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.