‘I thought it would be a tinpot movie’: myths and reality of Chariots of Fire and the 1924 Olympics

<span>Director Hugh Hudson, the real and film version of Harold Abrahams winning the 100m at the 1924 Paris Olympics, the blue plaque in Broadstairs, Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell.</span><span>Composite: Alamy, Shutterstock</span>
Director Hugh Hudson, the real and film version of Harold Abrahams winning the 100m at the 1924 Paris Olympics, the blue plaque in Broadstairs, Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell.Composite: Alamy, Shutterstock

It takes a bit of finding, but on the front of the old Carlton hotel in the sleepy seaside town of Broadstairs hangs a blue plaque. It’s an apartment block these days, but it marks the spot where some of the British team stayed and trained before embarking on their trip to the Paris Olympics almost 100 years ago.

More obvious is the confusion on the faces of the folk who stop and read it, desperately trying to reconcile their view of nearby Viking Bay and their memories of the opening scene from the old movie Chariots of Fire, where the cast splash along the surf to the soaring electronic score of Vangelis.

That’s because it was filmed 500 miles away in Scotland – next to the 18th hole of the Old Course, at St Andrews, to be precise – and as the Paris Games of 2024 approach it provides a passable excuse to look back at one of Britain’s favourite movies and some of the other liberties it took with what really happened in those halcyon Olympic days.

Chariots of Fire was shot in three months and, despite its low budget, became a huge success when it was released in March 1981, winning four Oscars, including best picture and best original screenplay. When the British Film Institute compiled its 100 greatest British films of all time in 1999 it made the top 20. Filmed for £4m, it made more than £50m worldwide and even marked the big-screen debut, albeit uncredited, of Kenneth Branagh.

David Puttnam, the producer, began planning the film after reading the story of Eric Liddell, the devout Scottish Christian who refused to run on a Sunday and during the second world war died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in China, where he had been working as a missionary.

Originally it was supposed to feature three British stories: Liddell, his fellow sprinter Harold Abrahams and the middle-distance star Douglas Lowe. But Lowe, then a retired judge in his late 70s, refused to have anything to do with it. Strangely, he died on the day the film was premiered.

Cambridge University took a similar view, refusing permission to film the famed Great Court Run around the Trinity College quad, so director Hugh Hudson took his crew off to shoot at his old school at Eton. In the film, Abrahams became the first man to crack the quad before the college bell chimes twelve. In real life he never attempted it. It was achieved for the first time in 1927 by Lord Burghley, who also didn’t fancy being involved in the film and was hastily substituted by Nigel Havers’ invented character, Lord Linsey, the smiling toff who trained by placing glasses of champagne on his hurdles in the rolling grounds of his estate. For the real “Leaping Lord”, it was matchboxes.

In the film an Oxford student from New Zealand called Tom Watson takes the bronze medal in the 100m. That was actually Arthur, later Lord Porritt and surgeon to the royal family, who refused to allow his real name be used. He always regretted it.

“I thought it would be some tinpot film that wouldn’t do my friend Harold Abrahams or the Olympics any good and I didn’t want any part of it,” he said many years later. “How wrong I was!” For more than 50 years he and Abrahams met every year for dinner at the exact day and time of the 100m final. He always maintained that Abrahams’ prime motivation to win wasn’t his fight against antisemitism, one of the key tenets of the film, but to beat his two much older brothers, one an Olympic athlete, the other an Olympic doctor.

In addition, Abrahams didn’t meet his wife, Sybil, until the mid-1930s, a fact conceded by screenwriter Colin Welland, who argued it was no good for the story if one of his main heroes fell in love after the film had finished.

And remember that tense AAAs 100 yards clash between Liddell and Abrahams? “I don’t run to take beatings, I run to win.It didn’t happen. They never faced each other over the short sprint distance, meeting just twice; in a AAAs heat over 220 yards (which Liddell won) and also the final of the 200m in Paris, in which Liddell claimed bronze and Abrahams came last.

The famous scene in the film where Liddell is boarding the boat for France and a journalist asks about his chances in the 100m heats on Sunday is also complete hokum. Liddell knew the Olympic schedule months earlier and almost immediately announced his intention not to run in the 100m. He then trained specifically for the 200m and 400m and didn’t run in either of the relays because they were held on a Sunday.

The athletics events at the 1924 Games were staged at Stades Colombes, about six miles north of the Eiffel Tower, and now known as the Stades Yve-du-Manoir, after an aristocratic French rugby star, who was killed in an air crash at the age of 24. The revamped stadium will be a field hockey venue this summer, the only location used at both the 1924 and 2024 Games. The film budget wouldn’t run to shooting in France, so Chariots of Fire produced its athletics sequences at the Oval Sports Leisure Centre in Bebington, a short ferry ride from Liverpool, and an enduring source of pride for any natives of the Wirral peninsula.

Against the odds Abrahams beat the fancied American stars Charley Paddock, Jackson Scholz and Chester Bowman to win the 100m final. Shortly before his death Scholz was asked if he remembered Abrahams. He replied: “I remember his ass.”

The Americans also underestimated Liddell. The favourite Horatio Fitch, who had broken the Olympic record in the semi-finals, was told by his US coaches that Liddell would go out fast and tie up in the final 50m. He didn’t.

At the start of the 400m final the film sees Scholz hand Eric Liddell a note with a biblical reference – “It says in the good book, ‘He who honours me, I will honour.”

It’s true that Liddell did receive such a note before going on to win gold and break the Olympic record, but it arrived at the stadium from one of the British team masseurs. Welland claimed he had asked Scholz if he was OK with them changing the story and said the old sprinter agreed so long as it made him look good.

Scholz spent the rest of his life (he died in 1987) fending off a trail of waifs and strays who found their way to his home pleading for guidance. Scholz said he never watched the film, not because of that scene per se, but because they mispronounced his name. It was a soft Shoals, not a hard Schulz.

But it didn’t stop him raking in a few bucks starring as himself in an American Express commercial alongside Ben Cross, who played Abrahams.

Puttnam had a torrid time securing the funding for the film, then casting and shooting, and by the time it premiered Abrahams had been dead nearly three years. When he was initially approached he’d been flattered by the idea of a film, but the general consensus now is that the old flyer, an old-school stickler for detail, would have baulked at the factual inaccuracies.

In any event the film was a huge hit and was re-released in 2012 to mark the London Olympics. There was even a stage version in London’s West End.

In his 1981 review, the Observer film critic Philip French astutely described it thus: “The producers of Chariots of Fire are too deeply in love with the period trappings and their graceful, innocent heroes, truly to confront the way in which the British amateur tradition rested on gross social inequality, or to accept that the corruption of values their film, by implication, records was the inevitable consequence of the democratisation of sport. But this should not take away from the fact that they have made an immensely attractive, oddly moving and immaculately acted picture, which has generosity and warmth that rarely stray into sentimentality.”

At the Academy Awards of 1982, with seven Oscar nominations, Welland claimed his best screenwriter gong and exclaimed to the Hollywood gathering: “What you’ve done for the British film industry!” Then boomed: “The British are coming.”

That didn’t happen either.

  • Harry Edward’s lost memoir When I Passed the Statue of Liberty I Became Black, edited by Neil Duncanson, is the story of Britain’s first black Olympic medallist and is published by Yale University Press.