By Alexander Wolff
July 09, 2012

The forthcoming Olympics may be a certifiably big deal, but to live in London right now is to suspect that the Games are just a pretext for Great Britain to collectively lose itself in Chariots of Fire nostalgia.

Nearly 31 years have passed since the film won the Oscar for Best Picture. That's three decades of the thrumming swells of that Vangelis score earworming their way through our heads. And the story -- of two sprinters, each running for a cause greater than the ones we're accustomed to nowadays (bank account, sponsor, nation, in that order) -- clearly still speaks to millions of Brits.

A digitally remastered version of the movie drops this week, with the original cast set to assemble for the premiere in Leicester Square tomorrow night. There's a stage play of the same name (with the same music, the same period detail, many of the same memorable lines and the film's director, Hugh Hudson, as co-producer) drawing sellout crowds to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End, while another play based on the story, Running for Glory, toured the U.K. for five weeks during February and March.

Last week ITV aired an hour-long backstory documentary, The Real Chariots of Fire, which sorts out the film's liberties from the facts. Hosted by Nigel Havers, who in 1981 played the delightfully heedless (and fictitious) runner Lord Andrew Lindsay, the doc elaborates on the lives of the two (non-fictitious) protagonists: Harold Abrahams, who ran to repudiate the anti-Semitism he felt from the British upper class; and Eric Liddell, the Scottish "muscular Christian" who famously refused to run on an Olympic Sunday.

On July 23, Decca releases a new version of the Chariots soundtrack by Vangelis, who wrote the theme in a single day as a gift for his father, who had been an avid runner. (The Greek composer sold the filmmakers on his creation by yanking producer David Puttnam into a car, popping a tape into the cassette deck and making the Hollywood veteran's hair, as Puttnam later put it, "stand on end.")

In June, a leg of the Olympic torch relay traced the route along West Sands Beach at St. Andrews where the opening and closing credits were filmed. A chunk of Danny Boyle's Olympics opening ceremony on July 27 will be called "A Green and Pleasant Land," a line ripped from the same William Blake poem, "Jerusalem," in which Chariots screenwriter Colin Welland found the reference that inspired the film's title. And today, British moviehouses are screening a feature film about two female sprinters, Fast Girls, which despite a hip-hop soundtrack, multi-culti cast and dollop of Bend It Like Beckham, nods unapologetically back at Chariots, with dueling protagonists, slo-mo sequences and a climax you can see coming from 100 yards away yet still can't really begrudge.

While it may be predictable, Chariots isn't pat. That's surely one source of its enduring appeal. Abrahams is running for a noble cause, but he's also running for something baser, which is to say himself. To win he'll unapologetically do anything -- within the rules, as he combatively stipulates to the masters at Cambridge -- including hiring a coach, a revolutionary step at that time. Sam Mussabini is part-Arab, part-Italian, and thus every bit as disapproved of as Abrahams' ambitious Jew.

"Perhaps they are God's chosen people after all," sniffs one don early in the film, after Abrahams is shown becoming the first man ever to complete a circuit of the courtyard of Cambridge's Trinity College in the 43 seconds it takes the clock tower to strike 12 o'clock.

Abrahams is a forerunner of the seriousness of purpose that will soon put to rout fuddy-duddy attitudes about amateurism in sport. (Which we cheer.) But of course it's a direct line from the Abrahamses and Mussabinis to today's Olympic attitude of "you don't win silver, you lose gold." (Which we're more reluctant to applaud.) Abrahams comes very close to regarding that stuff about "the important thing is to take part" as Coubertinian malarkey. "If I can't win, I won't run," he petulantly tells his girlfriend, Sybil, after he loses to Liddell in their first head-to-head race.

"If you don't run, you can't win," she sensibly replies.

Liddell's lousy form -- head back and arms flailing -- reflected the almost orgasmic relationship with the Lord he felt on the track.

"I believe God made me for a purpose," Eric tells his doubtful sister, Jennie. "But He also made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure."

"We represented two sides of the same coin," actor Ben Cross, who played Abrahams in the film, tells Havers in the ITV documentary. "The gentleman and the player."

At the 1924 Olympics in Paris, Liddell passes up the heats for the 100 meters because they're held on a Sunday. He rebuffs all pleas to change his mind, including one from the Prince of Wales. After getting waxed by the Americans in the 200 meters, Abrahams wins the Liddell-less final in the 100, delivering half of what moviegoers hunger for.

Enter Havers' Lord Lindsay to make the other half possible. He may play a caricature of the gentleman amateur, balancing flutes of expensive champagne on the tops of each hurdle, then trying to clear them without spilling a drop. But after Lord Lindsay wins a silver medal in the hurdles, that insouciance comes in handy. The 400 meters is to be run on a weekday, and he's happy to yield his spot in that race to Liddell, who wins an unexpected gold at a distance widely believed to be too long for him.

It's probably just as well that the real Abrahams and Liddell didn't run against each other in the 100 meters in Paris. Abrahams found Liddell's technique so crude that he couldn't fathom how he ran such fast times; had they met in the final, writes Mark Ryan, Abrahams' biographer, "It is easy to see how Harold might have become unnerved."

For his part, though Liddell didn't think much of Abrahams' form, he recognized and admired his rival's devotion, hard work and competitive spirit. As Cross' Abrahams says, "I'm going to take them all off their mark, one by one, and run them off their feet."

Within a year after the Olympics, Liddell finished his studies in science at Edinburgh University and joined his missionary parents in China. He died there of a brain tumor 20 years later. He was 43.

Abrahams became a lawyer, journalist and British track official who would help London stage the 1948 Olympics. As a track broadcaster he attended the 1936 Games, in Berlin, where at one point he found himself just steps from Adolf Hitler. "I wish," he later told his daughter, Sue, "that I'd shot him."

None of Chariots' efforts, then or now, make explicitly clear that Abrahams converted to Christianity later in his life -- roundabout evidence that, in one sense, Liddell did win in the end.

What ultimately accounts for the film's continued popularity? Puttnam likens Chariots to A Man For All Seasons, another movie in which a man makes a choice so hard that audiences are left to ask themselves whether they could do the same.

For his part, Hudson notes how rare it is today to see someone chase and achieve something "for the sake of it, with passion, and not just for fame or financial gain."

Liddell and Abrahams embodied the ideal of the kind of sportsman that British culture still exalts today, even if their type nears extinction. Sports in the Victorian and Edwardian eras taught young men to act boldly, but to leaven that initiative with obedience and loyalty. It was the very mix of values that colonialists tried to transmit to benighted subjects of the farflung British Empire. That worldview survives in idioms like Play up and play the game, and It's just not cricket, and The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.

The Brits cling to that whiskered stuff, even if it can all seem a little sanctimonious when their society is plagued by trimming and spinning -- with banks rigging interest rates; and cabinet ministers fudging facts to go to war; and newspapers in one moment referring to people as "drug cheat John Doe" and "plastic Brit Jane Doe," and in the next tapping their phones.

When they hosted an IOC inspection team before landing the Olympics, London organizers wanted to moot concerns about traffic. So they planted GPS devices in their visitors' cars, and then from a remote location arranged for every traffic light to turn green as those cars approached. Given current standards of fair play in the Olympic movement, that may not be the most horrible thing. It's certainly not deceit on a Salt Lake City bid scandal scale. But it isn't quite the Etonian ideal either.

If you're British, though, there's no need to wring your hands or fret. You'll always have Chariots.

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