Tuesday, March 27, 2007

He is an Englishman!

The most sublime scene in Chariots of Fire is the
running-along-the-beach scene. But perhaps the most
thoughtful(whether intentionally or not) was the scene of Harold Abrahams running to the tune of "He is an Englishman...".

This song is a satire of course. But even so it says something. For it really did mean something different to say someone is an Englishman then to say he is "a Turk, or Prussian, or perhaps Italian." England's ruling classes were insufferably snobbish, yet deep within them was a sense of justice that could be touched by someone like Harold. And England held that the meaning of English nationalism was not in whose ancestral hero conquered what obscure province in what forgotten campaign. England thought of itself as guardian of the notion that all men have an inherent worth simply by being men and that being an Englishman was to be a member of a tribe but in a way also the member of a creed.

But Harold was an exception. For he was a Jew. Harold was not a nice person. He was not radiant and joyful like Eric Liddell. He was suspicious, resentful and found it hard to return friendship or love when offered. Yet in one way he proved himself worthy of being an Englishman.

For presumably what made him what he was, was England's schools. English schools turned out boys that were brave and honorable. They also had a near criminal tolerance of the natural cruelty of boys. Harold was different so he was despised. That treatment would either break a boy or leave him scared. And no one on Earth could break Harold Abrahams.

Then he found a way to avenge himself for what England had forgotten about itself. For he learned that he could run. He did not run for joy and the glory of God as Eric did. He ran for revenge. Revenge is not a nice thing. But Harold also ran to make the world notice and acknowledge.

And so he did. And at the Olympics he achieved something more than glory. It may not have satisfied him but it inspired others.

Eric is a less sympathetic character. But he is a more likable one. He runs for the joy of running. He has none to bear a grudge against. Yet he too made his stand. For when called on to run on Sunday he refused. Did he really believe a legalism was that important? Or did he just believe a line must be drawn somewhere?

Eric was called before the greatest lords of England to persuade him to change his mind. Still he refused. Until another place was found to run. And when he ran he too won. "He that honors me I will honor..."

Eric and Harold won more then athletic glory. Eric grew up to be a great missionary. Presumably he is in heaven. We can only hope Harold is. But both of them at that time did something more than demonstrate their prowess. Each in different ways made people stand up and say, "He is an Englishman...!"

Sir Jason


  1. Really an excellent movie, and great commentary, Sir Jason.

    For when called on to run on Sunday he refused. Did he really believe a legalism was that important? Or did he just believe a line must be drawn somewhere?

    This was certainly the action that set Eric Liddell apart. We wonder how unique that was back in that day and age...would any devout Evangelical Christian back then have done the same thing?

    We also find it interesting that the only modern sports teams that have a policy of not playing on Sunday (that we know of) are those from Brigham Young University. Is there a parallel here to your reference of legalism?

    Sir C

  2. Deciding where to "draw the line" is always difficult. One could argue that one should err toward the scrupulous rather then the licenctious side. But there are problems there too. Those who let themselves have a tyrannical conscience pay for it by a temptation to revolt and can commit greater sins later. We all remember the stories of extremely cruel but extremely pious people in history. What is less well known is that the
    Central European Philosophers that began the "whateverisms" that haunted the last century were often apparently haters of religious folk and the reasons they give seem to indicate that they were fleeing their conscience and wanted someone to blame. Nietzche at least seemed a little like that(no I am not that well read-my information comes from essays not first hand).
    Be that as it may, I don't think it was important whether Eric ran on one Sunday. If he neglected church over all that would be different(so Brigham Young U may actually be right in a sense). However Eric thought it important for whatever reason.
    Some of the movie was of course a concession to drama. Schloss denied giving Eric the note which is to bad as that was a splendid scene. According to one version it was given by a nameless fan which perhaps shows how trust has declined-no one would get that near an athelete today.
    Nor do I know if the real Harold Abrahams was like that. It was not implausible for the reasons given.
    Interestingly those "resentful eccentrics" turned out by that system had mixed results. Some served the Empire well, others were a bad influence. C.S Lewis was among their number, as was Orde Wingate. Both of these in different ways were a credit to the Empire-though many English still hate Wingate(his rebellious spirit grated on the army but he was tolerated because he had connections and was good at killing the King's Enemies).
    The worst disaster produced by this system was Kim Philby the infamous traitor.
    Another flaw was that the "sublime amateurishness" celebrated in the movie was often taken to far and cost lives.
    To be fair there was another side. The boys produced by English schools were often quite well suited to the business of ruling an empire. They were brave and loyal. Some of them could be educated in more specialized skills. And despite their snobbishness they did
    have a strange knack for sympathizing with natives sometimes. Also the result of this system could mean that in effect every Englishman would know what every other Englishman would do at a given time and the Empire could run on automatic pilot as it were.

    Sir Jason

  3. I agree, it was important that Eric not run on Sunday. It is not so much that keeping Sunday is a command as it is that he put God first.

    He was high profile person, known to be a serious Christian. It was important for him to set an example.

    It is not always easy to tell when "..seek first His kingdom..." should cause us to make a decision as to whether or not to do something. It might be something as important as being willing to loose a job rather that, say, give a false report to the tax assessor. Or, it might me simply taking time to read the bible instead of the morning paper.

    We also want to avoid bondage to rules that are not commandments of the Lord.

    God will guide us in these issues.

    Sir John, often trying to find the line

  4. Something else that occurred to me...Harold also ran at least two other events...wonder if one was on Shabbat?

    Do you know, Sir Jason, if Abrahams was an observant Jew?

  5. Trivia for
    Chariots of Fire (1981)

    * The "male military band" featured several women disguised with false mustaches.

    * Though it is not mentioned in the movie, both Eric Liddell won bronze in the 200 meters, and Harold M. Abrahams a silver with the 4x100 meters relay team.

    * Jackson Scholz, who hands the note to Eric Liddell before the start of the 400m, had earlier won the gold medal in the 200m.

    * Surprisingly, neither Jackson Scholz nor Charles Paddock was a member of the US gold medal winning 4x100m relay team. Eric Liddell was not a member of the British 4x100m relay team, either.

    * An elderly Jackson Scholz, who served as a consultant to the film, was upset by the scene where his character (played by Brad Davis) gave the note to Eric Liddell before the 400 meter race. It was not something he would have ever done, the real Scholz insisted.

    * The real Eric Liddell found out about the 100 meter heat being held on a Sunday several months in advance of the Paris games. The British Olympic team was then able to adjust and fit him into the 400 meter race instead.

    * On the sign outside the Paris church where Eric Liddell delivers his sermon, screenplay author Colin Welland's name is listed above as giving the preceding service.

    * Lord Lindsay's character was actually based on an athlete, Lord David George Brownlow Cecil Burghley, who first competed in the 1924 Paris games without winning any medals, but he did win the 400 meter hurdles in the 1928 Amsterdam games.

    * Derek Pringle, who played the captain of Cambridge University athletics team, was a professional cricketer with Essex and played for England. He is now a cricket journalist.

    * Producer David Puttnam was looking for a story in the mold of A Man for All Seasons (1966), regarding someone who follows their conscience; he felt sports provided clear situations in this sense, and happened upon the story by accident while thumbing through an Olympic reference book in a rented house in Los Angeles. Screenwriter Colin Welland took out advertisements in London newspapers seeking memories of the 1924 Olympics. Many athletes were still living, and Aubrey Montague's son sent him copies of the letters his father had sent home - which gave Colin Welland something to use as a narrative bridge in the film.

    * In real life, the text from the Bible was handed to Eric Liddell by a coach on the US team, not by Jackson Scholz. Colin Welland flew to Florida to obtain Scholz's permission in person for the artistic license.

    * Colin Welland was researching Twice in a Lifetime (1985) shortly before the Oscars ceremony. When he entered the bar in the Pennsylvania steel town where he was carrying out the research, the regulars would call, "Watch your wallets, the British are coming!" This partly inspired Colin Welland's remarks at the end of his Academy Award acceptance speech.

    * Trinity College, Cambridge, refused permission to film the Great Court Run scene in their quad (apparently because they were annoyed that their Fellows would be portrayed as anti-Semitic in the film), and persuaded other colleges to withhold filming rights also. Eton College (Hudson's old school) stood in for Trinity.

    * About six years after the film's release, Trinity College reenacted the quad dash with British Olympic athletes Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe taking part. Nigel Havers agreed to act as starter. At lunch after the event, the Dean confessed it had been a great mistake not to cooperate with the making of the film.

    * Ruby Wax, 'Stephen Fry' and Kenneth Branagh are among the crowd artists. Fry acted as shop steward (organiser) for the extras and managed in David Puttnam's words to "screw an extra pound a day out of me".

    * The character Watson in the film was in real life Arthur Porritt, father of the environmentalist Jonathan Porritt. The character of Andrew Lindsay was loosely based on Lord Burghley. Both men refused permission for their real names to be used, but confessed to regretting their decision after the film was successful.

    * In real life, Lord David Bughley (Lord Lindsay in the Film) was the first man to do the Great Court Run, not Harold Abrahams. This was changed, because David Puttnam was a socialist and did not want to show a Lord winning, and this is one of the reasons that Lord Burghley did not consent to let his name be used in the film.

    * Nigel Havers replaced first choice Patrick Ryecart as Lord Lindsay.

    * Brad Davis and Dennis Christopher appeared as a favor to producer David Puttnam, waiving their fees, in order to attract finance from backers who wanted "marquee names."

    * The movie required many Edwardian costumes. When Reds (1981), set in the same period, ran over time and over budget, it caused costumes pre-booked by "Chariots" to become unavailable.

    * Pupils of Eric Liddell's old school, Eltham College, were shown a special preview of the film at the ABC cinema at Eltham Well Hall, London.

    * When the athletes are running off the beach (in reality West Sands at St Andrews in Scotland) they run towards a large red building clearly marked as a hotel. This is in fact Hamilton hall of residence, a student accommodation hall belonging to the University. The white picket fence that they jump borders the 1st and 18th holes of the Old course, famed for many a British Golf Open.

    * Besides the lead actors, most of the white-clad runners training on West Sands in St. Andrews during the title sequence are St. Andrews golf caddies.

    * The scene in which Harold Abrahams first sees Sybil Gordon, singing as Yum-Yum in "The Mikado", is based on either a mistake of fact or a deliberate alteration to make the story more romantic. In real life, the name of Abrahams' bride was Sybil Evers. Evers was a member of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, but while Sybil Gordon was its principal soprano, Sybil Evers was a minor soprano, who sang the role of Peep-Bo The Mikado, not the lead role Yum-Yum as it appears in the movie. Moreover, she only appeared with the D'Oyly Carte company for one season, 1930-31, six years after the 1924 Olympics.

    * Having completed his first draft, screenwriter Colin Welland was unable to conceive a title for the film beyond the somewhat uninteresting "Runners". The inspiration came one Sunday evening when Welland turned on the television to the BBC's religious music series "Songs of Praise" (1961) - featuring the stirring hymn "Jerusalem" (written by William Blake and set to music by C.H.H. Parry), its chorus including the words "Bring me my chariot of fire"; the writer leapt up to his feet and shouted to his wife Patricia, "I've got it, Pat! 'Chariots of Fire'!"

    * The scene in which Abrahams runs around the quad, was actually based on 1928 Olympic Gold medalist in the 400 meters, David Bughrley who had ran around the great court at Trinity College in the time it took the clock to strike 12. Technically, Burghley was the second person to accomplish that feat, as someone had done it before in the 1890s, but then again it took 5 seconds longer back then for the clock to complete its toll.

    * Eric Liddell's 400 meter victory in the 1924 Olympics was an Olympic record of 47.6 and excited the crowd with an unorthodox run. He ran the first 200 meters in 22.2 seconds, considered by track experts to be tactically foolish, considering it was only 0.3 seconds slower than his 200 personal record but he actually increased his lead in the second half beating the competition by nearly a second.

    * French actor Michael Lonsdale is often credited with being in this film but there is no sign of him in the finished film

    * The film's Best Picture Oscar is displayed at The National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Yorkshire

    * Extras in the Olympic crowd scenes were told to wear dark colours so they would not stand out. Extras who managed to wear actual Edwardian clothes were paid 20 pounds while those in normal dress were paid 10.

    * The Church service shown at the very beginning and end of the film is based on the actual funeral service of Harold Abrahams, who (as only hinted at in the movie) converted to Christianity later in his life.

    * The funeral service at the beginning of the film was deleted when the film was shown on the In Flight Entertainment.

    * Extras who appear as runners in the movie were paid three times as much as 'normal' extras. Due to sunny weather, sunburn proved to be rather problematical.

    * Parts of the movie were filmed over several days at Goldenacre in Edinburgh. Each morning, TV aerials had to be taken down for historical realism, then re-erected in the evening after shooting ceased. Inevitably, an overrun led to some friction with residents.

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    Sir Jason

  6. thanks for the additional trivia, Sir Ja. Interesting that the movie producer was a socialist, and wouldn't portray the reality of a British Lord being the first to beat the tolling of the Quad clock. I'll have to rent the movie again and watch for other socialist propaganda...

    Sir C

  7. Oh by the way, to answer your earlier question I don't believe Abrahams was an observant. He didn't give the impression of being so in the movie.

    To be fair to the writters making Abrahams beat Lindsey had better dramatic effect considering that Lindsey was a sidekick in the movie in any case.

    Sir Jason