This is a movie many of us have seen at least once in our lives and all of us probably recognize the theme song. "Oh, yes, the running movie!" is a comment often heard regarding this film. Yes, it is a running movie, but also so much more.
When I first saw this listing in A Gracious Home's Carnival of Beauty list for 2007 I was intrigued. I wondered how turn out would be for a film that we are all basically familiar with, but may have not seen in quite some time. I saw it for the first time in the movie theater when it was released in 1981. I was nine years old and our entire family went together. I remember enjoying it, but not really getting it all.
"Chariots of Fire" won four Academy Awards that year including Best Picture and Best Soundtrack. Even now, when I hear the them song I immediately picture the men in white running down the beach. I love the look of pure joy on Eric Liddell's face as he runs.
For those of you who may not remember the details, "Chariots of Fire" is based on the true stories of two runners who were competing for Britain's Team for 1924 Olympics in Paris and the trials they face along the way.
One of the runners, Harold Abrahams, is a British runner who is Jewish. The other runner, is Eric Liddell, who is a Scottish Christian. Abrahams struggle is over anti-Semitism as he runs to show that Jews are equal. Liddell's test comes when he discovers that the trials for the race he's qualified for and expected to win, the 100 meter, fall on Sunday. As a Christian he had already committed to not running on Sundays to honor the Sabbath.
Both men's characters are shown as the film progresses. They are both able to triumph in their own ways. Abraham did not let the growing anti-Semitism stop him. Liddell stood up for his convictions and did not bow to the extreme pressure he faced to run on the Sunday. Abraham did win the gold for the 100 meters at the Olympics and Liddell unexpectedly won the gold in the 400 and set a new world record for the run.
Imagine, your entire country counting on you to run and win the Olympics for them. Imagine, standing strong no matter what the pressure. Imagine, winning what you were never expected to win. Did God honor Eric's honoring of Him? Yes. Will we all be honored in this life when we stand strong for Christ? Probably not, but the promise is there that we will be rewarded in the end. Did Eric think that God owed him the gold? No.
To me, the true beauty of "Chariots of Fire" comes, not from the movie itself, but from the life of Eric Liddell. While the movie ends just after the Olympics, Eric's life continued on. He could have chose to live in Britain with all the honor and glory of being an Olympic champion, but he did not. He story was just beginning.
To understand Eric Liddell's conviction about the Sabbath one needs to know more about his life. The more I learned about Eric the more I discovered that his choice not to run that day was simply born out of all the days he lived before and simply, who he chose to be.
Eric, though a Scotsman, was not born in Scotland. He was actually born in Tianjin, China to Scottish missionaries. He was raised for the first five years in China. When he was six years old he and his brother, Rob, who was eight began boarding school in Scotland and was the tradition of missionaries back then. It was back in Scotland that both Eric and his brother became known for their athletic ability and strong character. He continued living in Scotland throughout his schooling.
His skill in running, cricket and rugby made him well known in Scotland and he began speaking about his faith in Christ at gatherings after athletic events. His popularity drew crowds and he was able to share the Gospel with many people, especially men, who might not have attended a church service, but enjoyed watching the competitions and would stay to listen to Eric share.
He graduated from the university just after the Olympics. After his graduation he chose not to remain as a celebrity in Scotland, but instead moved back to Tianjin, China. It was there in Tianjin and Xiaochang that he worked for many years as a teacher. In Tianjin, he worked at the Anglo-Chinese College. This was not a college as we think, but was for first through twelwth grades. He taught a variety of things including sports to the Chinese boys.
He continued to live his life in China. He married Florence Mackenzie and together they had three daughters. However, times grew even more difficult in China as World War 2 progressed. The Japanese had been fighting and taking over parts of China for many years. The British government told its citizens to leave China. Florence and the girls did, returning to Canada, where her family was from, but Eric chose to remain. In 1943 he, along with the remaining British, Canadian, and American citizens were rounded up by the Japanese and sent to interment camps.
These Japanese internment camps were horrid. The conditions, though obviously not as awful as the Nazi internment camps, were really bad. Those interned suffered greatly. Eric quickly became a leader in the camp trying to improve conditions as he could. He organized the people in ways to help with the meager resources they had. He also taught and entertained the children as best he could. He was often called Uncle Eric by the children who adored him .
It was in the Weihsein camp in 1945 that Eric Liddell died. It is believed that he died of a brain tumor. Since all of those interned suffered from malnutrition and working too hard, his body did not have the strength to fight the tumor. He was buried where he was born; serving God in China.
To me, the Beauty of "Chariots of Fire" is not the music, or the cinematography of the film, although both are excellent. It is the beauty of a life well-lived for Christ. Eric is known for the stand he took for Christ and for the Olympics, and yet those were merely steps along the way of a faithful life. Was he honored as he entered Heaven for his Olympic medals? No. I believe he was honored for the entirety of his life.
The verses from 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 seem to exemplify Eric Liddell's life:
"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize."
Yes, he won the prize at the Olympics, but he also won a greater prize, one that will last forever: eternal life with Christ! Well done, Eric, well done.
My favorite quote from the movie comes when Eric is talking to his sister and says, "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure."
God has made each of us for a purpose. He has also blessed us with a variety of gifts. We many not be fast, but there are things that we may do that no one else does. I want to use those gifts and feel His pleasure, don't you?
I had an incredible experience one morning when I was living in Tianjin, China, myself. I had been working as an English teacher in a Chinese elementary school for many months trying to share Christ as I could. This particular morning I was at a Chinese church service. After the service I was outside visiting with a few folks who wanted to talk to me. An elderly gentleman with a smile that shone so brightly came up and began to speak to me in English. After speaking a few moments he shared that his teacher had been none other than Eric Liddell. I got chills.
Here was a man, a Christian in communist China. One who had remained faithful.
This was sixty years after Eric's death, but his influence could still be felt through the life of this man standing before me. Amazing. I have no idea how old this man was, or when Eric had taught him, but here he was standing and talking to me.
It was such an encouragement to me as a teacher and as a Christian to see that our lives do truly live on in the effects that we have on those around us. I never got to lead anyone to Christ that year in China, but I still pray that the seeds I sowed in the hearts of my little students will one day grow into fruition. No one may remember Teacher Kimberly like the world remembers Eric Liddell, but maybe they will remember the love I shared with them, Christ's love.
Be encouraged today. Your life matters. And if you think about it, go watch "Chariots of Fire". It may seem a bit slow by today's movie standards, but it's a great story and one that should live on.
By the way, Janet and Geoff Benge have written a wonderful book for kids on Eric Liddell's life as part of their incredible Christian Heroes: Then and Now series. I've read it several times and enjoy it greatly. Also, there are many great sights out there on Eric Liddell's life if you are interested in more information. He is a hero of the faith for sure.