I watched Chariots of Fire again last night. It’s a powerful film that I’ve loved ever since I first saw it with a friend over 20 years ago. It has had a big influence on my understanding of discipleship and vocation (I discuss this a little near the end of my 2007 GCN Keynote speech). After I finished the movie, I was reading more about it online, and came across this 2011 blog post by Misty Irons, “Thoughts on Ian Charleson“:
I recently realized that the movie Chariots of Fire, which I watched for about the fifth time last weekend, would have completely failed if it weren’t for the brilliant acting of Ian Charleson who played Eric Liddell. That may seem obvious: Eric Liddell’s character is the inspiration of the movie. He’s the Christian missionary who ran for God’s pleasure, who risked throwing away three years of training and a chance for Olympic gold because he felt he could not run an Olympic heat on the Christian Sabbath.
People think it’s the story itself that captivates us, but I think it is Charleson’s performance that sells it. His job as an actor was not just to play a good man but a saintly man, pious yet likable, reserved but not dull, conflicted yet steadfast, vulnerable enough to draw our sympathy yet strong enough to stand entirely alone. Then he had to make it look so natural the audience would be tempted to think this guy Ian Charleson must just be playing himself; yet I can’t think of a more difficult acting role. One misstep and the whole thing is ruined: we’re left with a story about a self-righteous prig who’s determined to put the hopes of an entire nation on hold because of his personal fanaticism. The difference between that disaster and the Academy Award winning picture we got is Ian Charleson’s ability to hit exactly the right note.
I got curious about the man who was able to pull off this subtle, multi-layered, highly spiritual performance. I thought, “I really like this Charleson guy. I’ll bet he’s either Christian or gay.” I googled, then wikipedia-ed. Charleson was gay. And reading between the lines he was probably also Christian, judging from how eager he was to play the part of Eric Liddell, saying the role would “fit like a kid glove.” He studied the Bible intensively to prepare for the role and wrote the post-race speech Eric Liddell delivered to the working class crowd himself. Charleson died of AIDS in 1990. He was 40.