You cannot go around making movies about every act of Scottish stubbornness. There is not enough celluloid. But some Britons have made a dandy movie about one such act, and the popularity of the movie is a reason for thinking, against ample evidence, that all is not lost in the field of popular entertainment. 'Tis the season for grasping at straws, so I choose to celebrate the commercial success of a movie about Eric Liddell.
"Chariots of Fire" concerns two British sprinters, Liddell and Harold Abrahams, en route to the 1924 Olympics. Abrahams, a Cambridge undergraduate, was the son of a Lithuanian Jew who prospered in Britain. Abrahams saw running for his nation as a route to social acceptance.
Liddell, the son of Scottish missionaries, was born in China (where he died in a Japanese internment camp in 1945). His sister believed the Olympics were a worldly distraction, an unworthy reason for delaying his departure for China.
He, however, argued: "God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast." He believed it would be an act of devotion to develop his gift-- perhaps even an impiety not to do so. However, on the eve of the Olympics he learned that his heat in the 100 meters was scheduled for a Sunday, and he refused to run on the Sabbath.
Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers, like Hank Greenberg of the Tigers before him, would not play in the World Series on Yom Kippur. But the Olympics generate nationalist passions, and Liddell was denounced as a traitor to his country and subjected to extraordinary pressures.
At one point in the movie, Liddell is ushered into the less-than-majestic presence of the Prince of Wales, and there lectured on his duty to run on Sunday. The prince who would later abdicate for Mrs. Simpson was not just an unconvincing moral tutor. He was (in the words the Kaiser--the Prince's relative--used to describe a minister of the prince's great-grandmother, Victoria) an unmitigated noodle. But not even a mitigated noodle would have availed against Liddell. I shall not reveal the outcome, but be assured it will not cast a pall over your Christmas.
I have said my share (and perhaps a lot of other persons' shares) of hard things about the coarsening glop that comprises so much popular entertainment. It is, therefore, an agreeable conjunction of duty and pleasure to note that this year there have been some movies that sensitive persons could see without wincing.
Such is the virtuosity of movie-makers nowadays that they could please the eye with 100 minutes of film about the joys and tribulations of a cauliflower. But there are movies for the mind, too.
Someone has said that you can date the beginning of the decline of the West from when we began calling movies "films" and accepted the axiom that foreign films are always better. But foreigners are making better movies--better than most American movies, and better than the angst-in-Milan variety (black coffee, black turtlenecks, black moods)--that made it so tiresome keeping culturally current in the 1950s and 1960s. Today's best are "Stevie" (British) and "Gallipoli" and "Breaker Morant" (Australian).
The producer of "Chariots of Fire" says he was looking for a story like "A Man for All Seasons," about someone like Thomas More who does something inexpedient.
The title is drawn from Blake:
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.
It is from "Young Men of the New Age." The arts cannot bring on a new age, but a noble character stirringly portrayed can shape the characters of those who are stirred.
A recent biographer of Liddell notes that a poet as Scottish as a thistle (Burns) said that a simple man is "a problem that puzzles the devil." Sancta simplicitas--sacred simplicity-- can be so monochromatic that it provokes sympathy for the devil.
Conceivably Liddell was a goodie-two-shoes. He may have been less than ideal as a dinner partner, or on other occasions when effervescence was more looked for than solidness. And surely some leveling researcher has discovered hypocrisy or other secret sin. No, all who knew him said otherwise. So we must face the awkward fact that he was as he is portrayed in "Chariots of Fire": heroic.
That is awkward because if one cannot believe in universal clay-footedness, there goes the creed of a cynical age.