Abrahams on the carpet

Here’s another “hand over your badge and your gun” moment, but without a badge or a gun. It comes from the movie Chariots of Fire, which won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay in 1981.

I cite this to illustrate the “hero’s journey” beat in so many novels and movies, in which the hero is stripped of his institutional approval, in whatever form that may take, and must make the choice to continue his journey entirely on his own hook.

To set the stage:

Harold Abrahams (Chariots of Fire is a true story, by the way, and Abrahams a true historical character) is a Cambridge undergraduate slated to run in the hundred-meter dash at the 1924 Olympics. He’s also a Jew, experiencing all the subtle and not-so-subtle prejudices we might imagine in that era in an institution that represents the centuries-old soul of the English class system.

Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams in “Chariots of Fire”

In one scene, Abrahams is summoned to dinner with the Master of his college at Cambridge (Caius College, pronounced “keys”) played by Lindsay Anderson and the Master of Trinity College, played by Sir John Gielgud—both at their stuffy Old English best. Abrahams himself is played by Ben Cross. The three men meet in the Masters’ Rooms, a book-lined Gothic setting radiating history and tradition. All are attired formally.

Why has Abrahams been called on the carpet? It takes a few minutes before the two Masters get to the point.

                                                            TRINITY

                        Abrahams, I’m afraid there is a growing suspicion

                        in the bosom of the University that in your enthusiasm

                        to succeed, you have, perhaps, lost sight of [Cambridge’s

                        loftiest traditions.]

                                                            ABRAHAMS

                        May I ask what form this disloyalty takes?

                                                            CAIUS

                        It’s been said you use a personal coach.

                                                            HAROLD

                        Mr. Mussabini, yes.

                                                            CAIUS

                        Do I take it that you employ Mr. Mussabini on a

                        professional basis?

                                                            HAROLD

                        Sam Mussabini is the finest, most advanced, clearest

                        thinking athletics coach in the country. I am honored

                        that he considers me worthy of his complete attention.

                                                            CAIUS

                        Nevertheless, he’s a professional.

                                                            HAROLD

                        What else would he be, he’s the best!

                                                            TRINITY

                        Ah, well there, Mr. Abrahams, I’m afraid our paths

                        diverge. The University believes that the way of the

                        amateur can produce the most gratifying results.

                                                            HAROLD        

                        I am an amateur!

                                                            TRINITY

                                    (suddenly vitriolic)

                        You are trained by a professional. You have adopted a

                        professional attitude. For the past year you have

                        concentrated wholly on developing your own technique,

                        in the headlong pursuit, may I suggest, of individual glory.

                                                            HAROLD

                        I am a Cambridge man first and last. I am an Englishman

                        first and last. What I have achieved, what I intend to achieve,

                        is for my family, my university, and my country, and I

                        bitterly resent your suggesting otherwise.

                                                            CAIUS

                        My boy, your approach has been, shall we say, a little

                        too plebeian. You are the elite, and, as such, must be seen

                        to run rather to the manner born.

                                                            HAROLD

                        Would you prefer I played the amateur — and lost?

                                                            CAIUS

                        To playing the tradesman? Yes!

Abrahams regards the two Dons—petrified, as they are, in a bygone age. He stands. He extends his hand to Caius.

                                                            HAROLD

                        Thank you, sir! The evening has been most illuminating.

                                    (to Trinity)

                        And good-night to you, sir!

   Abrahams starts toward the door, then turns and faces back.

                                                            HAROLD

                        You know, gentlemen, you yearn for victory just as I do.

                        But achieved with the apparent effortlessness of gods.

                        Yours are the archaic values of the Prep School play-

                        ground. You deceive no one but yourselves. I believe

                        in the relentless pursuit of excellence — and I shall

                        carry the future with me!!

Caius and Trinity watch Abrahams exit. Trinity turns to Caius.

                                                            TRINITY

                        There goes your Semite, Hugh. A different God.

                        A different mountaintop.

See how Abrahams has been called on the carpet and ordered to “hand over his badge and his gun”?

Prior to this scene, Abrahams had trained and competed believing he did so with the blessing of his college and his university. He felt like a fully-vetted Englishman competing under the banner of his beloved native land.

By the time he exits this evening, however (even though he did not hear the “Semite/mountaintop” comment), Abrahams feels that the scales have fallen from his eyes. He realizes that he will never be accepted, at least not by the deeply conservative masters of his universe, as a true Englishman and member of the elect. He will always be, by one definition or another, “the tradesman.”

In hero’s journey terms, the stakes have gone way up in this scene. Abrahams’ inclusion among the elite has been jerked out from under him, exactly like a police detective being forced to hand over his badge and his gun. From here on, Abrahams realizes, it is him (and Sam Mussabini) against the world.

Our hero has been forced to make a choice. Does he cave or does he dig in and fight?

It seems that this beat, or a moment very much like it, is necessary in any hero’s journey story. How much, the hero must answer, do I really want my objective? What price am I willing to pay? For us as storytellers, that price must be as high as possible. The higher the price, the better the story.

P.S. Abrahams (in the movie and in real life) goes on to win the gold medal in the Olympics. The filmmakers give us a brief scene in which the Master of Trinity College is informed of this. Sir John Gielgud delivers his line with supreme aplomb.

                                                            SERVANT

                        He did it, sir! Abrahams. He won! 

                                                            TRINITY

                        As I always knew he would.

Chariots of Fire was conceived by David Puttnam, written as a screenplay by Colin Welland, and directed by Hugh Hudson. Its producers were Jake Eberts, Dodi Fayed and David Puttnam.

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20 Comments

  1. Peter Brockwell on September 22, 2021 at 7:28 am

    Very interesting from Steve. So this is all about raising the stakes for the focal character. Disempowering him/her and creating more barriers to overcome, and the victory will then be the sweeter. Either Snyder or Zuckerman, probably the latter, talks about drawing the bow as far as possible. The further back the string is drawn, the greater the overall travel.

    Just thinking Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, playing the mathematician John Nash. I think because his face doesn’t fit, and/or because of his mental illness he is refused a position in the university, and ultimately has to work in the library, scribbling equations on the windows – a lovely piece of artistic licence – and so has to create his piéce-de-resistance outside the establishment.
    Peter

    • Kevin Whitters on September 22, 2021 at 9:04 am

      A great example also of someone following there own path and calling despite the circumstances of the time going against that natural instinct. I remember watching a documentary about the great golfer Lee Trevino who grew up dirt poor and commented how he really didn’t feel he belonged to the games elite, until later in his career. What was apparent was the survival instincts he had developed through hardship and the fire inside him were ultimately his greatest advantage against players who didn’t need to go through the same adversity to get to the top. Loved Chariots of Fire.

  2. As I reading this, I can resonate at a very deep level of the soul of either conforming or listening to your heart, many times this is the moment of truth I’ve faced, never one that needed to be liked or fit in anywhere, either with family, friends, career man in the navy or peers of any kind, I choose to be the man in the arena, not the judger of those that dare to try, great moments and thoughts to think about Steve, I will always be the man in the arena, regardless who stands against me in disapproval, in the infamous words of our man Teddy Roosevelt…”,
    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

  3. Sam Luna on September 22, 2021 at 8:21 am

    I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never seen this movie. My folks had the Vangelis soundtrack on vinyl in the 80’s and I of course remember the running-down-the-beach shot …. I’m gonna watch this ASAP!

  4. Tolis Alexopoulos on September 22, 2021 at 8:42 am

    A beautiful, crucial and challenging thought, dear Steve, thank you. We must make that choice to continue the journey by ourselves, but what hits me personally is that the rewards are So late to come. I’ve invested 16 years, almost 4 hours every day if I could guess, in seeking knowledge in paths that I feel I long to and that have deep meaning, but I’m still struggling with financial independence and the economic security we all need. Which means for me that the journey may be very long and with no certainty, and one must be more than patient to not leave the path. Not only that, but dedicating hours to economic security will take us off the road of our path, which is difficult to follow even at our “good” days, and even more difficult if we want -need- to do professional job as creatives.
    So we make the choice but there is also a price.
    And if we want to open a new road, the price might be even bigger, maybe 2 to 6 times bigger, by intuition.

    I haven’t seen or felt the finish line yet (aside from reckless hopes of victories or grandeur, the youth’s dreams that turn to nightmares in the face of adversities), so I can’t have a complete opinion yet! But one thing I can promise myself, this was written best by mr. Luther King Junior, and it’s as far as I can see and do: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. *If you can’t walk, then crawl.* But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.” Hmm!

  5. Renita on September 22, 2021 at 11:08 am

    Steve,
    Does an Edwardian romance count? Georgette Heyer a 20th century writer understood the Edwardian society perfectly. In her novel Venetia —with allusions to Venus—a woman of 25 without truck for society is caught in a predicament. Her older brother is bound to return from the Napoleanic wars (now over) at any time with a bride who will take over the head of running the house. Venetia and her crippled younger brother will be doomed to live uncomfortably under their domination unless she can marry and find a new home for them both.
    She finds herself drawn to Lord Dameral a rake. He is a man with a damaged past. But she feels at ease with him. He loves beyond the reaches of social mores. He is a natural man.
    However Dameral is determined not to bring this lovely girl down in social standing by a marriage.
    Venetia has the task of convincing Dameral that he is the solution to her problem as much as she is the solution to his fallen self esteem. The precarious situation involves several people and all of society.
    I like how the feminine adventure relies upon understanding society and using it.

    • Renita on September 22, 2021 at 11:10 am

      Should be “He lives beyond or outside of social mores!” Autocorrect on my phone is a problem.

  6. Maureen Anderson on September 22, 2021 at 11:11 am

    Many years ago, in an attempt to fix what I most hated about my life, I accidentally torched all of it. Everything. I can’t imagine a more humiliating turn of events. (It’s the prequel for what I sent you recently, Brian.)

    The most courageous thing I ever did was get up off the couch and leave the house to buy a newspaper, because that meant showing my face in public after what had happened.

    When I told a friend (who happens to be a writer) about this he said, “You are so lucky! This is such a good story!”

    So the second most courageous thing I’ll ever do is write it.

    The stakes feel impossibly high, though. Why risk another round of humiliation?

    Because, as other friends have pointed out, I have the chance to help a lot of other people who are wrestling with something similar.

    “I don’t go to meetings like individuals in AA or Al-Anon or other Twelve Step programs,” Steve once told us. “These blog posts are my meetings.”

    Is that why so many of us show up on Wednesdays?

    The public relations god Michael Levine says everything boils down to this: “What do you most want, and what are you willing to give up to get it?” Steve says, “For us as storytellers, that price must be as high as possible. The higher the price, the better the story.”

    What I want most is to matter, to be useful. I’m becoming more at peace with how uncomfortable that will feel. It’s a package deal.

    Back to work! With much appreciation for the chance to learn from Steve and all the rest of you.

  7. Michael Esser on September 22, 2021 at 12:51 pm

    In his excellent Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/steven_pressfield/channel/) series “Books I Love” Steven Pressfield recommended recently A Course in Miracles” by Helen Schucman. It is a spiritual guide, if you will, which proposes a number of exercises to train the mind to focus on what is truly important.

    In those exercises, #9 is entitled “I see nothing as it is now.” It describes very well the situation, the hero finds himself in when he/she is forced to let go of all credentials of the common world. In the short description of the exercise, Ms Schucman says: “[…] the recognition that you do not understand is a prerequisite for undoing your false ideas.” And that, for me, pretty much sums it up: The hero realizes that his ideas (of the world) are false, and he/she has to let go of them way before he/she has gained the ability to fully understand.

    A Course in MIracles is a pretty esoteric book and therefore certainly not for everyone, but, if you read it with a writer’s mind, you will see that it might be the most detailed nand enlightened description of the Hero’s Journey outside of Joseph Campbell’s Hero WIth A Thousand Faces.

    • Joe on September 22, 2021 at 2:17 pm

      Good stuff.

    • Tolis Alexopoulos on September 23, 2021 at 3:38 am

      Thank you for the comment, Michael. Today, within a 1 hour time-limit, arrived at my home the Course on Miracles and The True Believer that Steve suggested. They may have the ability to create a quite explosive, creative conflict of each other! Of course it’s all a matter of view: what is conflict for some, may be harmony to others and just complementary parts of the infinite wisdom to others.

  8. Joe Jansen on September 22, 2021 at 12:59 pm

    Walking at lunch today, I was listening to the Smartless podcast (hosted by Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Sean Hayes). Part of their schtick: they each take turns inviting an episode guest, but don’t tell the other two who the guest is… until that week’s host pulls back the curtain. This most recent episode, Will Arnett brought in Ken Burns.

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/smartless/id1521578868?i=1000535978926

    Ken talks about his latest, “Muhammad Ali” (streaming on PBS now). At about 42:00, he says of Ali: “[At one point], he’s about separation, when Americans are finally getting to the mainstream integrationist movement of Civil Rights. And then he refuses the draft, so he’s this pariah, and he works his way back in interesting ways.” This seems to layer in pretty well with the “Chariots of Fire” scene Steve shares: Society or authority wanting him to be who *it* wants him to be, and him being willing to reject society’s approval in favor of being true to his own mission. Kinda the same as Harold.

    Other REALLY good stuff from Ken Burns in that podcast: talking about how some other productions put the soundtrack in at the end, they let the editing be influenced by the rhythm of the music (even to the extent of lengthening or shorting a sentence of monologue so it hits a particular beat in the music).

    Also the value of cutting. Talks about how much material — and good material — they end up leaving on the cutting room floor. How storytelling is not additive, it’s subtractive. “I live in New Hampshire here. We make maple syrup. It takes forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.”

    Great conversation and worth a listen.

  9. Richard on September 22, 2021 at 1:09 pm

    abc

  10. David on September 22, 2021 at 1:11 pm

    Very interesting from Steve. So this is all about raising the stakes for the focal character. Thanks for sharing with us..Take Your Online Class

  11. Jim Sapara on September 22, 2021 at 5:45 pm

    Thank you! What a performance!
    My favourite line in the whole movie is when Abraham’s says:

    ‘I’m going to run them off their feet!’

  12. Dorothy Seeger on September 22, 2021 at 9:46 pm

    Thank you for this “turn in your badge” moment. My moment is not a story – it is real life. I graduated from a top women’s college with honors. All my life, Mills College has been my badge, my entry card into the elite world. As of the end of next year, my Alma Mater will be no more. Mills is closing shop at the end of 2022, absorbed by a huge northeastern university. I feel lost – where are my credentials? But, thanks to your “turn in your badge and gun” story, I realize that this is my opportunity to proceed ahead on my own power. I do not need that golden BA to prove my worth! Thank you for giving us the inspiring “Chariots of Fire” true story. We do not need to rely on any external authority to do our best.

  13. Marnie Simpson on September 23, 2021 at 3:49 am

    As a budding writer myself, gripped by adversity at the moment, Steve’s words, and all subsequent comments were just what I needed to read this morning. Onward and upward, as the saying goes. And I am going to re-watch Chariots of Fire. Thank you all!

  14. jody Payne on September 23, 2021 at 7:23 am

    Thank you for this post. That moment in Chariots of Fire was a turning point in belief for many people. I’m going to watch it again. And again. And again, if necessary.

  15. Jurgen Strack on September 24, 2021 at 3:54 am

    Brilliant!

    Steve’s advice has helped me realise the “hand in your badge and gun” moment in the book I’m writing.

    Thank you.

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