Britain's 1924 Olympic Champs Live Again in 'chariots of Fire'—and Run Away with the Oscars
Warren Beatty wasn’t the only one surprised when Chariots of Fire finished ahead of his megabudget Reds as 1982’s Oscar-winning Best Picture. Made for a scant $6 million, the uplifting story of England’s 1924 Olympic heroes was an Oscar long shot and an even bigger box office gamble whose gross is now some $42 million. But then Chariots of Fire (the name is taken from a William Blake poem) is about winning against the odds through courage, discipline and character. Most of Chariots’ Olympians have died in the nearly 60 years since their youthful triumphs, but PEOPLE correspondents have sought out surviving runners and the descendants of the others to continue the fascinating story that Chariots of Fire began.
The cream of Cambridge
Harold Abrahams, the intense Cantabrigian whose upset victory in the 100 meters earned him the traditional title “world’s fastest human,” retired from competition in 1925 after he broke his leg in a fall while demonstrating his athletic prowess for photographers. He went on to become a lawyer, as well as one of England’s leading sports correspondents (the Sunday Times) and chairman of the British Amateur Athletic Board. Born into a well-to-do Lithuanian Jewish family, Abrahams was by all accounts a gregarious type and hardly as concerned with anti-Semitism as his film portrayal suggests. He was known to enjoy an occasional cigar and glass of ale during training. Although he did marry singer Sybil Gordon (played in the film by Alice Krige), they actually didn’t meet until 10 years after the Paris Olympics. Abrahams, who died in 1978 (Sybil died in 1963), became obsessed with statistics in later life and habitually timed everything from Wimbledon tennis rallies to after-dinner speeches. That avocation eventually gave Abrahams another footnote in history: He was a timekeeper for Roger Bannister’s historic four-minute mile in 1954.
The flying Scotsman
Eric Liddell was every bit the “muscular Christian” portrayed in Chariots. Born in China, where his Scottish father had been a Congregationalist missionary, Liddell was a senior at Edinburgh University when he joined the 1924 Olympic team. Soon after his victory in the 400 meters, Liddell returned to China to teach science and athletics at the Anglo-Chinese college in Tianjin. He married a missionary’s daughter, who was a nurse, in 1934 and became increasingly committed to evangelistic work in the Chinese back country. Sometime after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, his pregnant wife, Florence, and two daughters were evacuated to Canada while Liddell continued his missionary work. Arrested by the Japanese in 1941, he died in an internment camp in February 1945 and, as the film notes, was mourned in Scotland as a national hero. Florence, now 70 and remarried, lives in Binbrook, Ontario. Liddell’s sister, Jenny, who appears in the film as her brother’s religious conscience, lives near Edinburgh. Jenny, 78, enjoyed the film but has a quibble: “I was never against Eric’s running, and I wasn’t actually at the Paris Olympics. I was in China at the time.” The film depicted her brother as more somber than he was, Jenny says, but it caught his spirit well.
The lord of the hurdles
Many feel Chariots’ aristocratic “Lord Andrew Lindsay” is based on Lord Burghley, later the Marquess of Exeter, who won the 1928 Olympics’ 400-meter hurdles. He was called “the only athlete who can look at 35 Rembrandts in his own home, then jog through 40,000 acres without leaving his own domain.” Burghley, who died last year at 76, reportedly refused to see the film because it shows Abrahams and Lindsay in the traditional race around a Cambridge courtyard. Actually, Lord Burghley made the run alone and broke the record. Later a brass plate on the liner Queen Mary recorded his dash around its quarter-mile promenade deck in 58 seconds—dressed in white tie and tails. And when he had an artificial hip joint replaced in 1970, he made the original device a radiator ornament for his Rolls-Royce.
The American favorite
American runner Jackson Scholz, one of the few surviving 1924 Olympians, now lives in Delray Beach, Fla. Scholz, 85, won the gold in the 200 meters and the silver behind Abrahams in the 100 meters. He recalls meeting the British runner but never knew him. As for the Chariots scene that shows Scholz passing a biblical note to Scotsman Eric Liddell before the start of the 400 meters, Scholz says it never happened. “It’s perfectly ridiculous, but that part boosted the script.” Following the Olympics, Scholz became a writer, publishing some 31 sports novels. Although he and Phyllis, his wife of 42 years, haven’t seen the film, he has been swamped with mail, some asking for religious inspiration. “I’m afraid,” he says with a laugh, “that it gave a rather odd impression of me. My religious background was rather casual. And I was the laziest athlete who ever ran a race.”
Abrahams’ private coach
An athletic trainer since before World War I, Scipio Africanus Mussabini (he took the name Sam from his initials) became Abrahams’ private coach for the Paris Games. Of Italian and French extraction, he devoted his life to working with runners and writing books on athletics. He was, as the film suggests, one of the early students of the sport’s technical side and took films of animals running for frame-by-frame analysis. Lord Porritt, now 81 and the model for Chariots’ New Zealand runner “Tom Watson,” later hired Sam as well. “He took all the fun out of athletics for me, but he did make a runner of me,” Lord Porritt remembers. “Every step was fixed to the inch.” Mussabini died at 64 in 1927. Among his possessions was a photo of Abrahams breaking the tape in the 100 meters, with the inscription, “To S.A.M., in memory of nine months together…”
Chariots’ unlikely narrator
The beginning of Chariots of Fire focuses on Harold Abrahams and Aubrey Montague, two students who become friends during their first year at Cambridge. In reality their relationship was quite different. While Abrahams did attend Cambridge, Evelyn Aubrey Montague (he was known as Evelyn) went to Oxford. Far from being friends, they were sporting rivals. “Cambridge won,” Montague (the son of novelist C.E. Montague) wrote his mother after an Oxford-Cambridge race. “They chaired [carried] Harold Abrahams from the track, and I was just waiting for them to drop him on his arse.” Montague made the 1924 Olympic team and placed sixth in the steeplechase, never receiving the fanfare awarded his fellows. But some years after the Games, when Montague and Abrahams were active on athletics boards, they became fast friends. Abrahams, in fact, became the godfather of Montague’s only child.
After the Paris Olympics, Montague went into newspaper journalism, married in 1932, and became a distinguished war correspondent during World War II. He died in 1948 from the effects of tuberculosis contracted during the Italian campaign. But Evelyn was to play a vital, if unwitting, role in the making of Chariots of Fire. He had written letters to his mother describing his training and the Olympic competition. His son, Andy, now 46, inherited them and several years ago, after reading an article in a London newspaper about the proposed film, he offered them to the filmmakers. Screenwriter Colin Welland, taken with the letters’ spirit and their romantic attitude toward sports, used them, and their author, as a means to introduce and connect scenes from those long-faded days.