Winner of the 1981 Academy Award for Best Picture, the Olympic running movie Chariots of Fire arrives in a Blu-ray/book package from Warner Bros. just in time for the 2012 Olympics in London. While it’s possible that you haven’t seen one of the greatest (in my top five, actually) sports movies of all time, it’s unlikely you’ve never heard Vangelis’ theme song or seen the film spoofed somehow.
Two men, both religiously convicted, can run like the wind in 1919. The Jewish sprinter Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and the Christian Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) come from different backgrounds, and specifically different takes on the Scriptures, but their drive and their desire to honor God is epic. Both men had hurdles (pun intended) to clear to get where they did, but both pressed on thanks to determination and belief in the face of opposition. Liddell (at least in the movie) famously opined: “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
If you’ve never seen the film before, the special features should be watched second. If you’ve seen it before, the special features will only add to your appreciation for the story and the film itself. The first which grabbed me was the four-track Vangelis CD, with the theme song, “Eric’s Song,” “Abraham’s Song,” and the AWESOME “Jerusalem.” (I sang it in Glee Club in high school and even with a bunch of amateurs singing William Blake’s words, it gave people goosebumps.)
The term “chariot of fire” comes from two mentions in 2 Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament. In the first, Elisha sees his mentor Elijah whisked away: “As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” The second is four chapters later in 2 Kings 6:17, but both refer to the power of God to move people miraculously and with great power. It’s hard not to see that miraculous power in Olympic athletes full of grace, strength, and determination. Liddell and Abrahams certainly modeled that!
But this is like a good Criterion Collection edition. There’s a full-color book that accompanies the two discs, and a serious look at the movie, at the people, and the Olympics themselves. Of the four featurettes, “Chariots of Fire: A Reunion” provided a poignant look at the film by behind-the-screen folks with a couple of actors, filmed in the early 2000s. You’ll see how they got hold of the idea and some of the things which happened as they filmed.
“The Wings on Their Heels: The Making of Chariots of Fire” starts with the casting by David Puttnam and shows how the minds behind the film found ways to incorporate the real aspects of the story, as well as blending in the pieces of the story that needed to be resituated to make it cinematic. (One of the funnier aspects is hearing how they had to make sure the right people, not necessarily the athlete extras, won the races!) A focus on the 1924 Olympics (”Paris, 1924: Birth of the Modern Games”) and two behind-the-camera leaders (David Putnam the producer and Henry Hudson the director) provide even more indepth information on the background of the movie’s history in 1921 and 1981.
Having seen the film again, I’m convinced that we can do more with what we have. Are we clear that we have been given gifts for a purpose, for God’s glory? Are we aware like Eric Liddell that our purpose, our calling, may change over time? He was meant to run, and later he was meant to serve as a missionary. Are we answering the call, sticking to our convictions, and sharing the gospel of God’s love? If we’re not, our race is falling short, but if we are, we will rise up, even when it seems that we have stumbled, thanks to the grace of God.
[And just for the record, the rest of my top five sporting movies: Rocky, Hoosiers, Coach Carter, The Fighter.]