Chariots of Fire

Inciting Event: Eric Liddell is introduced. The structure of this movie is particularly interesting in framing the antagonistic force. On the surface, this seems to be a story with two protagonists: English runner Harold Abrahams and Scottish runner Eric Liddell. But actually, Abrahams is the clear protagonist with Liddell being the antagonist (at least for the first half).

The first eighth of the story is devoted to Harold Abrahams. His Inciting Event is nominally his breaking of Cambridge’s record. But structurally, the turning point of the First Act (and thus the Inciting Event) is in fact Liddell’s introduction in the subsequent scene. Liddell is all the way across the kingdom in Scotland in this scene, and at this point there’s not even any indication that Abrahams is aware of him. But the filmmakers cleverly use this structure to set up the conflict by introducing Liddell here and then spending most of rest of the First Act developing him, just as they previously developed Abrahams. This wouldn’t be a good solution for most stories with more classic antagonists. But it works admirably here.

First Plot Point: Abrahams watches Liddell win an impossible race. Afterwards, he asks Mussubini to coach him. This is the First Plot Point, not just because of its timing, but because this is the moment where the main conflict truly begins. Up to this point, we’ve already seen Abrahams’s driving goal of running his opponents “off their feet.” But this is where Liddell finally crosses his path. It’s also where Abrahams reacts strongly by inviting Mussabini to coach him.

First Pinch Point: Abrahams and Liddell race against each other for the first time—and Liddell beats Abrahams, who is devastated. This is a fabulous pinch point. In some ways it’s a bigger scene that the First Plot Point, and it’s worthwhile to note that sometimes that works out extremely well. This moment offers the “new clues” of Abraham’s fallibility and raises the stakes by showing him how truly formidable an opponent Liddell is.

Midpoint: Abrahams learns both he and Liddell have been named as competitors in the British Olympic team. This is a clear turning point in the conflict. Up to this point, Abrahams’s races have been mostly personal, although he hoped to race in the Olympics. Now, the scale of his conflict with Liddell reaches a much greater stage.

This is also the moment that marks the shift in the story’s antagonistic force. Up to this point, Liddell has been the obstacle, but shortly after the Midpoint, Liddell refuses to race in the qualifying heat on the Sabbath, which removes him as an obstacle between Abrahams and his goal. From this point on, the American track team is the main antagonist. This is the wobbliest part of the whole movie, since it basically wipes out its previously beautiful framework of Liddell as the antagonist and sends the story in a poorly foreshadowed (although entirely logical) direction.

Second Pinch Point: The Americans arrive in Paris for the Olympics. This is presented in a lengthy sequence showing not just their arrival but their prowess as they practice. It’s a sequence that’s all about the antagonists, but the movie does a nice job of making it personal to the protagonist and his story by allowing him to watch (from a theater) their arrival. Viewers can sense his fear of their ability to oppose him.

Third Plot Point: Abrahams (and others on his team) lose in the Sunday races, while Liddell preaches (after Liddell’s own race was moved from Sunday). This presents the obvious low point, since it pushes Abrahams to a place of despair and desperation—and makes everyone wonder if he’s actually capable of reaching his goal after all. It also does a nice job of metaphorically showing the (former) antagonist being victorious in the face of the protagonist’s defeat.

Climax: Abrahams’s last race—his final chance for a gold medal—begins. This is a great Climax. It’s always worthwhile to study the Climaxes in stories that aren’t about big violent battles. The Climaxes in these stories are more subtle and sometimes less obvious. Here, however, the tension here is blatant and powerful.

Climactic Moment: The Climactic Moment actually isn’t all that clear in this story. Again, it gets hung up on Liddell. If he’d finished the story as the antagonist he started out as, the Climactic Moment would have clearly been the end up the previous race (in which Liddell would have been running against Abrahams). In short, the Climactic Moment should have been Abrahams’s victory. As it is, it gets muddied by Liddell’s subsequent race and victory. The movie is structured to make viewers feel as if the Climactic Moment is actually the victorious return of the British team after the close of Olympics.

Resolution: Abrahams reunites with his girlfriend, and then the movie moves into an epilogue showing the surviving runners honoring their long-dead teammates decades later.

Notes: Even though its structuring of the antagonistic force is problematic, this is a beautiful example of how to create an antagonist who isn’t a bad guy. Indeed, Liddell is one of the nicest guys you’re ever likely to meet—nicer by far than the hostile protagonist Abrahams. What’s important in creating an antagonist isn’t so much his attitude or morals as it is his ability to be an obstacle between the protagonist and his goals. Liddell fulfills this requirement extremely well throughout the first half of the film.

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