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Chariots of Fire: Movie Review

This Classic Running Drama Hasn’t Lost Its Stride

When you saw that this review is about Chariots of Fire, you perhaps thought of the famous scene in which a group of male athletes (dressed in white shorts and polo shirts) run barefoot along a beach’s surf. For that matter, you might have thought about the beautiful score (by the Greek composer Vangelis), which remains among the most memorable and iconic in movie history.

What should also be remembered is that the movie is a British period drama based on the true stories of Eric Liddell (a Scottish Christian) and Harold Abrahams (a Jew by heritage, although not in practice). Each man was a sprinter who won a gold medal while representing the United Kingdom at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Even though that might sound like niche subject matter, Chariots of Fire achieved major success upon its release in 1981. Specifically, it received mass critical acclaim, became that year’s seventh highest-grossing movie in the United States, and secured four wins at the 54th Academy Awards (including Best Picture).

But has this sports drama aged well and thereby proven to be a bona fide classic? Based on my recent viewing, I believe the answer is a definite “yes”. Directed by Hugh Hudson and written by Colin Welland, the movie has a narrative that alternates focus back-and-forth between Liddell and Abrahams as they prepare for and compete in the Olympic games.

Liddell looks forward to following in his parents’ footsteps by serving as a missionary in China and views running as a means by which he can and should honor God. At the same time, his sister worries that the activity might be distracting Eric from spiritual matters, rather than inclining his heart toward them. As for Abrahams, he runs with a more competitive attitude and desires to prove himself against the anti-Semitism that he often faces (even if just in the form of a snide remark or expression). While training, he falls in love with an opera singer and breaks with the period’s athletic traditions by employing a professional coach.

Welland’s screenplay deftly shifts attention between the lateral stories of Liddell and Abrahams. What is more, the writing exercises grace and subtlety while allowing us to witness the fascinating similarities and differences between the two protagonists. Liddell isn’t dealing with racial prejudice as can be said for Abrahams, but he nonetheless defies standards by aiming to keep the Sabbath holy and thus refusing to compete in his assigned race (the 100-meter dash) when it proves scheduled for a Sunday. Both men are outsiders who find themselves at odds with the British society around them, which clings to excessive nationalism and other arbitrary traditions even after such helped lead to the tragic events of the First World War.

It’s remarkable that Hudson and company (despite apparently not being Christians) portray Eric Liddell and his convictions with much reverence and respect. But we can also appreciate that they have him (along with Abrahams) be a fully believable and well-developed character. Chariots of Fire’s emotional power largely derives from how the protagonists’ goals and corresponding actions have the chance to speak for themselves. If we, as Christians, admire Liddell for reaping what has eternal worth and pity Abrahams for reaping what has ultimately vain and temporal worth, we do so because the filmmakers leave us to draw conclusions on our own.

At a time when studios such as Affirm Films and Pure Flix exist, something like Chariots of Fire reminds us that a “Christian movie” doesn’t have to be specially made by Christians or even for Christians. That label should instead depend purely on whether or not a given movie has a biblical worldview and encourages us to focus on, and give glory to, God. Chariots of Fire of course boasts that worldview by positively depicting a real-life believer and his commitment to honoring our Lord.

Our contemporary sensibilities might cause us to feel taken aback by Liddell (both the character and the actual man) displaying such resolve to keep the Sabbath holy. At the same time, that resolve raises pertinent questions for us. For example, are we guilty of undervaluing, if not profaning, a day that Jesus himself indicated as specially existing for our benefit and well-being (cf. Mark 2:27)? And would we be willing to exhibit boldness such as Liddell’s for the sake of obeying God and defying society even in more important matters?

As a testament to this movie having aged well, I would like to share that the celebrated director Christopher Nolan cites this movie as an influence on his recent World War Two thriller Dunkirk. What is more, he writes: “The visual splendor, intertwined narratives, and aggressively anachronistic music of Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire combined to create a masterpiece of British understatement whose popularity rapidly obscured its radical nature.” All in all, I have no qualms about claiming that this ranks alongside titles like Amazing GraceBabette’s Feast, and Ben-Hur as one of the best Christian movies ever made.

Aside from a few profanities (including instances of the British term “bloody”), families have little to worry about in terms of objectionable content. At the same time, I think the moments of dialogue and reflection make this movie appropriate for viewers at the very least in their preteens. (It is a period drama after all…)

Note: You can find Chariots of Fire on most streaming services, and of course DVD and Blu Ray. It does not seem that Pure Flix carries this title, although they do have the 2007 documentary Eric Liddell: Champion of Conviction.