The earth splatters off their feet like chunks of dark chocolate. Their dirt-stained shoes and legs pumping, they glide into view; lungs straining against the prim white garments encasing their heaving chests, faces contorted with effort. Right at the edge of the cinder track, the milieu is startlingly bucolic. Green grass, heather and bramble adorned countryside stretches into the distance behind the dainty ladies and distinguished looking gentlemen lining the ropes. Grey clouds complete the picture, as if rendered meticulously by an artist’s brush than by nature. The runners advance languidly and loom larger, a pulsating symphony of strained muscles, limbs and torsos in cinematic slow motion. And oh, the music….
“I’m sorry to tell you this has no validity at all in the American marketplace because of the style and tone as well as the subject matter”, had read the curt letter David Puttnam received from Columbia Pictures in 1979. But Puttnam was a legendary hard case (as Columbia would discover during his brief, eventful and acrimonious tenure as the head of that very studio years later). He knew they were wrong. And in 1981, he was proven emphatically right. Chariots of Fire, his labor of love, would go on to universal acclaim and accolades, capturing the imagination of connoisseurs of good cinema across the globe.
“It’s an exceptional film, about some exceptional people” the New York Times was to marvel in their review of the film. And it was. The intimate story of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell that it narrated on an epic scale with a breathtaking mélange of poetic imagery, haunting music and superb acting would make it one of the most cherished motion pictures of all time. Yes, the story it told was extraordinary in itself and the images of the runners on the beach it burned onto the retina of movie watchers were memorable. But at its heart, it was a vignette of the power of human conviction and belief in a time of overt and covert bigotry. Unfolding in the most unlikely of settings for a film – the sprinter’s track – it chronicled the now celebrated story of the events leading up to the climactic finale on the track at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.
What is really interesting about the film is that it’s about the power of saying no. Every one of us, at some point in our lives, has wanted to say, or wished we had said, no to something and in a sense Eric does it for us.
If you want to take it further, and the reason it still resonates today, is that most of us are disturbed by the way the world’s going, the way in which we live, the way in which we’re encouraged to think… we all want to say no. And the film in a sense does it for us, and we walk out of the cinema feeling better about ourselves because someone said no on our behalf.
-David Puttnam, 2012
The devout Liddell’s refusal to run on the holy day of the Sabbath would cost him the chance to compete in the 100 meters final at the Olympic Stadium of Colmbes in Paris against Abrahams, his fierce rival and compatriot from Great Britain. And on July 7, 1924, Abrahams would sprint to Olympic glory, beating American star Jackson Scholz. The resolute Liddell would get his chance to run the following day, defeating Abrahams in the 200 meters and winning a bronze. And to top it all off, he would emerge victorious a few days later in an event he had never specialized in – the 400 meters – in record time.
Thus, the 100 meters sprint – the glamour event of the Olympics even back in 1924 – unfolded with the overwhelming favorite Liddell watching and cheering on his teammate from the stands. The stadium in Colombes was an impressive one, with a seating capacity of 45,000 and was brimming with spectators for the race. I have spent a lot of time thinking about that crowd. Almost as much as that race.
For in the midst of the screaming and shouting throng of spectators that day, his eyes intently focused on the runners and soaking up every inch of the track mastered by Abrahams in his push for victory was a very special man. The extraordinary events of Chariots of Fire had an extraordinary pair of eyes on them that day. The delicious coincidence of his presence has been a source of endless fascination to me forever now. Him being there seems very serendipitous. Almost karmic in a way.
I find that beyond all the brilliance and scholarship, when that fades, still as a man, he was shining. He was radiant, the aliveness of the world came through him. The vividness, the vivacity of it, the immediacy and warmth of him. The way the universe was alive for him, he could transmit that.
Scholar, writer, teacher, linguist, author, philosopher, mythologist, teller of stories, exceptional interpreter of stories, authority on comparative religions and medieval studies, Joycean and Jungian scholar – none or all of these descriptions collectively can do justice to aptly capture the essence of the man. Or the vastness of his reach. One of the most dazzling and original minds of the twentieth century whose intelligence, charm, warmth, erudition and radiant personality captured the imagination of millions of people across the globe, he was a true renaissance man. And behind his presence that day at Colombes lies another fascinating and less widely known aspect of his life.
Joseph Campbell was a sophomore at Columbia University in 1924. On holiday in Europe with his family, his trip to Paris had been carefully planned to coincide with the Olympic Games. This was his first trip to Europe and the experience would have far reaching impact on his life in the coming years. At Columbia, Campbell had been busy, immersed in his studies of Latin, French, Spanish, philosophy, literature, art and the sciences. He was an excellent saxophone and banjo player in addition to being very good at the piano and was a regular in bands that played in around the campus regularly. He was a superb swimmer, had dabbled with success in football before deciding to give it a pass after a broken nose.
Joseph Campbell is the most perfect embodiment of everything beautiful, fine and lovable in youth that I have ever known. Physically a perfect example of the youthful Anglo-Saxon – six feet in height, one hundred and eighty pounds of bone and muscle so perfectly distributed that he does not seem “big”; a splendid head crowned by thick, wavy, dark chestnut hair, eyes as blue as periwinkle; a fresh out-of-door complexion; the most perfect teeth ever seen – and a smile that would melt ice on the hardest rock! A personality that radiates health, physical and moral, intelligence and beauty. One of those rare beings on whom Nature bestowed every good gift – and then smiled at her handiwork.
-Herbert King Stone
And then, there was his running.
Campbell had caught the eye of the track coaches at Columbia who had immediately spotted a natural in the young man running just to stay in shape. The supremely athletic Campbell turned out be a gifted runner (“never did like to have anyone in front” he would confess) and it was not long before he was the star of the university track team. Columbia, which had long languished in the lower rungs of the inter-collegiate athletic competitions, now turned it around and would proceed to be a major force with Campbell in their midst. The Columbian, the university newspaper now regularly featured headlines gushing over his exploits in individual and relay races (which he always anchored).
Campbell was just beginning to hit his stride as an athlete. But even then, he seemed to be possessed by a wonder and joy at just the magnificence of the occasions when he competed.
The handling of the body in combat or in competition is a function really of a psychological posture. There has to be a ‘still’ place in there and the movement has to take place around it. I can remember some of the races; two races that I lost that were to me very important races. I lost because I lost the ‘still’ place. The race was so important I put myself out there to win the race instead of to run the race. And the whole thing got thrown off.
By the summer of 1924, there was a lot of talk in American track and field circles about the possibility of Campbell figuring in the track team in future international events; the Olympics in Amsterdam in 1928 in particular. Sitting in the crowd that day in Colombes, Campbell was well aware of these discussions. And over the two days, Campbell would witness all the races so vividly captured in Chariots of Fire. Even decades later, he would fondly remember how hoarse his voice was from all the yelling and shouting he did during the games – barracking for Scholz, the American.
The rise of Campbell’s star as an athlete would be meteoric on his return to university that fall. The events he began to participate in took on a whole different level of competitiveness. In the winter of 1925, he would figure in the Finnish American games – the very first time the legendary Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi ran on American soil. Campbell never forgot the experience of sharing the dressing room with Nurmi (“a beautiful man, he could just run and run and run”) that night at Madison Square Garden.
Nurmi was in the dressing room with our crowd, quietly sitting in a corner pulling on his black sweat clothes. Before his race, he ran about a mile and a half at a stiff clip – then he came in and had a rub-down.
He would soon be running for the venerated New York Athletic Club. And in the summer after his graduation from Columbia in 1926 (with honors in scholastic and athletic achievement), he would be selected to the team that would tour the west coast participating in the Amateur Athletic Union track meets. The team would cross America by train and for the trip, Campbell would have for his travelling partner and roommate Jackson Scholz – the very man who had been beaten by Abrahams in the 100 meters in Paris in 1924 and also won the 200 meters there by defeating both Liddell and Abrahams.
Scholz and Campbell would develop real bonds of friendship on the trip and after the team had utterly dominated the marquee meet in San Francisco, Scholz would convince Campbell to head to Hawaii and stay with him as a guest in the island paradise. Campbell would have a wonderful time in Hawaii with Scholz, marveling at the natural beauty of the islands; of course, the natural athletic streak in him would ensure that he did his best to master board surfing the waves of the Pacific Ocean.
Upon graduation, while his exploits on the track were still soaring, Campbell was a young man with a dilemma. Graduate studies at Columbia or elsewhere seemed natural, but he was in a lot of turmoil – searching for his “center”, his calling. He would make the move to Paris to explore studies in the ancient languages of vulgate Latin, old French and Provençal, the ancient Occitan dialect of south east France. Still searching, he would move on to Munich in Germany – mastering German and immersing himself in university life there. Germany would settle him down and give him his inner peace; his “center”. And as he buried himself in his studies of Jung, Schopenhauer, philosophy, English literature and Sanskrit – all being taught now in German – the track would finally begin to recede into the background.
The Olympics in Amsterdam in 1928 would come and go – as Campbell was developing the initial strains of his great contributions to the world of mythology and comparative religions. His thesis of the “monomyth” or “the hero’s journey”, elucidating the idea that the human race could be seen as reliving the experience of a single story of great spiritual importance spanning across Eastern and Western religions would be wonderfully captured in his book A Hero with a Thousand Faces. The book stands even today as one of the landmark publishing events of the twentieth century – for its dazzling originality, breadth and depth of its intellect and the typical approachable manner in which Campbell always presented his ideas.
It was in the final stages of his life that Campbell would cast his glow over a whole new audience due to the reach of television. To this day, I am eternally grateful to film-maker George Lucas – not for his Star Wars films – but for the role he played in the creation of one of the most watched and repeated programs in the history of American television – The Power of Myth. A huge fan and student of Campbell’s theories and books, Lucas would be instrumental in arranging for the now legendary interview of Campbell by Bill Moyers of PBS.
And millions were to be transfixed watching the personable, radiant and charming Campbell elaborate in his typical lucid manner the intertwining images and stories of the world’s myths and religions. He would give the world a whole new language and way of looking at their own personal experiences with the symbols and stories of their religions, faiths and ancient histories.
Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history, mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives becomes dissolved.
Even in his later years, Campbell would repeatedly refer back to his days as an athlete fondly and inquisitively. In its own way – and he would admit this later – his life as an athlete was probably the time in which his ideas of the hero’s journey germinated in his mind only to blossom out in full glory much later.
The peak experience refers to actual moments of your life when you experience your relationship to the harmony of being. My own peak experiences, the ones that I knew were peak experiences after I had them, all came in athletics.
When I was running at Columbia, I ran a couple of races that were just beautiful. During the second race, I knew I was going to win even though there was no reason for me to know this, because I was touched off as anchor in the relay with the leading runner thirty yards ahead of me. But I just knew, and it was my peak experience. Nobody could beat me that day. That’s being in full form and really knowing it.
I don’t think I have ever done anything in my life as competently as I ran those two races — it was the experience of really being at my full and doing a perfect job.
-Joseph Campbell in conversation with Bill Moyers
The 100 meter finals at the Olympics, Chariots of Fire, Liddell and Abrahams.
And Joseph Campbell.
Yes, a truly extraordinary story of some really extraordinary people.