"Liberty's too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: 'I'm free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn't, I can, and my children will.' Boys ought to grow up remembering that." - Jefferson Smith (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington)
I hosted a movie night at my place last night; we watched Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. My goodness, it's a great film, and it'd been 'way too long since I watched it. Jimmy Stewart is wonderful in the title role, and I love Jean Arthur as Clarissa Saunders, too. I'm generally not a sentimental person, but the above scene at the Lincoln Memorial gets me every time.
Full disclosure: I don't like sports movies for the most part. I can count on one hand the number of sports-themed films that I actually enjoy. The reason for this is that most of them are almost exactly the same, or follow the same pattern... a group of misfits or losers forms a team, originally don't get along and do poorly, then learn to work together and become a winning team- woohoo. Chariots Of Fire, however, is different. The film is about striving to win at the Olympic Games, but it has other, deeper themes. Chariots is based on the true stories of British runners Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams though, of course, some changes have been made, and timelines moved about to increase the drama. For instance, Eric didn't actually just learn that his heat was on Sunday on his way over to Paris on the ship. He actually found out a couple of months before, which gave him a bit of time- though not much- to train for the 400m. Also, the note he was given right before his race was in reality written by some members of the British team, not by Jackson Scholz, but whatever... little changes like this don't bother me. Although there is one change which was made in the historical account which burns my grits, mostly because of the reason it was made.
As the film is an historical one, all the names of the characters involved are factual- except for one: Lord Andrew Lindsay. His character is a replacement for the real-life Lord David Bughley, who refused to let his name be used in the film. The reason for this was the change that was made to the Great Court Run which occurs early in the movie. In actual fact, it was Bughley who became the first student to beat the clock, but the film has Harold Abrahams win. This change was not made for dramatic reasons: apparently, the producer David Puttnam was an ardent socialist and didn't want to show a British Lord winning the race. I could make a snarky comment here about socialists' interpretation of history being on par with their grasp of economics, but I won't...
As I said, I understand that historical events frequently get tweaked in film, but to deliberately commit inaccuracy like this for no other reason than you can't get over your political bias is a jerk move. Not to mention hypocritical... in the nineties, David Puttnam accepted a peerage and became Lord Puttnam of Queensgate. I guess it was O.K. for him, because his heart was pure. Okay... dialing back the sarcasm now, because I really do like this film, and there's a lot that it gets right.
Chariots Of Fire takes place in the years immediately following the Great War. This plays a role in the way events unfold. The War is referenced in the first part of the film in a couple of ways. At the train station, one of the baggage handlers has terrible facial injuries, which are obviously the result of war wounds. Then, in the hall at Cambridge, one wall is inscribed with the names of the former students who died in the war. The list takes up most of the wall, and it is a grim reminder that an entire generation of youth and promise has been decimated. The Dean exhorts the new class to endeavor to excel in all things, striving to be worthy successors of those who have gone before.
When the British Olympic committee attempts to bully a recalcitrant Liddell into running on Sunday, Lord Cadogan harrumphs that, "In my day it was King first and God after." The Duke of Sutherland, whose sympathies lie with Eric, snaps back, "Yes, and the War To End Wars bitterly proved your point." Later he suggests that the reason they so badly want Eric to win is to salve "a guilty national pride." These comments hint at the deep scars which the War has left on the British national psyche. The old guard is desperate to build up the shaken confidence and pride of the British people, which is the real reason why the committee is hoping for a strong showing at the Games. This is also why the deans at Cambridge seem so out of touch: they are attempting to keep everything at the school unchanged, as it has been for time immemorial. But the War has driven a huge wedge between what was and what is now, and Harold isn't wrong when he accuses them of being hidebound and living in the past.
Chariots Of Fire makes good use of foreshadowing; early in the film Eric and Jenny are walking home from church when a couple of boys playing ball barrel into them. Eric gently scolds the lads for playing sports on Sunday, and this presages the dilemma which Liddell is going to face later in the narrative. Having preached the necessity of keeping the Lord's day sacred, what will he choose himself when his Olympic dream is the price of doing so?
Another example of this foreshadowing is when Sam and Harold are studying Eric's running style. Sam tells Harold that, with training, he can beat Liddell. He says that though Eric is fast, in his opinion he isn't a natural sprinter and would be more suited for running longer distances. His words come to mind when Eric ends up in the 400m race in Paris. O.K., it's getting late and I think I've rambled on enough for one post. In Part II, I'll discuss Eric's and Harold's characters in more depth and also what, in my opinion, are the themes contained in the film.
At the end of Chariots of Fire, at Harold Abrahams' funeral, a choir sings the anthem "Jerusalem" the lyrics of which are the words of William Blake's 1808 poem, And did those feet in ancient times. The music for it was written in 1916 by Sir Hubert Parry.
And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England's mountains green? And was the holy Lamb of God On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine Shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here Among these dark Satanic mills?
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.
The poem refers to some Arthurian legends from the medieval period which stated that Jesus, at some point during his unknown years, visited England- specifically Glastonbury- in the company of Joseph of Arimathea. Blake stops short of saying that he believes these legends; rather, he couches his ideas in the form of questions: "And did those feet in ancient time...?" These questions continue into the second stanza, when Blake asks, "And was Jerusalem builded here/ Among these dark Satanic mills?" Jerusalem- the Holy City- is obviously being used here as a metaphor for Heaven. What is slightly less certain is what he was referring to in the phrase, "dark Satanic mills". This is frequently interpreted as a critique by Blake of the factories of the early days of the Industrial Revolution, of which he was an outspoken critic. I don't personally think that this was what he was talking about, for a couple of reasons.
To begin with, the mills obviously wouldn't have been in existence at the time of Jesus' apocryphal visit. In addition, this poem is actually found in the preface for his much longer poem, Milton: A Poem. In that work, Blake refers several times to Satan's mills, and he's clearly not talking about factories.
Because the first of these references appears with an illustration of megaliths, some hypothesize that Blake is writing of pre-Christian England's druidic religion as represented by places like Stonehenge. Illustrations aside, however, Blake's words often seem to be referring to something more abstract or conceptual than concrete. For example, "the starry Mills of Satan/ Are built beneath the earth and waters of the Mundane Shell... To Mortals thy Mills seem everything, and the Harrow of Shaddai/ a scheme of human conduct invisible and incomprehensible." There is an expression which has existed, in some form or another, since at least the first century A.D., when Plutarch used it in his Moralia: On The Delay Of Divine Vengeance: "the mills of the gods grind late...". The idea is that divine retribution may be slow in coming, but that it always occurs. Later, in the Christian era, this meaning was expanded to include the plans or will of God, for example, as Longfellow expressed it: "Though the mills of God grind slowly/ Yet they grind exceeding small/ Though with patience He stands waiting/ With exactness He grinds all." I think it possible that Blake is, with his "Dark, Satanic Mills" is referring to the opposite of this- the plans or schemes of Satan, as opposed to those of the Almighty (Shaddai). Or maybe I'm completely off base; you decide.
Blake's "chariot of fire" obviously references the Biblical account of Isaiah being taken to Heaven in a fiery chariot, but the term has also become synonymous with divine energy, from which the film Chariots of Fire gets its name. Indeed, in the movie, Eric Liddell preaches on the text of Isaiah 40:31, which describes the strength given to those who follow the Lord: "... they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint." William Blake is evidently hoping to channel this energy to accomplish his stated aim. As, in legend, Jerusalem/heaven on earth existed briefly in Britain due to the presence of Jesus, Blake desires that people work toward a better society and country, to establish a new "Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land."
William Blake's little poem wasn't an immediate hit; it lingered in obscurity for close to a century. This changed when it was included in The Spirit of Man, an anthology of patriotic verse which was published in 1916, during the dark days of W.W. I when morale was flagging. Blake's poem seemed to articulate what Britain was fighting for, and so the compiler Robert Bridges asked composer Hubert Parry to set it to music for a Fight For Right campaign meeting, to "brace the spirit of the nation". Bridges further asked that the music Parry wrote be, "suitable, simple music that an audience could take up and join in." Obviously, Parry succeeded marvelously well.
Little known fact: England doesn't have an official national anthem. God Save The Queen is the anthem of Great Britain and the Commonwealth as a whole. Thus, at a lot of sporting events- especially rugby and cricket- Jerusalem is used as the anthem for the English teams, since they're often facing opponents from other parts of Britain. Talk has floated around for years about formally adopting the song as England's anthem... King George V himself said that he preferred it to God Save The King. In the wake of Brexit, this suggestion has taken on more weight, so I guess we'll see. In the meantime, it's a stirring anthem which has the power to move me to tears.
"A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called "leaves") imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time- proof that humans can work magic." -Carl Sagan
The illustration appearing here is from a scene in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. Prisoners in the Castle of Torquilstone, Rebecca is nursing a wounded Ivanhoe back to health when the castle comes under siege. She stands in the window giving the bed-ridden knight an account of the battle.
After the race, Aubrey is confused that Harold, who has been totally focused on winning for so long, doesn't seem very happy about it. Harold and Sam go out to a bar that evening and get drunk. Sam is happy and triumphant, if inebriated, but Harold seems almost... lost, as if he doesn't know what to do now that he's achieved the goal he'd been striving for for so long. Among his drunken ramblings, Sam actually gives Harold some good advice- he tells him that, now that he has it out of his system, he should go home to his girl and start living.
On the day of Eric's race, he once again startles his opponents by walking along the track and shaking hands with each of them. The American sprinter Jackson Scholz quietly advises his teammate who is running in this race to watch out for Liddell. The racer is surprised: he protests that their coach told him not to worry about the British runner, who isn't running in his own event and will probably fade around the 300m mark. Scholz says that Liddell has a motivation which their coach will never understand, and that he has something to prove. Eric takes his place in the outside lane, and Scholz walks up to him, thrusts a piece of paper into his hand, then quickly walks away again. Eric unfolds it and reads: "It says in the old Book, 'He that honors me, I will honor.' Good luck." As Eric crouches in preparation for the start of the race, he wraps his hand around the paper and, as the pistol sounds, runs the race with the note clutched in his fist. As Eric runs, we hear again the words which he spoke to his sister Jenny long before- that God had made him fast, and that when he runs, he feels God's pleasure. And, rather than fading during the last half of the race, we see Eric tip back his head, which those familiar with his running style recognize as the moment in the race when he calls upon his inner reserves and pours on the speed. As he pulls into the lead, we see Harold in the stands with the rest of the British team; he has a look of wonder on his face as he observes the expression on Eric's- one of exultation in the race, and his speed in it.
Eric streaks across the finish line, winning the 400m, and the arena erupts in cheers. The British team, including Harold, rushes down to the track and carries Eric off on their shoulders. When the British Olympic team returns to England, they are met with cheering crowds. Sibyl is there to meet Harold; the two of them gaze at each other, then embrace. At this point, the film returns to Harold Abrahams' funeral so many years later. As it comes to an end, the last two surviving members of the team, Lord Lindsay and Aubrey Montague, walk away together, and scrolling text fills us in on what became of Harold and Eric following the 1924 Olympics. Harold married Sybil, and became the elder statesman of British athletics. Eric returned to China as a missionary, and died in a Japanese prison camp there during W.W. II. The film closes as it opened, with the scene of the 1924 Olympic team running in the surf along the beach.