Thursday, April 24, 2008

Chariots Of Fire - My All-Time Favourite Olympic Movie

Directed by Hugh Hudson and produced by David Puttnam, Jake Eberts and Princess Diana’s late partner Dodi Al-Fayed, Chariots Of Fire is my all-time favourite Olympic movie.

With a moving theme song by Greek musician Vangelis Papathanassiou, the 1981 film gets its name from a poem by British poet William Blake about Olympic runners and how they are like God’s “chariots of fire”.

Chariots Of Fire was nominated for seven Oscars in 1981 and won four, namely Best Picture, Original Music Score, Original Screenplay and Costume Design.

The movie is based on the true story of two British athletes who competed in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris.

They were English-born Lithuanian Jew Harold Maurice Abrahams (played by Star Trek, First Knight and Far Pavilions actor Ben Cross) and Scottish clergyman Reverend Eric Liddell (played by the late, great Scottish actor Ian Charleson of Gandhi and Master Of The Game).

Here is a brief biography of the British runners.

Reverend Eric Henry Liddell

Eric Henry Liddell (January 16, 1902 – February 21, 1945) was a Scottish athlete and Rugby Union international and also the winner of the Men's 400 Metres at the Olympic Games of 1924 held in Paris.

He then served as a Protestant Christian missionary to China and died in a POW camp in Tianjin during World War 2.

Fondly called the "Flying Scotsman", he was born in Tianjin, China. His father Reverend James Dunlop Liddell was a member of the London Missionary Society.

When he was six, Liddell returned to Britain and studied at Eltham College, Mottingham, South London.

At Eltham, Liddell was an outstanding sportsman and became the captain of both the cricket and rugby union teams. His headmaster described him as being 'entirely without vanity'.

Liddell became the fastest runner in Scotland while at Eltham.

Liddell also became a member of the Glasgow Students' Evangelical Union (GSEU).

In 1920, Liddell studied Science at the University of Edinburgh (Ian Charleson also studied there).

Athletics and rugby played a large part in Liddell's university life. He ran in the 100 yards race and the 220 yards race for Edinburgh University and later played for the Scottish national rugby union team.

In 1924 he won the Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) Union Championships in the 100 yards race (in a British record of 9.7 seconds: this record would not be broken for the next 35 years) and 220 yards (21.6 seconds).

He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree after the Paris Olympiad in 1924.

During the Paris Olympics in 1924, Liddell refused to race on Sunday, and had to withdraw from the 100 metres race, his best event.

The schedule had been published several months earlier, and his decision was made well before the Games began.

Liddell spent the intervening months training for the 400 metres, an event in which he had previously excelled.

On the day of the race, an American masseur slipped a piece of paper in his hand with a quotation from the Bible which said "Those who honour me I will honour."

Liddell ran with that piece of paper in his hand.

He won and broke the existing world record with a time of 47.6 seconds.

After the Olympics and his graduation, Liddell continued to compete.

In 1925, at the Scottish Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) meeting in Hampden Park in Glasgow, he equaled his own Scottish championship record of 10.0 seconds in the 100 yards, won the 220 yard contest in 22.2 seconds and won the 440 yard contest in 47.7.

He returned to Northern China where he served as a missionary, like his parents, from 1925 to 1943 - first in Tianjin and later in Shaochang.

During this time he continued to compete, and his achievements included wins over members of the 1928 French and Japanese Olympic teams in the 200 and 400 metres at the South Manchurian Railway Celebrations in 1928 and a victory at the 1930 North China Championship.

Liddell's first job as a missionary was as a teacher at an Anglo-Chinese College for wealthy Chinese students.

He believed that by teaching the children of the wealthy they would later become influential figures in China and promote Christian values.

He used his athletic experience to train the boys in a number of different sports.

One of his many responsibilities was that of superintendent of the Sunday school at the Union Church where his father was a pastor.

Liddell lived at 38, Chongqing Dao (formerly known as Cambridge Road) in Tianjin and a plaque still stands today to commemorate his former residence.

He also helped build the Mingyuan Stadium in Tianjin.

He suggested that it be copied exactly from Chelsea's football ground as he had run there previously, and this was said to be his favourite running venue.

In 1934, he married Florence Mackenzie of Canadian missionary parentage in Tianjin.

Liddell courted his wife by taking her for lunch at the famous Kessling Restaurant which is still open in Tianjin.

They had three daughters, Patricia, Heather and Maureen, the last of which he would never live to see.

The school Liddell taught at is still used today.

One of Liddell's daughters visited Tianjin in 1991 and presented the headmaster with one of the medals that Liddell had won for athletics.

In 1941, Liddell evacuated his wife and children from China, following the Japanese occupation of parts of the country.

He stayed behind at a rural mission station in Shaochang, which gave service to the poor.

The station was severely short of help and the missionaries who served there were exhausted.

There was a constant stream of local people who came at all hours to get medical treatment.

In 1943, the Japanese took over the station, and Liddell was interned at the Weihsien (now known as Weifang) Internment Camp with the members of the China Inland Mission Chefoo (now known as Yantai) School.

Liddell became a leader at the camp and helped get it organised.

Food, medicines and other supplies ran short at the camp.

There were many cliques in the camp and when some rich businessmen managed to smuggle in some eggs to the camp, Liddell shamed them into sharing them with the rest of the camp.

Fellow missionaries were forming cliques, moralising and acting selfishly. Eric kept himself busy by helping the elderly, teaching Bible classes, arranging games and also by teaching the children science.

He was known to the children as Uncle Eric.

One Sunday, Liddell refereed a hockey match to stop fighting amongst the players (despite his earlier stand at the Olympics) as he was trusted not to take sides by the two teams.

Liddell was also involved in preparing food for the Japanese guards, because he was trusted not to poison their food.

One of Liddell's fellow internees later wrote a book about his experiences in the camp called The Courtyard Of The Happy Way which gave details of all the remarkable characters in the camp.

The writer stated that Liddell was "the finest Christian gentleman it has been my pleasure to meet. In all the time in the camp, I never heard him say a bad word about anybody."

The camp was originally a missionary school named The Courtyard Of The Happy Way.

The Japanese removed many of the facilities from the camp to make it a proper prisoner of war camp.

Later, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill approved a prisoner exchange and Liddell, as a famous athlete, was one of the prisoners chosen to go.

However Liddell, unsurprisingly, gave his place to a pregnant woman.

In his last letter to his wife, written on the day he died, he talked about suffering a nervous breakdown in the camp due to overwork, but in actuality he was suffering from an inoperable brain tumour, to which being overworked and malnourished probably hastened his demise.

He died on February 21, 1945, five months before liberation.

He was later interred in the Mausoleum Of Martyrs in Shijiazhuang, China, a great honour for a non-Chinese person.

He was greatly mourned not only at the Weihsien Internment Camp but also in Scotland.

A fellow internee, Langdon Gilkey, was later to write, "The entire camp, especially its youth, was stunned for days, so great was the vacuum that Eric's death had left."

Liddell's last words were "It's complete surrender."

Fifty-six years after the Paris Olympics, Scotsman Allan Wells won the 100-metre dash at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which were boycotted by the United States thanks to the Soviet Union’s invasion to save Afghanistan from the US-backed Mujahideen and Taliban terrorists.

Wells dedicated his win to Liddell.

In 1991, a memorial headstone, made from Isle of Mull granite was unveiled at Liddell's previously unmarked grave in Weifang, erected by Edinburgh University.

A few simple words taken from the Book of Isaiah in the Bible formed the inscription: "They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary."

The city of Weifang, as part of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the internment camp, commemorated the life of Liddell by laying a wreath at the memorial headstone marking his grave in 2005.

Dr Harold Maurice Abrahams

Harold Maurice Abrahams, CBE (December 15, 1899 – January 14, 1978) was an Olympic champion in 1924 in the 100-metre dash.

Born in Bedford, he was the younger brother of another British athlete, the Olympic long jumper Sir Sidney Abrahams.

He was educated at Bedford School and Caius College, Cambridge, before training as a lawyer.

A sprinter and long jumper since his youth, he continued to compete in sports while studying at Cambridge.

He earned a place in the 1920 Olympic team but was eliminated in the quarter-finals of both the 100m and 200m.

Eric Liddell introduced Abrahams to a professional coach, Sam Mussabini, an Arab-Italian, and Abrahams, with the encouragement of his brother, employed him.

For six months, Mussabini at Abrahams' direction emphasised the 100-metre, with the 200-metre as secondary.

Through vigorous training, Abrahams perfected his start, stride and form.

One month before the 1924 Games, Abrahams set the English record in the long jump, a record which stood for the next 32 years.

Abrahams won the 100m, beating all the American favourites (including the 1920 Gold medal winner Charlie Paddock).

In third place was Lord Arthur Porritt, later Head of State of New Zealand, who became Abrahams’ lifelong friend.

As the Paris Olympics 100m dash took place at 7pm on July 7, 1924, Abrahams and Porritt dined together at 7pm on July 7 every year thereafter, until Abrahams' death.

As an opening runner for the 4 x 100m team, Abrahams won a second Olympic medal, a silver.

In May 1925, Abrahams broke his leg and his athletic career ended.

He returned to his legal career. Subsequently he worked as an athletics journalist for 40 years, becoming a commentator on the sport for BBC Radio.

In 1936, he reported from the Nazi Berlin Olympics for the BBC.

Later in his life, he also become the president of the Jewish Athletic Association and served as the chairman of the Amateur Athletics Association.

Throughout his life, he worked hard to combat racial prejudice in sports and to popularise athletics in the Commonwealth of Nations.

The popularity of athletics in Malaysia is in no small part a legacy of Abrahams.

He struck up a friendship with the late Malaysian athlete and businessman Datuk Loke Wan Tho, the founder of the Cathay Organisation Group of Cinemas.

Abrahams has been recognised with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at his former home in Golders Green, North West London which was unveiled by his daughter Sue Pottle and nephew Tony Abrahams.

He lived at Hodford Lodge, 2, Hodford Road, from 1923 to 1930, years in which he achieved great success including his famous 1924 Olympics win in Paris.

The late Guinness Book of World Records founder Norris McWhirter once commented that Abrahams "managed by sheer force of personality and with very few allies to raise athletics from a minor to a major national sport”.

Philip Noel-Baker, Britain's 1912 Olympic captain and a Nobel Prize winner, reflecting in 1948 on Abrahams' athleticism said: "I have always believed that Harold Abrahams was the only European sprinter who could have run with Jesse Owens, Joe Candito, Ralph Metcalfe and the other great sprinters from the US.

He was in their class, not only because of natural gifts - his magnificent physique, his splendid racing temperament, his flair for the big occasion, but because he understood athletics and had given more brain power and more will power to the subject than any other runner of his day."

Abrahams’ Olympic record, a first for Britain, stood until the arrival of Linford Christie in 1992.

Interesting fact:

Cross appeared in an American Express commercial on British television to mark the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the United States.

In the ad, Cross and former American Olympic runner Jackson Scholz (1897-1986), then 87, competed to get their new American Express credit cards in an American Express office, and the veteran runner told the actor “you’ll never beat me!”, before proving himself right.

Scholz ran with Abrahams and Liddell in Paris.

Thanks for the information, Wikipedia.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ballang Lasung - Iconic Dayak Sportsman & Superman

Ballang Lasung is dead at 57, after a five-year battle with the debilitating cancer of muscular dystrophy.

The horrible disease also killed another sports icon of Malaysia, Mokhtar Dahari, the country’s Saint of Soccer 17 years ago.

Ballang, a respected elder of the Kelabit tribe, which forms 1 per cent of Sarawak’s population, died in Kuching Hospital on April 15, 2008.

The Kelabit did Malaysia proud in the SEA Games from 1977 to 1983, winning gold medals in javelin-throwing annually.

Ballang, of Lawas, is survived by his wife Susanna Liew, 51, and two children, Sarah and Brian aged 23 and 19 respectively.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

George Hogg - The Englishman Who Gave His Life For China’s Orphans


Finally, the inspiring, and tragic, story of George Hogg, has hit the big screen.

The film is Escape From Huang Shi, and it stars Irish actor and model Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Hogg.

Hong Kong film icon Chow Yun-Fat, Malaysia’s Miss Hollywood Datuk Michelle Yeoh and Australian actress Radha Mitchell also star in the film, which is written by James MacManus of Britain and directed by Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies) of Canada.

George Hogg gave his life rescuing a school of young Chinese boys by taking them on a “long march” of 700 miles to safety from the advancing Japanese colonial army in the bitter winter of 1944.

Hogg was just 23 when he arrived in Shanghai for a two-day visit in 1937. Fresh out of Oxford, he was on a round-the-world trip before taking a job in banking.

He died seven years later, having woven a story of courage and high adventure that is still remembered in China today.

Hogg’s life is full of irony. He was a quintessential middle-class, rugby-playing Oxford graduate taking time out before starting a career in London but became a hero almost by chance in the Chinese war of liberation.

Scriptwriter MacManus said his achievement would have remained unknown at home but for a snatch of conversation he overheard in a Beijing bar in 1985.

At the bar which was the British Embassy Club, MacManus overheard a junior diplomat complaining that he had to fly to the remote town of Shandon on the Mongolian border, where a statue had been put up in memory of an Englishman called George Hogg, who had died in 1944.

MacManus was then a journalist with The Daily Telegraph.

MacManus later met an old friend of Hogg, a New Zealander called Rewi Alley, who lived in Beijing.

Alley told MacManus that Hogg was “an outstanding young Englishman who fell in love with a foreign people and devoted his life to their betterment, and what he did made him deeply and widely loved.”

Hogg’s reputation is still kept alive by the loyalty of his surviving old boys - all now in their eighties.

Hogg’s adventure of a lifetime began when he set sail on the Queen Mary in 1937 to New York on the first leg of his round-the-world journey.

Having hitchhiked across the US he joined his aunt, Muriel Lester, a well-known pacifist, for the voyage to Tokyo.

While in Tokyo, Hogg decided on a weekend trip to Shanghai. He arrived in January 1938 just as the Japanese took control of the city.

It was a dark and violent world in which he found himself. The Japanese had embarked on a deliberate policy of civilian mass murder as they expanded into the interior from their control of the coastal belt and the capital, Beijing.

The savagery of the conflict caused huge casualties and by the time of the Communist takeover in China in 1949 it is estimated that 13 million had died in a decade of war.

Hogg flung himself into this maelstrom. He became a stringer for the Associated Press in Shanghai, was expelled by the Japanese to Tokyo, and made his way back to northern China and Beijing via Korea.

In Beijing he met Kathleen Hall, a New Zealand nurse whose mission clinic had been destroyed by the Japanese. She was smuggling food and medicines from the occupied capital to guerrillas in the countryside.

Hogg joined these risky sorties for a while and then, under increasing scrutiny from the Japanese police, the two of them made a nighttime escape to the liberated areas late in 1938.

Delayed for months by typhus, when Hall saved his life through diligent nursing, Hogg finally linked up with Mao’s army in Yenan.

By this stage he had learnt accentless Mandarin and had developed a deep interest in the emerging cooperative movement in free China.

In letters home to his parents, who lived in Harpenden, Hertforshire, Hogg described a life of high adventure as he crisscrossed northwest China helping the cooperative movement.

Hogg eventually ended up at Shuangshipu, a small village in the Tsingling Mountains in the north-central Shensi province.

There in 1943 he was appointed headmaster of a school for technical apprentices who were being trained to bolster the cooperative movement.

Eight headmasters, all foreigners, had failed to prevail over the unruly mix of illiterate peasant children from the north and west, and the sons of rich families who had been driven from the coastal areas by the advancing Japanese.

Hogg succeeded by imposing sound English public-school rules. The boys were made to rise at dawn and swim in icy rivers, rubbing in sulphur ointment afterwards to rid themselves of scabies and lice.

In his own words, Hogg managed to “smelt this varied human material into a real community without the help of any past school tradition and with no school spirit”.

It was an extraordinary achievement, but a greater challenge lay ahead.

The Japanese were advancing west and Hogg took the decision to move the entire school to the safety of Shandon, a hilltop town in a corridor between Mongolia and Tibet.

This was a risky decision. Shandon was 700 miles away and the journey would cross 12,000ft to 16,000ft mountain ranges.

Most of the boys were teenagers, some were very young. Winter had already set in.

Hogg scrounged a fleet of carts, pulled by five mules each, piled them high with 15 tons of equipment — boys, books, machinery and food — and set off early in the new year of 1945.

It was an appalling journey made by foot, mule cart and finally by six ancient lorries in what proved to be the coldest winter in 20 years.

Several mules and carts went over the edges of ravines but only two boys were lost in the ten-week journey. One died of a heart attack and the other turned back on his own.

At Lanchow, a staging post on the old Silk Road to the West, Hogg swapped his mule cart for trucks.

He was halfway to the sanctuary of Shandon. The headmaster finally led his exhausted and half-starved schoolchildren to an old Buddhist temple near the town in March 1945.

Four months later, having rebuilt the school, Hogg cut his foot, probably playing basketball with his pupils.

He developed tetanus and lockjaw set in.

While couriers raced back to Lanchow to find serum, the boys did their best for their headmaster. They pulled out some of his front teeth to feed him soup through straws.

The late Professor Brian Harland, a geologist from Cambridge, met Hogg a few days before his death.

Harland said: “He was in excruciating pain but stayed cheerful to the end. The boys sang all the school’s songs to him as he died. The carpentry section stayed up all night making him a wooden coffin.”

Hogg was buried on July 22, 1945, the day after he died. His will was simply: “My all to the school.”

A bust of Hogg, restored after the desecration of the Cultural Revolution, stands in the school at Shandon.

The school’s Silk Road Library, which was built in his memory, is filled with books.

His headstone over a grave nearby carries lines from his favourite poem by Julian Grenfell:

And life is colour and warmth and light
And a striving evermore for these
And he is dead who will not fight
And who dies fighting has increase.

Vanessa Dingley, a niece of George Hogg, thanked MacManus for the film about her uncle’s life. Her cousin Mark Thomas portrayed Hogg in a documentary film made for Chinese television a few years ago.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Charlton Heston - A King Of Hollywood

Thanks, Wikipedia.

Charlton Heston (October 4, 1923 – April 5, 2008), who died after a long illness yesterday, will always be remembered by fans as an alpha male American film star.

The Academy Award-winning actor was known for playing heroic roles, such as Moses in The Ten Commandments, Colonel George Taylor in Planet Of The Apes and Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur.

Early in his career, he was one of a handful of Hollywood actors to publicly speak out against racism and was active in the civil rights movement.

He was also a staunch environmentalist.

He was also president of the National Rifle Association from 1998 to 2003, and infamously opposed gun control.

Politically, he was a staunch Republican who supported President George W. Bush’s assaults on civil liberties after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Heston was born John Charles Carter in Evanston, Illinois. Of Native American and English ancestry, Heston adopted his stage name from the surname of his mother Lilla Charlton and his stepfather Chester Heston (his parents were divorced when he was 10 and his biological father was Russell Carter).

Active in drama since his schooldays in Chicago, Heston spent 2 years in the United States Air Force and was stationed in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. He rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant.

After leaving the army, Heston became a theatre actor and famously starred in the plays Julius Caesar (as Mark Antony) and A Man For All Seasons (as Thomas Moore).

In 1950, Heston appeared in his first film, Dark City.

His breakthrough came with the role of a circus manager in The Greatest Show On Earth in 1952.

Heston subsequently played Moses in Cecil DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments, and the director chose him because of his uncanny resemblance to the statue of Moses by Michelangelo.

Heston’s other famous films included Ben-Hur, El Cid, 55 Days At Peking, The Agony And The Ecstasy (as Michelangelo) and Khartoum.

After Burt Lancaster turned down the role of heroic Jewish freedom fighter Judah Ben-Hur, Heston accepted the role, and won the Academy Award for Best Actor, one of 11 Oscars the film earned.

Heston was identified with the Biblical epic more than any other actor and he voiced the role of Judah Ben-Hur for a cartoon version of the film in 2003.

Heston was president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1966 to 1971, the longest serving SAG president.

Between 1968 and 1974, Heston starred in a number of science fiction and disaster films such as Planet Of The Apes (1968), The Omega Man (1973) and Earthquake (1974), all of which were hugely successful and have since become classic films.

After 1973's The Three Musketeers, Heston was seen in an increasing number of supporting roles.

From 1985 to 1987, he starred in the prime-time soap, The Colbys. With his son Fraser, he starred and produced several TV movies, including remakes of Treasure Island and A Man For All Seasons.

In 1993, he appeared in a cameo role in Wayne's World 2 and hosted Saturday Night Live. He subsequently had cameos in the films Hamlet, Tombstone and True Lies.