Friday, December 18, 2009

The Best Catholic Running Movie Ever

The envelope please. … And now, for the category of Best Catholic Running Movie Ever, the winner is —

Wait a minute, you’re saying. What do you mean “Best Catholic Running Movie?” Has there ever been even one Catholic Running Movie?

Why, yes. Glad you asked. And a fine one, too. Chariots of Fire, winner of the 1981 Best Picture Oscar.

Hold on, you say, how in the world does Chariots of Fire qualify as a Catholic movie? Yes, its two main characters run for reasons connected to their religions. But one is a Protestant, the other a Jew. No Catholics here.

Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong.

A little context: My wife and I got Chariots of Fire on Netflix last year and loved it. Based on the true story of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, two runners who ran for the British Olympic team in 1924, it is the powerful tale of two men who, although running under their country’s flag, do not, in fact, run for their country at all. Liddell, a Protestant missionary, runs to bear witness to the Gospel. (Heroically, he declines to compete in a medal race rather than run on the Sabbath.) Abrahams, a seemingly unobservant Jew, runs to fight back against the anti-Semitic bigotry he has endured throughout most of his life.

But as I learned when Googling the movie after seeing it, there’s more to the story.

You may recall that Chariots of Fire opens and closes at Abrahams’ funeral. Curiously — and without explanation — the funeral takes place in a Christian church. This would seem odd for a Jew who spent much of his life running (literally) from anti-Semitism. Compounding the mystery, the movie ends with the choir belting out “Jerusalem” — an Anglican hymn. (Side note: “Jerusalem” includes the verse “Bring me my chariot of fire!” from which the movie took its name. Before that, the film’s working title was the dreadfully uncreative “Running.”)

So what gives? Well, it turns out that just 10 years after the 1924 Games, Abrahams converted to Catholicism. Apparently the makers of Chariots of Fire thus thought it would have been too inauthentic to set his funeral in a synagogue, but too confusing to put it in a Catholic church. So they opted for the obvious choice given the setting — the Church of England (or Scotland) — and hoped no one would ask too many questions.

Anyway, a great movie, especially as it relates to the intersection of faith and running, with a fascinating back story.

The only thing I don’t get about Chariots of Fire, though, is the soundtrack: A film that takes place in 1920s England set to the synthesizer riffs of the 1980s?


  1. As a runner and a practicing Catholic, I really appreciate your blog and intend to share it with my running friends and family members!Great post, and a great movie as well! I'll have to watch it again after reading this post.

  2. Thanks, Bill, for this and for all the great comments! BTW, I've just added "Know Your Catholic Faith" to the blogroll. Nice work!