Chariots of Fire (1981) and Thatcher

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne.

And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. [1]

Chariots of Fire was a commercial hit across the world. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

With such a biblical reference for the title, you may think the film Chariots of Fire was a religious film. The film’s title was inspired by the line, “Bring me my Chariot of fire!” from the William Blake  poem, which derived from the above biblical quote from the second book of kings (above). This poem was also adapted into the British hymn Jerusalem which is heard at the end of the film, when people walk away from the funeral. 

Bring me my bow of burning gold;

Bring me my arrows of desire;

Bring me my spear; O clouds unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire I will not cease from mental fight;

 Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand;

 Till we have built Jerusalem In England’s green and pleasant land.

William Blake

The film certainly does mention religion, but that is not its central focus. Chariots of Fire (1981) has come to represent the Thatcher era for many commentators.[2] One critic placed in a set of films that defined the Thatcher era. Andrew Pulver of The Guardian believed: “All the optimism of the early years of Thatcher’s premiership can be found in this unashamedly patriotic, and undeniably stirring, epic. By connecting the experiences of Jewish sprinter Harold Abrahams and Scottish flier Eric Liddell, Chariots rather brilliantly manages to position itself as an outsider-against-the-establishment story – the real villain here is the complacent Prince of Wales (Edward VIII to be): the film’s anti-aristocrat sentiment was right up Thatcher’s street.” [3] The film would be used as a fundraiser by conservatives.

Chariots of Fire (1981) was based on two athletes who participated in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Christian and runs for God’s glory; and Harold Abrahams, who wants to break into the Christian English hierarchy. It is not a particularly accurate account of the two men’s participation in the games. The errors are for all to see. To name a few: Harold Abrahams did not court the singer court Sybil Evers until well after the Olympics, and he did not win the college dash, it was Lord Burghley. Abrahams was also known for his long jumping, and this is not mentioned. Liddell also introduced Abrahams to the professional sports coach Sam Mussabini.[4] The list of errors is quite extensive, but it simply does not matter. Like all good historical fiction, the underlying events are only a platform for an engaging story. The two characters are quite sympathetic. Both are outsiders. Liddell is the son of missionaries in China, as well as being a Scot, and Abrahams is a Jew whose father is an immigrant from Lithuania. Abrahams is trying to break into the establishment by doing brilliantly in the Olympics. Liddell runs for God’s pleasure and as a vehicle to deliver sermons to people. Abrahams is intense and driven, but he has a gift for friendship, as well as enjoying Gilbert and Sullivan. In contrast, Liddell likes people’s company and has a modest nature.

Chariots of Fire (1981) was based on two athletes who participated in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Christian and runs for God’s glory; and Harold Abrahams, who wants to break into the Christian English hierarchy. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The message of competition between these fine athletes was one that resonated with the times. Thatcher was elected in 1979, with a strong commitment to private enterprise. Chariots of Fire, like many other films about sport, extolled competition as bringing out the best in people. Losing was a shattering event, but it made all who participate stronger. The messages of the benefits of the competition were certainly topical at the time. The first term of the Thatcher Government was not a pleasant one, and her government was deeply unpopular. The privatisation, deregulation of the commercial sector and austerity measures had caused the economy to stall. The success of the Falklands invasion in 1982 pulled the government out of a slump, and it rode an economic recovery to become one of the most successful in the United Kingdom’s history. In doing so, Thatcher reversed reforms that dated back to the Attlee Government in 1948. It caused massive upheaval and disruption as the public sector was wound back.

The second theme in the film was patriotism or less kindly, nationalism. The film is filled with English flags, and it is literally – and metaphorically – a flag-waver. Yet it is not competition or nationalism at its heart, but ambivalence about British history and class system. The film is set in the run-up to the 1924 Olympics, the shadow of the First World War looms over this film. A scene in the University where the lecturer looks at the names on the wall, and laments that they all had promise. A generation had been lost, and now the United Kingdom had to stagger into the future. The slaughter caused by nationalism is in the background of this film – it is not exalted. It does praise a benign form of patriotism exemplified by supporting your team at the Olympics by – well – waving flags.

Abrahams works with a profession coach to win, putting hi mat odds with the amateur ideal of the upper classes. Image courtesy of EMoviePoster.

When the director Lindsay Anderson was asked about his role in the film, he said it was fine to bask in the past, provided it was sentimental. Lindsay’s film about the London class system was the fire breathing If (1968).  Lindsay would later say that he enjoyed the sentimentalism of Chariots of Fire. While Anderson’s actors in his cinema want to break down the class system, in Chariots of Fire, one man, Norman Abrahams, wants to break into the establishment and feels hampered by his Jewish background – although he remains proud of it. The other, a Scottish missionary, has no interest in the establishment or its rules, and only wishes to serve God. He runs to feel God’s pleasure.

Directly or indirectly, the film represented some of the Thatcher era’s values, with its themes of careers open to talent, individual effort, and strong competition. Abrahams uses sport to break into British society, by excelling at running. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In this new class system, talent will provide entry to the upper echelons.While not as flexible as American or Australian society, the British establishment was not rigid.  The British could always absorb talent into its hierarchy, regardless of origins. Benjamin Disraeli, who became a Prime Minister twice, was from a Jewish family. The current Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a tobacconist, and a woman and the system absorbed her talent, and she rose to the top. Such flexibility has always been an aspect of the British system. When it is announced at the end of the film that Abrahams became the elder statesman of British athletics, it should have come as no surprise.

Liddell is passionately connected to the community, and when the Olympics are over, he returns to his missionary work in China. He is not a figure of the Thatcherite period where the message is– there is no such thing as society. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

But the figure of Liddell is a counterweight against these Thatcherite messages. Liddell feels “God’s pleasure” when he runs. He does not run for some “tin cups” and gains more joy from distributing prices at a charity race to children. Liddell is passionately connected to the community, and when the Olympics are over, he returns to his missionary work in China. He is not a figure of the Thatcherite period – with its message of “there is no such thing as society.” Most of the film’s political critics focus on Abrahams, but a counter message is there. This film is also about a man who will stare down the British establishment to address his moral concerns. By only examining one part of the film, critics have overlooked some strong messages about working for the community and less fortunate. Chariots of Fire is a complex and multifaceted film. Just looking at it with a political lens limits the appreciation of it.

[1] 2 Kings 2:11 King James Edition.

[2] Ellis Cashmore (2008) Chariots of Fire: bigotry, manhood and moral certitude in an age of individualism, Sport in Society, 11:2-3, 159-173, DOI: 10.1080/17430430701823406. Other views are contained in Claire Monk. “The British ‘heritage Film’ and Its Critics.” Critical Survey 7, no. 2 (1995): 116-24. Accessed October 2, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41555905.

[3] Andrew Pulver, “The films that defined the Thatcher era,” The Guardian, 9 April 2013, accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/apr/08/margaret-thatcher-films-defined-era on 2 October 2020.

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/sportscotland/asportingnation/article/0019/