Face-blindness and the movies

Harold Abrahams (#30, played by Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (#14, played by Ian Charleson)

Face blindness can sometimes make watching a movie an interesting puzzle.  Usually, it’s easier to keep track of characters in a movie than it is people in real life– there are usually only a few major characters in a movie, and filmmakers usually try to give the audience a lot of clues about who’s who, knowing that the whole audience is usually being introduced to these characters for the first time.

I usually find that if I make an effort to pay attention to the characters as they are introduced, I don’t have any trouble keeping up with the story.  A scene here or there may confuse me, but 1) often I’m able to piece things together by continuing to watch, and 2) sometimes the filmmakers intend to confuse or unsettle the audience with ambiguity, and that too becomes clear if you just keep watching.

But with some movies, face blindness can give me a lot of trouble.  I was reminded of this when I recently watched 1981 Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire, which tells the story of runners who competed for Great Britain in the 1924 Olympic Games.

I saw the movie for the first time several years ago when we rented it.  It was one of my mother’s favorite movies, and at the end, she started talking about how it did such an effective job of presenting the stories of two athletes alongside each other in a way that caused you to think about the similarities and differences between them.

But I hadn’t picked up on any of that.  In fact, I had a hard time seeing the point of the story, because I had not been able to tell that the movie’s structure focused on the lives of two men in particular, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell.

Harold Abrahams was an English Jew who competed in the face of racial and religious prejudice.  His deans at Cambridge refused to support or encourage him, and Abrahams used the desire to prove them wrong as his motivation to become the best runner in the world.  At the same time, though, the prospect of losing a race filled Abrahams with fear.

Eric Liddell was a devout Christian from Scotland who planned to enter the ministry as a missionary, as his parents had before him.  When he began devoting a lot of time to training for competition in the Olympics, his sister worried that he was placing his enjoyment of running (an earthly thing) ahead of doing God’s will.  Surely winning footraces could not be as glorifying to God as being a missionary, could it?

One of the interesting things about the filmmakers’ choice to focus on these two runners is the fact that their paths don’t cross very many times during the story.  Abrahams and Liddell only compete against each other in the same race once, and that is not in the Olympics.  Once they both arrive in Paris, they each have their own concerns to deal with and don’t interact much with each other.  So it’s mostly an artistic choice to tell their stories in parallel, by cutting from one to the other.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what makes characters in some movies easier for me to identify than others.  In a movie like Lord of the Rings, it’s very easy to tell the main characters apart because they are both distinctive and consistent in appearance.  Some of them may not even change their outfits during the whole story!  Of course, the ability to include imaginary creatures like elves and dwarves makes it a lot easier to keep characters recognizable.  (The most extreme example of this is probably Star Wars.  I wonder– is face blindness part of the reason I like science fiction and fantasy so much?)

Characters can be distinctive without being deep, of course.  Another movie I saw not long ago, Inception, was extremely heavy on plot without devoting much time to character development, aside from the main character.  The characters each have a nickname based on their role in the inception mission– the Architect, the Forger, the Chemist, the Tourist, the Mark– and most of them don’t have much more to them than these roles.  It’s not really important to remember their names, except for when they’re used to refer to someone who’s not onscreen.

Diagram of the plot of Inception

It’s pretty indicative of how my mind works that I had very little trouble following the plotline of Inception; it unfolded according to the rules the movie laid out, even when it became a case of 4 levels of dreaming within dreams.  But when you give me a movie with a simple plot that doesn’t label its characters, I easily get lost.

Part of my problem with understanding Chariots of Fire was that I didn’t know which clues to watch for the first time I saw it.  The characters are not identifiable by their costumes, since (as in real life), they wear different clothing on different occasions.  And since nearly all the characters are British Olympic runners, it’s not easy to instantly know who a character is by what they are doing.

It helped me to remember that Abrahams is an Englishman and Liddell is a Scotsman, and that their accents are very different because of this.  Abrahams also has dark hair, while Liddell has light hair.

But other things tended to confuse me.  Some of the other members of the Olympic team are friends and classmates of Abrahams’ from Princeton, so his part of the story focuses on them somewhat as well.  One character, Lord Andrew Lindsay (not a real person but based on one), is light-haired.  So when the movie cut from a scene about Abrahams to a scene of Lindsay training, I would get confused, thinking I was seeing Liddell.

Then there is the use of artistic devices like playing the sound from one scene over top of video of a different scene.  Chariots of Fire makes excellent use of this device, but you really need to pay attention.  For instance, there are two scenes in the movie in which Liddell delivers a sermon and we hear his words over top of scenes of athletes running.

In the first of these, the runner in the scene is Liddell himself, training by running through the countryside.  The combination of his words in the sermon and the image of him running helps to communicate that his whole life is devoted to glorifying God– not just the time he spends preaching or doing things considered religious.  He can bring glory to God by being a fast runner.

In the second scene, Liddell preaches in a church during the Olympics, and we hear him speak as we watch athletes running in a qualification heat at the stadium.  This time, the two scenes are combined because they are taking place at the same time.  The point is that Liddell has chosen not to run on Sunday because it goes against his conviction to keep the Sabbath Day holy.  I found both scenes very effective, but only after I understood what they were showing.

I’m very thankful for my mother’s patience the second time we watched the movie.  She let me pester her about whether I was following the story correctly just about every time it switched to a new scene.  At one point, I even lost track of who was who in the middle of a scene.  Another time, I did not recognize Prince David (a real-life character who I had just seen in a newer movie, The King’s Speech!) when he reappeared in a later scene.  I’m usually not that bad, but I think Chariots of Fire is a style of movie that hits on my weaknesses when it comes to identifying characters.

One last note:  my face-blindness also showed up the last time I went to see a movie at the theater.  Not with the movie itself, but when it came to finding the person I was meeting to see the movie with!  Sigh…


  1. Thank you so much for this post. I thought I was the only one with this problem, and it’s been vexing me most of my like. I have a terrible problem with face-blindness not just in movies, but in my everyday life. This really put it into perspective for me (like you, I often find it easier to identify someone by their speech pattern than their appearance.)

  2. You have an amazing way of explaining things and that time line of Inception is outstanding. I never would have thought to do something like that.

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