Atheist Chinese government may influence portrayal of 'Chariots of Fire' Eric Liddell in 'The Last Race'

by Gregory Tomlin, |
The Last Race, scheduled for release in 2016, depicts the final years of Eric Liddell in a Japanese concentration camp. Liddell, a missionary to China, died in the camp in 1945. | IMDB/Production Photo

NEW YORK (Christian Examiner) – A film scheduled for release in 2016 will probe the final years of Eric Liddell, the Olympic sprinter who refused to compete in his final race of the 1924 Olympics because it was scheduled on a Sunday.

Liddell's actions, which earned him condemnation from secularists and praise from his fellow Christians, inspired the film Chariots of Fire in 1981. After the Olympics, Liddell – who won the gold in the 400m and bronze in the 200m – served as a missionary to China, but when the Japanese invaded he and 2,000 other westerners were interned in a concentration camp.

Liddell died there in February 1945, just months before the camp was liberated and the war ended. Those who were with Liddell in the camp reported afterwards that he was the selfless spiritual leader of the group.

His whole life was based on the Christian belief – certainly when he went back to China. My grandfather was a missionary in China and a reverend and so was Eric.

According to the Scottish Daily Record, however, Liddells's family is worried that the new film, The Last Race, will ignore the Olympic hero's Christian faith because it is funded by a Chinese corporation.

The group producing the film has, in fact, already said Liddell's deep Christian faith "will not be emphasized."

The film stars Joseph Fiennes, star of Shakespeare in Love and another religious film set to be released in 2016, Risen. In Risen, Fiennes portrays a Roman soldier investigating the resurrection of Christ.

Liddell's niece told the Daily Record a film about Eric Liddell, especially in his final years, has to be a film about his faith or he is not accurately portrayed.

"Without the Christian element in him, it just doesn't sound like Eric Liddell," Sue Liddell Caton told the newspaper. "I would find it strange if there was no reference to Christianity."

"His whole life was based on the Christian belief – certainly when he went back to China. My grandfather was a missionary in China and a reverend and so was Eric," Caton said.

But the writer of the film, shot in parts of Canada, Britain and China, argues that Liddell was not outspoken about his faith. Michael Parker said Liddell "wasn't evangelical in terms of pushing Christianity on others. He was who he was and, as much as possible, that will be portrayed in the film."

Global politics, more than anything, is in play.

The Chinese government does not allow films that portray Christians in a positive light. Atheism is still the official policy of the government. And the film is wholly funded by Alibaba, the same Chinese financers who funded the recent blockbuster Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation starring Tom Cruise.

Caton said her uncle may not have been pushy about his faith, but "he was definitely a Christian who upheld those ideals .... His work was Christian based. I would be very surprised if his faith wasn't mentioned."

Caton also said she was able to meet with the production company in Edinburgh but did not see a final script.

"I had originally thought it was going to be for Chinese consumption and nobody else would see it," Caton told the Daily Record. "You hope they don't embellish it too much."

Liddell's faith will likely still be depicted in his actions. In 1943, Liddell, who was already beginning to suffer from malnutrition and disease, was given the opportunity to leave the camp when Prime Minister Winston Churchill negotiated his release. Liddell instead asked for a pregnant woman in the camp to be released. He died of a brain tumor two years later.