The title is a reference to the line, "Bring me my chariot of fire," from the William Blake poem adapted into the hymn Jerusalem. The film's working title was "Running" until Welland saw the scene with the singing of the hymn and decided to change the title.
In 1919, Abrahams enters Cambridge University. He attempts and succeeds at the Trinity Great Court run, which involves running around the court before the clock finishes striking 12. Meanwhile, Liddell sees running as a way of glorifying God before traveling to China to work as a missionary. He represents Scotland against Ireland, and preaches a sermon on "Life as a race" afterwards.
At their first meeting, Liddell shakes Abrahams' hand to wish him well, then beats him in a race. Abrahams takes it badly, but Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), a professional trainer that he had approached earlier, offers to take him on to improve his technique. However, this attracts criticism from the college authorities.
Eric's sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell) worries he is too busy running to concern himself with their mission, but Eric tells her he feels inspired: "I believe that God made me for a purpose... (the mission), but He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure." Despite pressure from the Prince of Wales and the British Olympic committee, Liddell refuses to run a heat of the 100 metres at the Olympics because his Christian convictions prevent him from running on Sunday. To remedy the sensitive issue, his teammate Lord Andrew Lindsey (Nigel Havers) proposes to trade places with Liddell so that Lindsey would represent Great Britain in the 100m, while Liddell would instead compete in the 400 metre race on the following Thursday, thus averting his need to run on Sunday. Liddell at church on Sunday is seen quoting Isaiah 40, verse 31:
'But they that wait upon the shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and be not weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.'
The story compares the similar athletic experiences of Abrahams and Liddell while portraying their vastly different characters and reactions to adversity.
The film is mainly centred on Abrahams, and to maintain this focus many historical incidents are misrepresented.
The film depicts Abrahams as attending Caius College, Cambridge, with two other Olympic athletes, Aubrey Montague and Lord Andrew Lindsey. Montague did in fact compete in the Olympics, although little is known about him. The main source of information about Montague was a series of letters he wrote to his parents about his time at Cambridge and the Olympics; these letters were the basis of Montague's narration in the film.
The character of Lord Lindsey was loosely based on Lord Burghley, a significant figure in the history of British athletics. Although Burghley did attend Cambridge, he was not a contemporary of Harold Abrahams, as Abrahams was an undergraduate from 1919 to 1923 and Burghley was at Cambridge from 1923 to 1927. Burghley was still living at the time of the film, and it was a notable historical inaccuracy in the script which reportedly led him to refuse permission for his name to be used in the film. One scene in the film recreates a race in which the runners attempt to run round the perimeter of the Great Court at Trinity College, Cambridge in the time it takes the clock to strike 12 at midday. The film shows Abrahams performing the feat for the first time in history. In fact, at the time of filming the only person known to have succeeded was Lord Burghley in 1927 (the feat has since been accomplished by Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram, whom Coe beat in a charity race in October 1988 and by Sam Dobin in 2007).
The film also takes liberties with the events at the 1924 Olympics itself, most notably the events surrounding Liddell's refusal to race on a Sunday. In the film, he only learns on boarding the boat to Paris that one of the heats is to be held on the Sabbath. In fact, the schedule was made public several months in advance, and Liddell spent the remaining months training for the 400 metres, an event in which he had previously excelled. The film depicts Lord Lindsey, having already won a medal in the 400 metre hurdles, giving up his place in the 400 metres for Liddell. In fact Burghley was eliminated in the heats of the 110 hurdles (he would go on to win a gold medal in the 1928 Olympics), and Lindsey's deference to Liddell in the 400 was entirely fabricated.
The film does not mention the further exploits of the protagonists at the Olympics. After winning the 100 metres, Abrahams also reached the final of the 200 metres but finished last. This is hinted at in the film during the athletic montage which accompanies Liddell's Sunday sermon in Paris, with Mussabini scolding Abrahams ("Juvenile!") for rocking backward at the start; and, during the scene where Abrahams speaks with his friend Montague ("You are my most complete man") while receiving a massage from Mussabini, there is a French newspaper clipping showing Scholz and Paddock with a headline which, when translated, states that the 200 metres was a triumph for the United States. In the same conversation, Abrahams laments getting "beaten out of sight" in the 200.
Eric Liddell also ran in the 200m and finished third (behind Paddock and gold medal winner Jackson Scholz). (This was the only time that Liddell and Abrahams competed in the same race. Their meeting in the 1923 AAA Championship in the film was fictitious, though Liddell's win spurred Abrahams to train even harder.) As an opening runner for the 4 x 100 metres relay team, Abrahams won a silver medal (see article on 1924 Olympics.)
Other historical inaccuracies include:
In the film, the 100m bronze medallist is a fictional character called "Tom Watson"; the real medallist was Arthur Porritt of New Zealand, who refused permission for his name to be used in the film, allegedly out of modesty. His wish was accepted by the film's producers, even though his permission was not necessary.
In the film, Liddell is tripped up by a Frenchman in the 400 metre event of a Scotland–France international athletic meeting. He recovers, makes up a 20 metre deficit, and wins. This was based on fact, though his achievement was in fact even greater, as he had already won the 100- and 220-yard events that day.
It omits the fact that it was Liddell who introduced Abrahams to Sam Mussabini.
The famous beach scenes associated with the theme tune were filmed at West Sands, St. Andrews (the last scene of the opening titles crosses the 1st and 18th holes at St. Andrews Golf Course); a plaque commemorating the filming can be found there today. The scene at Trinity College, Cambridge was actually filmed at Eton College. Liverpool Town Hall was the setting for the scenes depicting the British Embassy in Paris. The Colombes Olympic Stadium was represented by The Oval Sports Centre, Bebington, Merseyside. The nearby Woodside ferry terminal was used to represent the scenes set in Dover. Other scenes were filmed at Birchington, Kent. A scene depicting a performance of HMS Pinafore was filmed in the Savoy Theatre with members of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which lead to a small inaccuracy-the costumes worn by the performers were designed several years after the historical events depicted in the film.
The film also incorporates a traditional work: a British choir singing "Jerusalem" at the 1978 funeral of Harold Abrahams, the event which 'bookends' the film and which inspired its title. Gilbert and Sullivan also features heavily.