Chariots Of Fire story in China

Joseph Fiennes (centre) plays Olympian Eric Liddell in The Last Race, which focuses on his last years in China.
Joseph Fiennes (centre) plays Olympian Eric Liddell in The Last Race, which focuses on his last years in China.PHOTO: ALIBABA PICTURES GROUP

The tale of Olympian runner Eric Liddell in the 1981 Oscar winner continues in The Last Race, which depicts his life as a missionary in China

BEIJING • Thirty-five years ago, a low-budget film from Britain about two runners who represented the country in the 1924 Olympics became a worldwide hit and went on to win four Academy Awards, including best picture.

Propelled by a throbbing electronic score, the film Chariots Of Fire (1981) stirred audiences with the triumphs of the athletes - the Jewish Englishman Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and the Christian Scotsman Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) - but struck a sobering note at the end with the information that Liddell later became a missionary in China, like his parents, and died in 1945 during the Japanese occupation.

Now, that story too has been dramatised in a new film The Last Race, a Hong Kong-Chinese production that opened in more than 50 Chinese cities last Friday.

Co-directed by veteran Hong Kong film-maker Stephen Shin and the Canadian Michael Parker, it focuses on the final years of Liddell's life, when he was held in a Japanese labour camp in the coastal province of Shandong.

With its themes of religion and wartime aggression, however, this unofficial sequel wound up requiring some careful negotiations with the Chinese censors.

As Chariots Of Fire recounted, Liddell made headlines during the 1924 Games in Paris after refusing to compete in the 100m dash because his heat was scheduled for the Sabbath. Later, though, he won a gold medal in another event, cementing his reputation as both an extraordinary athlete and a man of unshakable religious convictions - the convictions that sustained him in his difficult last years.

"It means a lot to me to be able to tell this story of an Olympic champion who came to China and sacrificed so much to help others," Shin, who is also a Christian, said in a recent interview.

"These days, I'm not so much into making movies for money or fame anymore," added the director, now 66. "I'm old now. I just want to make movies with good stories."

Shin said he first learnt about Liddell's life in China while working on a project related to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Because Liddell was born in China and died here, some refer to him as the country's first Olympian.)

In the following years, Shin said, his initial idea of telling Liddell's story in a film expanded into a more personal project devoted to understanding Liddell's life in China.

He and his collaborators consulted with Liddell's daughters, who live in Canada, and the Eric Liddell Centre in Edinburgh. They tracked down survivors of the camp - most were children at the time - and interviewed Chinese people who had lived nearby.

Eventually, in addition to making The Last Race, they also produced a documentary and compiled a book using the material they had gathered.

The film first shows Liddell, played by Joseph Fiennes, trudging into an internment camp in 1943, then flashes back to the eastern port of Tianjin and his years in the city as a teacher and missionary after his Olympic victory. After the Japanese invade, he sends his pregnant wife (Elizabeth Arends) and their two daughters to Canada.

At the camp with hundreds of other civilians from Allied countries, including Americans, British, Canadians and Australians, he becomes a quiet but steadfast leader, helping to obtain food and supplies for other prisoners with the assistance of some sympathetic Chinese.

In a fictional episode, an ailing Liddell races against a Japanese officer in an effort to get medicine for a prisoner who is dying.

Yet despite the story's emphasis on heroism and self-sacrifice, Shin acknowledged that China's film censors had to be placated before they would allow the production to proceed. Depictions of Japanese soldiers during World War II, for example, are still regarded warily by China's Communist Party.

In the original script, according to the director, a nurse in a hospital said to the invading Japanese soldiers: "This is a hospital. Everyone in this hospital is equal."

"But the film censors thought audiences would misunderstand," he said, "because in the eyes of the Chinese, the Japanese were not equals, they were invaders. So I changed it to have her say, 'This is a hospital. We are here to save people and you are here to kill people, so I would ask you to please leave.'"

Another challenge for the film-makers was determining how to depict Liddell's strong faith without alarming the censors. "You have to be very careful with how you portray religion," Shin said. "The movie can't be a medium to promote certain religious beliefs."

In the end, he said, the script was approved with only a few changes, and crosses and churches are shown throughout, even as the Chinese authorities are cracking down on the public display of crosses.

Speaking by telephone from Edinburgh, Ms Sue Cator, Liddell's niece, said that although she had not yet seen the entire film, she did not think playing down Liddell's faith would be a "huge problem" as long as he was portrayed in a positive light.

Still, she added: "The whole point is he came from a religious background and that's why he was there. So the film might not portray him in a truly accurate way."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2016, with the headline 'Chariots Of Fire story in China'. Print Edition | Subscribe