This is a beautiful film, well directed by Hugh Hudson in his theatrical film debut. It features the true life story of two Olympic runners, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), who ran for Great Britain in the 1924 Olympic Games and brought home the Gold.
The film tells the story of these two individuals, who are as different from each other as different can be, and explores their personal drive and reasons for running. Eric Liddell is a staunch Scot and a fervid Presbyterian (He would put John Knox to shame!). The son of a missionary and himself a missionary by avocation, he runs because "God made him fast for a reason". His running is a reconciliation of his faith and his passion, which is running. He runs for the glory of God. His faith always remains constant and pre-eminent in his life. His devotion to it causes some controversy during the Olympics, as a consequence of the stance he takes when he discovers that the preliminary mete for the 200 metre race would be held on a Sunday. Liddell simply refuses to run on the Sabbath! Luckily for Great Britain, Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), a gentleman and fellow competitor, graciously steps in and, as he had already won a gold medal in the hurdles, gives him his place in the 400 metre dash, which would take place on a Thursday. This would never happen today in the dog eat dog world of competitive sports, much less in the Olympics of today!
Harold Abrahams is completely different. A secular Jew and Cambridge scholar, he studies in the bastion of upper crust British society, struggling to fit in but always remaining the proverbial outsider. He has a passion for running that is motivated by his passion for winning. In his world, God has nothing to do with it. Winning is merely an affirmation of himself in a world that he believes thinks less of him because he is a Jew. Consequently, his desire to win is superceded only by his fear of losing. When two Cambridge dons, the Master of Trinity, played by the late John Gielgud, along with the Master of Caius, meet with Abrahams, they are concerned that his hiring of a personal professional trainer, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), to help him with his running is not quite in keeping with the amateur tradition of the Cambridge gentleman. Implicit in their criticism is an undercurrent of anti-Semitism, one to which Abrahams does not take kindly. It is that moment that defines what makes Abrahams run.
This is ultimately a story about faith. With Liddell, it is about his faith in God. With Abrahams, it is about his faith in himself. Both were propelled to Olympic glory by it. It is a story sublimely told, though a little slow at times. It is not an action type of sports movie. It speaks gently of a time long passed, when the Olympics was truly the bastion of amateurs. It is amazing to see track events of the Olympics of 1924 depicted in all their simplicity...no flash, no glitz, no gimmicks. The runners ran on dirt tracks. They all carried spades in which to dig their footholds for their starting "blocks", something that surprised me. This attention to detail permeates the entire film, and its evocation of a bygone era makes the film linger in one's memory long after it has ended.
Ian Charleson gives a notable performances as Eric Liddell, infusing him with a gentleness and purity of spirit that is compelling, while Ben Cross plays Harold Abrahams with an intensity and singularity of purpose that is riveting. Their stellar performances, as well as those given by the excellent supporting cast, coupled with exquisite cinematography and the excellent direction of Hugh Hudson, make this film worthy of its 1981 Academy Award for Best Picture. The beautiful and soaring, synthesized music of Vangelis also won an Academy Award and went on to become a number one hit in the pop charts in 1982.