Abrahams is not filmic stereotype of a Jew

Nathan Abrams explores classic Jewish films and characters

IN my last column, I discussed how Jews are rarely represented as serious sportsmen on film.

There is, however, a major exception, Chariots of Fire (1981), based on the true story of Jewish runner Harold Abrahams, who won gold in the 100 metres at the 1924 Olympics.

Chariots of Fire, which has been re-released in time for the London Games, is also a story of social exclusion and class privilege, focusing around the experiences of two athletes, both outsiders, in 1920s Britain.

Screenwriter Colin Welland, drawing upon his history as a Labour Party activist who had previously worked with openly socialist director Ken Loach on Kes (1969), envisaged the film as the story of a "Jew who battled against prejudice and the might of the English Protestant Establishment".

Abrahams (Ben Cross), the son of a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, is an intense, driven law student at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1919.

A gifted athlete, he desires material success, social acceptance and Olympics victory in order to smash the antisemitism that he encounters all around him.

Meanwhile, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a devout Scot, seeks to proclaim the 'Glory of God' through success on the athletics track.

Significantly, there are no outward signs of Abrahams' Jewishness or Judaism other than his name. The audience is never offered any other explicit visual evidence of Abrahams' ethnicity. Indeed, as portrayed by Cross, Abrahams does not fit the filmic stereotype of the Jew.

In a changing room sequence, for example, we see Abrahams topless. He is lithe and muscled, the polar opposite of the stereotypical schlemiel.

Nowhere do we see him practice any Judaism, whether in public or private; indeed, the film opens and closes with a very Anglican mass for his funeral.

In the one sequence where identifiable and explicit religious practice arises as an issue, his first date with actress and socialite Sybil Gordon (Alice Krige) during which she orders her 'favourite' dish - the highly non-kosher pieds de porc (pigs' trotters) - the cut with which the sequence ends neatly elides any revelation of whether Abrahams observes the laws of kashrut or not for we do not see him eat.

Instead, it is the strictly Sabbatarian Liddell who is represented as 'the lonely man of faith', religiously observant in values, behaviour and practice.

He is shown praying and sermonising in church.

He even refuses to run on the Sabbath out of respect for his beliefs despite being entreated to do so by no less a personage than the Prince of Wales (David Yelland) himself.

This is never an issue for Abrahams. Such religiosity on the part of Liddell clearly highlights Abrahams' lack of faith.

Either Abrahams has compromised his beliefs or never had any in the first place, playing no part in his on-screen persona.

In the end, Abrahams shows up the hypocrisy and antisemitism of the Cambridge authorities, as well as wins the gold medal.

But, as his lack of celebration, public or otherwise, demonstrates, it is perhaps not the prize that he had wished for, that the price of admission to English society was too high, and not worth paying.

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph