Chariots of Fire Analysis
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Published: Mon, 17 Jul 2017
“Chariots of Fire” is a 1981 British film directed by Hugh Hudson. The original screenplay is written by Colin Welland, based on the true story of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, two athletes that have competed in the 1924 Olympic Games. The film was nominated for seven and won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
The film is the inspiring story of two highly talented British runners, as they prepare for and compete in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) is an English Jew with Lithuanian roots, who faces both prejudice for his origins and criticism for his use of a professional trainer in his preparations for the Olympics. He is an ambitious sprinter from the Cambridge University, eager to win and to prove his place in the English society. However, in order to succeed, he needs to overcome his inner demons.
His rival and teammate, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), is a devout Christian, a Scottish Presbyterian protestant whose life ambition is to become a missionary, but who is a talented and passionate sportsman. He runs for his faith and to glorify God. Due to his religious principles, Liddell refused to run in the 100 meter Olympic heats, which were held on a Sunday.
Â«Â Chariots of Fire” is a film that digs deep into the human spirit. It not only presents us the story of two men and the motivations they have for running, it reaches to the very essence of the questions of why we exist and what significance our lives have.
The film begins with Abrahams’ funerals and then tells, in flashback, the story of the two main characters. It starts with Harold’s first day at Cambridge, Caius College, in 1919. Later, he takes part in the “college dash”, a competition where “the challenger will attempt to run around the court perimeter to and from a point beneath the clock within the time taken by the clock to strike midday. A distance traditionally recognized as one of 188 paces”. His sole competitor is Liddell, representing Edinburgh University. Abrahams defeats him, to the slight discontent of his masters, who first discuss his social and ethnic origins, and then his capabilities.
The focus shifts to Eric Liddell who is invited in Scotland, 1920, to preside a children’s race. At the end, he holds a speech about sports and faith. It is the first moment that presents his preaching spirit. Further along he is shown dining with his family, who has made from missionary a purpose in life.
Another memorable scene is the one when Liddell runs in the France-Scotland competition and when he is pushed and falls. However, he finds the power within to raise and not only finish, but win the race. Afterwards, under the rain, people are mesmerized by his speech where he preaches that the true power comes from within.
Harold Abrahams, who assists as this race, is amazed before his gift and envious at the same time. He takes the opportunity to introduce himself to Sam Mussabini, a professional coach, and to ask if he could train him for the Olympics gold. The latter does not accept, but agrees to watch him and see if he has the right talent, because, as he says, “you can’t put in what God’s left out”.
While Liddell is more of a loner, Abrahams is often shown with his friends or in public. He even has a love interest, Sybil Gordon, singer. The scene of the two of them dining for the first time is a very important one, as Harold speaks about himself, his heritage and why he feels he has to run in order to fit in the English society:
“Do you love running?”
“I’m more of an addict. It’s a compulsion. A weapon.”
“Being Jewish, I suppose.”
“You’re not serious?!”
“You’re not Jewish, or you wouldn’t ask.”
“People don’t care. Anyway, being Jewish hasn’t done you any harm.”
“I’m what I call semi-deprived . It means they lead me to water, but they won’t let me drink.”
The climax of Abrahams’ pre-Olympic struggle is reached when his loses a challenge against Liddell. Demoralized by the fact that he feels he has done anything he could, he feels worthless: “I run to win. If I can’t win, I don’t run”. Despite his apparent failure, at the end of the race Mr. Mussabini offers to coach him: “I can find you another two yards”. This is the decisive moment, and from this point on all of Harold’s energy is channeled to one purpose and one purpose only: winning the gold medal.
They start training in a sustained and technical way, analyzing mistakes and finding ways to improve. In the meantime, Eric trains in a more relaxed manner, but always empowered by his faith. When his sister, Jenny, is worried that athletics is not something noble enough, and suggests that he should better pursue the family tradition and go to China to spread his faith, Eric replies: “I believe that God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure”.
The preparations for the Olympics start generating rumors. A highly expressive moment is that when Harold Abrahams is called at Cambridge to the master’s office. He is confronted by two professors who accuse him of denaturizing the amateur spirit of sports to his own personal interest; of turning into a tradesman: “for the past year, you have concentrated on developing your own technique in the headlong pursuit, may I suggest, of individual glory”. The athlete replies by a true declaration of independence, a manifest saying: “I am a Cambridge man first and last. I am an Englishman first and last. What I have achieved, what I intend to achieve, is for my family, my university and my country [â€¦].You know, gentlemen you yearn for victory, just as I do. But achieved with the apparent effortlessness of gods [â€¦]. I believe in the pursuit of excellence and I’ll carry the future with me.”
After this bitter discussion Abrahams learns that he has been selected to represent his country at the Olympic Games of 1924, held in Paris. Eris Liddell was also qualified. On the boat to Paris, Liddell is informed that the 100 meter race will be held on a Sunday. This stirs enormous conscience turmoil for him. “To run on a Sunday would be against God’s Law”. The Prince of Wales himself tries to convince him to compete, but the problem is not solved until Lindsay, another member of the team, offers his place in the 400 meter race.
However, this remains a highly representative scene of Eric’s dilemma and a testimony of his faith. He is torn between his desire to run and his commitment to praise God on the one hand and between his future King and God on the other hand. Liddell is depicted as “a true man of principle and a true athlete. His speed is a mere extension of his life, its force”.
In the Olympic Games each of the two athletes wins a gold medal. However, the meaning of his success is significantly different. As Harold Abrahams discovers before his most decisive race; his life has become all about those few seconds in which he feels he has to justify everything he has done and who he will become “I am forever in pursuit and I don’t even know what is I am chasing”. And even though he wins, he can not rejoice. He has not defeated his inner demons and he has not understood the meaning of his life.
Eric Liddell, on the other hand, does not share his colleague’s bizarre reaction. He is ecstatic after his success, he feels he has reached his purpose as a sportsman and is ready to embrace his future life, of a missionary.
1.2. The title
The title is inspired by “And did those feet in ancient time”, a short poem by William Blake from the preface to his epic Milton a Poem. Today it is best known as the hymn “Jerusalem,” whose music is written by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916.
It seems that the film’s working title was “Running”. The inspiration came one Sunday evening when Colin Welland (screenplay writer) turned on the television to the BBC’s religious music series “Songs of Praise” featuring the stirring hymn “Jerusalem”, its chorus including the words “Bring me my chariot of fire”. the writer allegedly leapt up to his feet and shouted to his wife Patricia, “I’ve got it, Pat! ‘Chariots of Fire’!”  .
A church congregation sings “Jerusalem” at the end of the film and a performance appears on the Chariots of Fire soundtrack performed by the Ambrosian Singers overlaid partly by a composition by Vangelis.
2. Chariots of Fire – film analysis
Our analysis will focus on the two heroes, their leadership style and their interactions with the other characters. In order to fully understand Harold, we also need to take into account Sam Mussabini, because their activity and achievements are complementary.
We will begin with a short description of their personality based on the way the film depicts them and then we will observe their leadership styles.
2.1. The character of Eric Liddell
Eric Liddell is a fully talented person, led by efforts for excellence in studies and sport. Being an academic, he belongs to one of the best schools of Scotland Eton College, Edinburgh University. he is also extremely talented in sports. He is initially very good at rugby, but gives up with it in order to completely dedicate himself to running for the Olympic Games. He is called the “flying Scotsman”.
He is extremely gifted and works very hard to achieve his goals.Â “I’ve never seen such drive, such commitment in a runner. He runs like a wild animal”, says Harold Abrahams. He is more of a runner on long distances; opposite to Abrahams, who is a sprinter. “He’s fast. But he won’t go any faster, not in the dash, anyway. He’s a gut runner. He’s all heart. Digs deep”, says Sam Mussabini.
During a competition, he fallsÂ whileÂ running and still manages to win the race. Therefore, he achieves the almost impossible “veterans, were unanimous in the opinion that Liddell’s win in the quarter mile was the greatest track performance that they had ever seen”  .
We also can notice that, despite the fact he has no coach, he wins the Olympic 400 meter race. He has been able to provide the right efforts on his own and with the help of God.
He is a man who lives for his faith. His parents are missionaries in China and are veryÂ strictÂ about religion. “God is a loving dictator”. His rules are such as attending the Sunday service, or not playing football on Sunday. Eric fully embraces this conception of religion.
He feels that running and winning races will prove the world the presence of God. “To win is an honor for Him”. “When I run, I feel his pleasure”.
Winning an Olympic Gold Medal becomes a priority, second only to his religion. The ambition to win this event is part of his religion; is spiritual. Eric believed that everything he did in the name of his belief should give God pleasure. “I would like to give you something more permanent but I can only point the way. I believe God made me for a purpose”, he says after a race.
After winning the Olympic medal, he follows his family and becomes himself a missionary in China, as he had planned from the beginning.
He is an example of a person who lived out the Olympic ideals while upholding the Olympic motto, “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (used for the first time in 1924), which means, ‘Swifter, Higher, Stronger”, throughout his life.  Today, a foundation and an internet site are dedicated to his memory.
His conscience issue, his testimony of faith
Â When he learns that the heats are to be run on a Sunday, he switches to the 400 meter competition. Running on Sunday is against God’s law. His decision is taken; he will show inflexibility on this point. The Prince of Wales himself tries to influence him to change decision, but Eric says that although he loves his country, he is not ready for such a sacrifice. Lindsay is the one who suggests the solution. Having already won a silver medal, he yields his place on the 400 meter race, which takes place the next Tuesday.
Â In this situation, Eric has proven to be extremely focused; he wins and stands by his principles. It is a way to promote his religion, since his convictions make the headlines in all the newspapers “Eric Liddell, God before the king”.Â
His relationship with others
For Abrahams, with whom he shares personal conversations, he holds a strong friendship. It is remarkable to notice that, although competition should be the master word in his field, he does not appear to be affected by this state of mind.Â He does his best to encourage friendship and loyalty.
His sister Jennie is very worried about him being “stolen” by sports: “your mind is not with us anymore, it is full of running and starting and medals and pace”. He is diplomatic and very soft with her, tells him that he will go to China, but only after the Olympic Games. He tries to convince Jenny that he is an excellent runner and that it is God’s wish for him to do his best to win the games, because it is God who made him fast.
Sandy, his close friend confesses: “Eric’s special to me. Precious”. When Eric’s father goes back to China, he is asked to look after the family “I’m relying on you now to keep them all out of mischief”. This is why he remains close to him; he even follows him at the Olympic Games.
An illustration of charismatic leadership
Leadership is described as Â«Â the art of influencing others in the manner desired by the leaderÂ Â».  In this case, we believe that Eric has the natural talent to attract people around him without exercising authority. He gets his power from inside and does not need any kind of support or coach. It is a personality trait that he had from his birth, which makes him endowed with special qualities. His father being a missionary, we presume that it is a “family gene”. He takes risks by involving himself in religious purposes. He is extremely confident in his faith; he can therefore communicate strongly about it. This increases his leadership towards others as well as his charisma.
He feels he is driven by a divine mission to uphold God throw his behavior in sports. He therefore takes every opportunity to “preach the god news”. He is skilled for public speaking and uses this talent very often; he is an authority for those around him. He is passionate and shows a lot of determination in convincing others. Â
At the end of a race, he does not hesitate to gather the crowd around him and speak about God. Under the rain, he is able to federate a large group of people. He speaks their language, talks about their problems. People are highly receptive, some of them captivated.Â
Open to others, he is able to mix with very different social classes. He is as well at ease with people from his high level College and people from the street who watch him racing. His modesty is entirely genuine and unaffected.
Eric Liddell possesses a outstanding emotional intelligence  . He is self aware; he is good at understanding what motivates him and how his actions or words affect others. For example, when he speaks to his sister Jenny who is worried about his attitude towards sport, he finds the right argument and gains her support: he will pursue the mission to China when the games are finished.
He is motivated by something beyond money or status. He wants to win in the name of his religion and that is his drive.
He is empathetic, since he preoccupies himself with what is on people’s mind. He is a role model for children. For example, at the end of a Sunday service, a young little girl asks him to sign on her Bible.
Eric also has good social skills, as we can see many friends are around him. On the Sunday when he should have run, he is called to participate to Sunday mass at the Paris Church of Scotland. He is asked to read a psalm and it is a moment of deep emotion for the people listening to him.
Being a leader, he also shows abilities of self management: he entirely enjoys what he does and appears as someone very well balanced.Â He is setting high objectives for himself, winning the games, and he visualizes his success.Â
He is mature because he knows that the Olympic Games will only be a step in his life and that after, his mission will lead him to higher purposes. His vision of the future is realistic.
He balancesÂ hard work, studies and personal life very well since he achieves all his goals, by a good management of time and resources. Moreover, he is well integrated in his social community and appreciated by many people around him. All these elements prove that he has the skills to self manage his life and his reach objectives very efficiently.
We can observe that Eric’s followers are captivated, the message is “healthy” and people oriented. By his behavior and his personality, he shows the necessary qualities for a “Spiritual Leader”. His life after the film shows him even more determined on this point. Today, an internet site and a community exist and services are regularly offered in his name, a proof that his leadership was strong enough to still be present today.
2.2. The character of Harold Abrahams
Harold Abrahams is depicted as a strong and somewhat tormented personality. He descends from a family of Lithuanian Jews and his family’s origins follow him everywhere, not only in his perception, but also in the attitude of others.
His determination and his desire to be appreciated for what he really is as a person, and not to be judged upon his ascendants, is evident from the very first scenes of the film. For example, as he arrives his first day at Cambridge, where he studies law, he feels obliged to correct the porters, who address him using the word “laddie”. In response, Abrahams mentions: “I ceased to be a “laddie” when I took up the King’s commission”.
Harold is an excellent athlete, a great runner, and the first challenge he takes is to run the collage dash. He is the first student in all the 700 years of the college to attempt to run the whole perimeter of the court between the first and the last strike of 12. He is competitive, determined and extremely self confident when he runs.
We learn however that his need to be valued and respected comes from his sense of inferiority. He feels rejected in the English society because he is Jewish. The confession he makes to Aubrey is particularly relevant:
“It’s an ache, a helplessness and an anger. One feels humiliated. Sometimes I say to myself, “Steady on, you’re imagining all this.” Then I catch that look again. Catch it on the edge of a remark. Feel a cold reluctance in a handshake. That’s my father. A Lithuanian Jew. He is alien [â€¦]. I love and admire him. He worships this country. From nothing, he built what he believed was enough to make true Englishmen of his sons. My brother’s a doctor. A leader in his field [â€¦]. And here am I. Setting up shop in the finest university in the land. But the old man forgot one thing. This England of his is Christian and Anglo-Saxon. And so are her corridors of power. And those who stalk them guard them with jealousy and venom.
“You’re right to study law. You’re quite an advocate.”
“A rare ethnic advantage. It’s called the gift of the gab.”
“So what now? Grin and bear it?”
“No, Aubrey. I’m going to take them on. All of them. One by one. And run them off their feet.”
In order to be the best, Harold Abrahams does something unusual and revolutionary for his time; he hires a professional coach, Sam Mussabini. The latter is reluctant to this demand, because it was usually him who made the proposition. Nevertheless, Harold’s argument convinces him to observe and then acknowledge his talent: “I can run fast. With your help, I think I can run even faster. Perhaps faster than any man ever ran. I want that Olympic medal. Now, I can see it there. It’s waiting for me. But I can’t get it on my own.”
During the few moments when Harold is shown with his friends, he seems outgoing and gregarious, a good company. There is a clear contrast in comparison to his moments of solitude, when his more fragile side of his personality appears. This is why we speak of inner demons, of the duality he faces: he is eager for others to like and appreciate him, but seems incapable to do that for himself. He denies his true essence, his origins, he doubts himself at the smallest failure.
His life becomes even more complex when he meets Sybil Gordon, a singer who becomes his girlfriend, his confident and his supporter. She stands by him during his hardest moment of fear and uncertainty: when Eric Liddell defeats him. It is the moment when Harold expresses his compulsion for winning. He cannot conceive to run if he does not win. His thrill does not come from sports, from racing; it comes from winning, being the best. This is why a defeat is unconceivable, unbearable. His salvation, his drive to move on and aim for the Olympic gold does not come from love, nevertheless, but from the one who had refused him. Sam Mussabini is the one who comes at the end of the race and promises to “find” him another two yards.
Mussabini is truly the person Abrahams needed to perk up his performance. His entire perception of life changes when the coach agrees to train him. Everything else falls into second place, including his girlfriend. He no longer has an amateur view over sports, but a more professional one. He understands that result can only come out of hard work and sweat. Together, they analyze other top athletes, their technique and their mistakes. Then they practice, improve Harold’s performance and aim for the ultimate goal: the Olympic medal.
Due to his use of a professional coach, Harold is accused of is professors at Cambridge of mercantilism, of desiring to win at all costs. In fact, in the 1920s, athletics were regarded as an emanation of talent, not of herd training. The masters plead for an amateur approach and consider that Abrahams’ attitude prejudices the name of their school: “Here in Cambridge, we’ve always been proud of our athletic prowess. We believe, we’ve always believed, that our games are indispensable in helping to complete the education of an Englishman. They create character. They foster courage, honesty and leadership; but, most of all, an unassailable spirit of loyalty, comradeship and mutual responsibility [â€¦]. I’m afraid there is a growing suspicion in the bosom of this university [â€¦] that in your enthusiasm for success you have perhaps lost sight of some of these ideals”.
Harold’s reaction to these accusations reveals his innovative way of thinking. He is a visionary who has set his goals and will stop at nothing to achieve them. He is committed and ready to do everything humanly possible to succeed. He believes in himself and uses every resource available. A personal coach is one of them. “I believe in the pursuit of excellence and I’ll carry the future with me”, he says leaving the masters’ office, only to find out shortly after that he has been selected to be part of the team for the 8th Olympic Games, held in Paris.
Abrahams channels all his energy to attain his life dream. He strives for the medal and for recognition. From this point of view, he and Mussabini are very similar. The former is e Jew who feels inferior and therefore uses sports to prove that he belongs in the upper English society. The latter is half Italian, half Arab and is ostracized because he brings a professional approach to sports in an era when it was predominantly amateur. He becomes not only Harold’s coach, but his mentor. They complete each other in their desire for glory and they need one another, because none of them can succeed on their own.
A discussion between Sybil and Andy, a mutual friend, is extremely eloquent when it comes to Harold’s commitment:
“He says he needs to clear his mind of me. He can’t love me and say that.”
“Syb, the world’s against him, or so he believes. Now he’s got a chance to prove himself. He can’t see or hear anything beyond that, not even you. The fastest man ever before [â€¦]. That’s immortality. Just think what it means to a man like Harold. Well, to me the whole thing’s fun. I don’t need that. “Cast care aside” and all that. But for Harold, it’s a matter of life and death.”
In Paris, his competitors are two living legends, members of the American team: Paddock and Scholz. Harold suffers several defeats in the beginning of the Olympics and therefore questions his ability to ever reach his objective. He questions himself and everything he stands for. Before his most important race, he confesses to his frind: “Contentment. I’m 24 and I’ve never known it. I’m forever in pursuit and I don’t even know what it is I’m chasing. Aubrey, old chap, I’m scared. Sam and I, we’ve labored, rowed and bullied for this. Day in, day out. You’ve seen us, chuckled over us, I’ll be bound. Out in all weathers. Madmen. And for what? I was beaten out of sight in the 200. Then I let Paddock trick me in the semi. Now, in one hour’s time, I’ll be out there again. I’ll raise my eyes and look down that corridor, four-feet wide, with ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But will I? Aubrey, I’ve known the fear of losing. But now I’m almost too frightened to win.”
Before the 100-meter dash Harold has almost overcome his fear of losing, but faces the fear of winning. He feels that his whole existence depends on that one race, which he might either win and offer him a long-desired status; or lose and render him into obscurity. In addition to his own dilemma, he receives a letter from Mussabini, telling him that he would not assist at the race, but that he wishes him all the best. He also offers him his father’s charm.
He runs the 100 meters in 10.6 seconds and wins the gold medal. However, he can not celebrate his success. He seeks refuge in a bistro where he drinks with Mussabini. He does not want to party with his team.
“Yes, you’ve always thought of yourself as a ruthless man. Hard. Bit of a loner, like me. But actually, you’re as soft as a limp pocket. Oh, you care. Care about things that really matter. If you didn’t, I wouldn’t have come within a mile of you. Do you know who you won for out there today?
“Us! You and old Sam Mussabini. I’ve waited 30 bloody years for this [â€¦]. Harold! It means the world to me, this, you know. Because we’ve had, today you and me, and we’ve got it for keeps.”
Harold has an illogical, irrational reaction. One possible explanation is that he does not want to share this moment with those who might not have believed in him and in his method; that he wanted to savor his achievement all by himself. Another possible explanation is that he realizes that despite his medal, he is the same person. He is still Jewish and he would still have to face the same problems.
Is Harold Abrahams a leader? What kind of leader might he be?
Harold Abrahams is an outsider at these Olympics. He is passionate about what he does and he takes it to perfection. He has the vision of success and he sets his own goals; extremely high goals. He believes in himself and seeks to overcome his flaws. He is also looking at the future, knowing exactly what he wants to achieve. The only thing that he has not figured out is what he will do once he achieves everything. And this is exactly why he can not rejoice when he wins the gold medal.
This is why he is not a leader in the true sense of the word. He does, however, manifest some kind of auto-leadership. He manages himself, he determines his objectives and he identifies his resources. He is extremely self-aware, realistic and down to earth. The fact that he acknowledges the fact that he needs a coach is essential.
In a way, we would say that he seeks a leader, a mentor and a motivator. And he convinces Mussabini, the best in his field, to be that leader for him. If we had to integrate their relationship in a leadership model, it would be the cognitive resources theory and the transactional leadership. Mussabini’s intelligence and experience are the resources that lead to performance. His directivity is exactly what Harold needs; he requires guidance.
From a transactional point of view, we could say that there is a contract between the two and that the ultimate task is to win. Harold has every interest to follow his leader, because he is the best and he cannot succeed without him. This is why the contingent reward behaviour is well adapted in this situation, with the mention that the motivation is intrinsic. And this is exactly what permits them to excel.
Harold is a mature follower, both in terms of job and psychological maturity (according to Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Model). Therefore, Mussabini’s directive pattern of behaviour (similar to Fielder’s task-oriented behaviour) works efficiently in their relationship; he is a “teller”.
Transformational leadership is a process that changes and transforms individuals. It often involves long term goals  . We believe that focusing on the process, the interaction between the two does not exclude the transactional point of view. We therefore consider that Mussabini helps Abrahams reach his full potential. They each have a vision, they are both inspired by their own motivation and they have to work together to achieve their goals. From a certain point of view, they render each other a service.
2.3. The character of Sam Mussabini
Sam Mussabini is Harold’s coach. He first appears in the film at a race opposing France and Scotland. He has a short conversation with Colonel John Keddie, President of the Scottish Amateur Athletes’ Association, and we understand that from his point of view he is a persona non grata; they do not share the same vision on sports. This is why when the Colonel says “we do have a strict amateur code” he replies that he is a mere spectator.
Harold Abrahams is in the public as well and takes the opportunity to talk to him about his need to be coached by him. He wants to improve in order to be able to win the gold medal. Mr Mussabini first refuses, telling him that he should be the one to choose whether to coach him or not: “it’s the coach that should do the asking”. Still, he promises that he would observe him and see if he is talented and capable or not to deserve his attention.
They meet again at another race, which opposes Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams. The latter loses and this defeat in unbearable for him. He questions his ability to be a great runner, he is desperate and depressed. This is the moment when Mussabini appears, telling him “I can find you another two yards”. A line that is decisive for the rest of the film.
They start training together; giving Harold the technique he needed to progresses. He has innovative pedagogical methods, consisting of showing him photos of other runners and analyzing why they win or fail, what they do right and what they do wrong. Abrahams’ strides are shortened, putting more poise into his running. He acquires a more powerful start and learns to concentrate on his dip at the finish.
Mussabini understands the psychology of his student, what drives him: “a short sprint is run on nerves. It’s tailor-made for neurotics”. He realizes that Harold is a good sprinter and that he is pushed by his nerves. He says
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