Last seen as a reformed Roman legionnaire who encountered Jesus in Risen (2016), Joseph Fiennes is back for yet another faith-based outing as famed Olympian and Christian missionary Eric Liddell – the very same athlete who was the focus of the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire.
The film On Wings of Eagles outlines the years after Eric’s Olympic triumph, and serves as an unofficial sequel to Chariots of Fire – his ‘second wind’, as one might say. Told through the voice of Eric’s Chinese personal chauffeur, Xu Niu, On Wings of Eagles begins in the late 1930s, with Eric in China where he served as a missionary teaching English to children in the countryside.
Eric soon found himself caught up in the chaos of the Second World War when China was invaded by Imperial Japan. Faced with a choice to escape from the country with the rest of the Western community, he sent his own family away instead, while he chose to stay behind to continue his ministry.
The rest of the movie revolves around his days in Weihsien Internment Camp, a facility for Westerners rounded up by the Japanese Army. There, Eric gave the rest of the internees hope and strength through his selflessness, character, and unshakeable faith in God.
The film deftly weaves in sequences through which viewers can see his utmost dedication and love for the Chinese people. In a particular scene where Eric was eating with Xu Niu and his family, he candidly declared that despite his physical appearance, his heart was Chinese. After all, he had been born in China – a fact that is relatively less well-known.
Eric’s sense of humanity and self-sacrifice can also be seen in another key moment in the film. The Japanese camp commander had recognised him as a famous Olympian, and challenged him to a race, issuing him a gourmet spread to make it a fair race. Eric instead chose to share his food with the other internees and the children, so that they might fill their stomachs.
He would ultimately pass away from a brain tumour in the camp, five months before China was liberated in 1945.
Eric Liddell’s character in On Wings of Eagles is well fleshed out – no surprise as there are numerous historical sources to draw from, such as other films and literature about him. However, the same cannot be said for other characters in this film. They lack depth and sufficient character development, being reduced to mere caricatures: the foreigners being the oppressed victims and the Japanese troops being two-dimensional villains, with the exception of a couple of foot soldiers towards the end of the film.
Instances of Eric actually practising his faith are also lacking in the movie, but may be understandable as the film was released in China where censorship of overt religious symbolism and behaviour is common. Where possible, though, the film does illustrate Eric’s staunch Christian beliefs, for example when he bravely stood up to a Japanese commander and quoted from Scripture.
Despite these shortcomings, compounded by a plot tending towards the simplistic, the film is carried very well by Fiennes. The actor has breathed life into the character of Eric Liddell who, though a figure of the early 20th century, stood for values and faith that are timeless.
Jason Woo –
is Methodist Message’s Editorial Executive. When not working on the latest articles, he enjoys long jogs and cuddling up with his three cats along with a good book.
Artwork and movie stills courtesy of Shaw Organisation, used with permission