Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner who wouldn’t compete on the Sabbath, was born and died in China, so he is still frequently referred to as the first Chinese gold medalist. He was also a devout Christian missionary, so for obvious reasons, it is tricky to fully depict the man of faith amid the current Chinese cultural-ideological climate (or pretty much any other time since the Japanese occupation). Still, Christian Chinese director Stephen Shin Kei-yin and Canadian “co-director” Michael Parker make a good faith effort picking up Liddell’s story after Chariots of Fire left off in On Wings of Eagles (a.k.a. The Last Race, trailer here), which is now available on DVD.
In Hugh Hudson’s classic, Liddell’s scoldy sister Jenny always insisted China was his true destiny and she was right. For years, Liddell preached and taught school there, marrying his wife Florence, with whom he had three daughters. Sadly, Liddell would never meet the youngest, because he was able to send his pregnant wife and family to the safety of Canada before the Japanese reached Xiaozhang village in rural Heibei, where he accepted his final posting.
Of course, everyone respected Liddell, including Xu Niu, a rickshaw driver with vague underworld connections, who became Liddell’s fixer and friend. His narration is particularly cagey when it comes to the lessons Liddell taught him, often sounding more like warmed over humanistic bromides. Yet, we clearly see crucifixes, Christian services, and hear hymns in decidedly dramatic contexts.
All things considered, we have to give Shin and Parker credit for getting in as much Christianity as they did. Unfortunately, the film is greatly disadvantaged by the lack of a stirring Liddell sermon. After all, Chariots has that beautiful “how to run a straight race” homily Ian Charleston’s Liddell delivers in the rain to a group of world-weary stragglers. It was probably just meant to help establish his character, but perfectly crystallizes the film in one scene. Nothing in Wings comes close to that moment.
Inevitably, Wings also echoes the Korean film My Way when the physically depleted Liddell is forced to run two pivotal races against the supposedly sporting camp commandant. However, the second race somewhat departs from the obvious formula, in a way that brings home the tragedies of war. Like many recent Chinese films, Shin, Parker, and co-screenwriters Rubby Xu and Christopher C. Chan wave the bloody shirt over the Japanese occupation, but at least they depict two Japanese soldiers trying to act decently, which you could certainly consider an act of Christian charity.
Joseph Fiennes gives a quietly dignified performance as Liddell, but too often he is drowned out by the other overly busy missionary-prisoners. Among that lot, Richard Sanderson is the clear stand out as Dr. Hubbard Peterson. Canadian raised Chinese star Shawn Dou is a bit stiff at times as Xu Niu, but he has some nice moments with Fiennes and Luo Yongging as his adopted son Xiao Shitou, who is quite an effective young performer, despite his unsubtle heart-string-pulling duties. Dou also deserves credit for taking on a potentially tricky project like this when he already has the terrific environmentally-themed Cultural Revolution drama Wolf Totem on his resume.