By John Martin
In a famous scene in the film Chariots of Fire, the athlete Eric Liddell (Ian Charleston) tries to reassure his pious sister Jennie, who is fretting that his training and Olympic ambitions are getting in the way of his missionary call. “I believe God made me for a purpose,” he declares. “He made me for China, but he made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure.”
The drama of Chariots centres on his refusal to run a heat in the 100-yard dash because it was scheduled for a Sunday. He accepts a last-minute offer of “another day, another race.” Liddell breaks the tape ahead of the field in the 400. In real life the schedule was complete some months in advance of the Games in Paris and Liddell had time to train for the 400, though his times were modest. There was no serious expectation he would win, but he was spurred on as he took his mark, having been handed a note saying, “those who honour me I will honour” (1 Sam. 2:30).
Known as “The Flying Scotsman,” Liddell the sporting hero became an evangelical icon. Alongside his athletics he represented Scotland at Rugby Union. Many a school-chapel sermon has extolled Liddell as the quintessential muscular Christian. Though apparently no great speaker, he was in high demand after winning Olympic gold in 1924; people flocked to hear him. He returned to China in 1925 and worked as a missionary teacher.
He twice returned to the U.K. on furlough but died of a brain tumour in 1945, aged 43. With the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 he was interned with 2,000 other Westerners. One of his legacies is the Minyaun Stadium in Tianjin. It is a close copy of the original Chelsea football ground, scene of some of his athletic triumphs.
Now, 34 years on from Chariots of Fire, which won four Academy Awards, an unofficial sequel looks set to take its mark on the starting blocks. Liddell is regarded as a hero in China, the country where he was born of missionary parents. He is even claimed as China’s first Olympic medallist.
Chariots is from top to toe British. The Last Race stars a British actor, Joseph Fiennes, but is being filmed in China by a Hong Kong director, Stephen Shin. It picks up the little-known narrative of Liddell’s post-1925 life in China. Playing alongside Fiennes will be Chinese-Canadian actor Xiao “Shawn” Dou, who plays Liddell’s close friend and fellow inmate Xu Nui. It is a joint project of Chinese, Hong Kong, and U.S. companies.
There is plenty of scope for heroic drama in Liddell’s real-life story. While incarcerated, he played a lead role in smuggling food into the camp in order to feed starving prisoners. He later declined to accept a prisoner swap engineered by Winston Churchill, the British wartime prime minister, giving up his place to a pregnant prisoner.
China allows a ration of just 34 foreign films for release each year. One talking point will be whether there is a hostile depiction of the Japanese by the filmmakers. Another is whether they will feel it necessary to fillet the Christian part of Liddell’s story to curry official favour. As an atheistic country China officially — at least — is hostile to Christianity and sees it as an agent of imperialism and product of a decadent West.
Director Shin is in no doubt of the dramatic appeal of Liddell’s years in China. He told the Independent newspaper, “It is not only the perfect movie theme, but it should also make younger generations more aware of their past. All around the world people gradually forget the importance of staying on alert so that dark parts of human history do not repeat themselves.”
With or without the faith element, Liddell’s story will surely have a big appeal to Chinese audiences. But his legacy is global; there are monuments to him in China and Scotland. His story is the subject of several books. Stephen Metcalfe, who was interned with Liddell in China, once wrote: “He gave me two things. One was his worn out running shoes, but the best thing he gave me was his baton of forgiveness. He taught me to love my enemies, the Japanese, and to pray for them.”