Scottsman Eric Liddell is best known as an Olympian, who famously told reporters that he raced for the glory of God, thanks to the Academy Award-winning film Chariots of Fire (1981). But after his racing days were over, Liddell returned to the home of his birth, China, to serve as a missionary to the natives. Now, in director Stephen Shin’s unofficial sequel, On Wings of Eagles, audiences everywhere will see the way that Liddell lived out his final days as a servant to his friends and enemies alike.
Joseph Fiennes plays Liddell, approximately a decade after his famous competition in the 1924 Paris Olympics, after he had refused to race in the 100 meters on a Sunday. Married with children, Liddell makes the fateful decision to stay and minister to the people in China, even as war breaks out pitting the Japanese government in China against Europeans like Liddell. In the end, Liddell dies a martyr’s death in a Japanese concentration camp, Weihsien Internment Camp. But Shin’s focus is on Fiennes’ faith, his compassion for others, and his calm presence in the face of adversity.
Like other films about the time period, The Power of One and Unbroken, the focus is on the struggle, the suffering, and the perseverance. We briefly see Fiennes’ joy with his family and the way that he exists under better experiences, before he’s abruptly and violently ripped from the middle of a marriage service by the Japanese captain (Chen Qwan) who will prove his nemesis for the rest of the film. It’s clear from this Chinese-funded film that Liddell was a peace-making individual who was rudely confronted by ideals that neither believed what he did nor followed the natural social inclinations of a compassionate society.
Once the camp society deteriorates, the audience knows that Liddell, like Louie Zamperini, will be physically broken by the soldiers, who want their shot at a man who was once praised by crowds around the world. Liddell will run to gain supplies and food for the other prisoners, eschewing his own comfort and health, while competing in ways that no other Olympians were ever expected to - including abuse during the race by the guards. But Liddell’s efforts to teach the camp’s children English, and hymns, will pay off - when his faith will be multiplied in the lives of those around him.
That is a difference here, in the way that the sequel plays out, from its contemporaries in wartime films: Liddell is the catalyst but he is by no means the only focus. The resistance movement within the prison shows the power of Liddell’s faith, in the way that his love and charity are carried by others to even greater ends. And all of this flies in the face of evil, in the person of the captain and those who follow his orders.
Ultimately, the film is simply a visual representation imploring us to love like Liddell did - to share the love of Jesus Christ in word and deed, to forgive those who hurt us even to the point of death, and to serve in the face of hardship. This is the legacy of the film, and that of the Flying Scotsman, Olympian, friend, husband, father, and martyr for the faith.