Eric Liddell

Truth versus dramatic licence in Chariots of Fire

David Milloy

The Olympic Games will return to Paris this summer, a hundred years after the events portrayed in the 1981 film, Chariots of Fire.

For those who’ve not seen it, Chariots of Fire tells the story of two British runners, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, who each won a gold medal in one of the men’s sprint events in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.

As a piece of entertainment, it’s a wonderful film with a great script, beautiful cinematography, a majestic soundtrack by Vangelis, and terrific performances by Ian Charleson and Ben Cross in the lead roles. It richly deserved the Best Film Oscar it won in 1982.

What it isn’t, though, is historically accurate. Although Messrs Liddell and Abrahams did indeed win gold medals at the 1924 Olympic Games, the film contains many factual inaccuracies, mostly but not exclusively in the name of dramatic licence. For example, the film wrongly portrays Harold Abrahams as having married opera singer Sybil Gordon, when in fact he married another opera singer, Sybil Evers. The film also shows Harold’s relationship with Sybil as having begun before 1923, but in actuality he didn’t meet his future wife until 1934. And that’s just for starters.

This led us to wonder how much of the film’s portrayal of the character and life of Eric Liddell was founded in fact rather than fiction. So we looked at ten key aspects of Eric’s on screen story and compared them to reality. This is what we found.

Film: Eric Liddell did not compete in the 100 metres in the Olympics because his Christian beliefs would not permit him to run on a Sunday.

Reality: TRUE. As the heats of the 100 metres were run on a Sunday, Eric chose not to compete, a move that attracted some criticism at the time.

Film: Eric’s sister Jennie was vehemently opposed to her brother’s athletics career.
Reality: FALSE. Jennie Liddell, who was some years younger than portrayed in the film, was very supportive of her brother. She was still alive when the film was made and seems not to have objected too much to the script’s portrayal of her, as she briefly appeared as an extra in the film.

Film: Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams raced against each other over 100 yards in 1923, with Eric taking victory.

Reality: FALSE. The two men raced against each other twice but never over 100 yards. The first time they met was in the heats of the 220 yards in the AAA Championships in 1923. Eric beat Harold and went on to win the finals of both the 100 and 220 yards, setting a British record in the former that was not equalled until 1947. They met again in the final of the Olympic 200 metres in Paris, with Eric finishing 3rd and Harold 6th.

Film: Eric once won a 440 yard race in spite of being tripped and falling to the ground during the race.

Reality: TRUE. This film shows this remarkable feat as having happened at a Scotland v France athletics meeting held in Scotland. In reality, it happened during an England v Scotland v Ireland athletics meeting held at Stoke on Trent. Shortly after the start of the race, Eric tangled with another runner and fell to the ground. He was 30 yards behind the rearmost of the other runners when he got back to his feet. He caught and passed the entire field before collapsing after crossing the finish line. It was his third victory of the day, having also won the 100 and 220 yards.

Film: Eric played rugby union for Scotland.

Reality: TRUE. Eric played seven times as a winger for Scotland, scoring four tries and being on the losing side only once. He would have amassed many more caps and tries had he not ceased playing at the end of the 1923 season to concentrate on his running. He was admitted to the Scottish Rugby Hall of Fame in 2022, a century after he first played for his country.

Film: Eric was born in China.

Reality: TRUE. Eric was born in Tianjin, China to Scottish parents who were working in the country as missionaries. Some Chinese sources recognise Eric Liddell as that country’s first Olympic champion.

Film: Eric was on the boat to France when he heard that the heats of the 100 metres were to be run on a Sunday.

Reality: FALSE. The dates were published several months ahead of the Olympics and Eric, knowing of this, had decided well in advance of the games that he would not compete in the 100 metres.

Film: Eric only competed in the 400 metres after another British athlete, Andrew Lindsay, withdrew from it after winning silver in the 400m hurdles.

Reality: FALSE. This is inaccurate on a number of levels. There was no such person as Andrew Lindsay – he was a fictional character based in part on David Burghley, an athlete who competed in the 110 metre hurdles at the 1924 Games and won the 400m hurdles in 1928. Burghley had not entered the 400 metres in 1924 let alone won a medal in the 400 metres hurdles that year. Moreover, Eric had trained for and entered the 400m after deciding that he could not compete in the 100m.

Film: Before the start of the 400 metres, American athlete Jackson Schulz handed Eric a slip of paper which included the words, “It says in the old Book: he that honours me, I will honour.”

Reality: FALSE. Eric was actually handed a note containing this phrase but it was passed to him to by one of the British team’s masseurs on the eve of the 400 metres final.

Film: Eric died in an internment camp in China.

Reality: TRUE. Eric was in China when Japan invaded. He sent his wife and daughters to Canada in 1941, although he chose to remain in China order to continue his missionary work. He was interned by the occupying Japanese forces in 1943 and died just a few months before the war ended.

But although Chariots of Fire took a number of liberties with the truth, one thing that it unquestionably got right was that it showed Eric Liddell to be an outstanding athlete and an even greater human being.