (set, in the film, in an Anglican church), which opens “Chariots of Fire.” And here it is:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

It also closes the film (where, by the way, no mention of Abrahams’ conversion is made):

One wonders if a movie in which a character’s Christianity is so central to the plot would even be made today, let alone beat out the wildly popular “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for best picture. Much has changed in Hollywood since 1981, and a lot of it, not for the better.

Image: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

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