This is an answer to a prayer I've been praying since 1981 when Chariots of Fire won four Academy Awards. I wanted to know more about what the supertitles ending Chariots of Fire hinted at: “Eric Liddell, missionary, died in occupied China at the end of World War II. All of Scotland mourned.”
Beyond the Chariots, my one-man play that tells the rest of the Chariots of Fire story from the perspective of Eric Liddell. We're planning to release a recording of my performance of the play at the Singapore Expo soon. Sign up to get the announcement. Since I first started my research at the Eric Liddell Centre in Edinburgh I've tracked no less than seven attempts (including one of my own) to tell more of Eric Liddell's story on the big screen, so I'm overjoyed that this one finally made it across the finish line... but being so tied to the story, I feel let down on certain fronts.
Before I get to that, there is plenty to love about On Wings of Eagles. I'll tried to keep the spoilers to a minimum, but there are a few things I just have to mention....
On Wings of Eagles is a total reworking of a film entitled The Last Race, which was released in Hong Kong and China last year. Producers Jim Green and Mark Bacino told me they took the raw footage and have reworked the storyline and introduced a narrator, the older voice of Xu Niu (played by Shawn Dou on screen and voiced by the older Bruce Locke). Though I haven't seen The Last Race, from descriptions I've heard I believe this is a much better film for Western audiences.
As a young runner I was inspired by Eric Liddell the athlete. As a Christian I loved how Chariots of Fire showed Liddell refusing to run on a Sunday in the 100m, where he might have proven that he was the fastest man alive. Instead he trained for the 400m and broke the world record at that distance.
One of the things I love most about On Wings of Eagles is that it shows Liddell turning away from fame and fortune that was promised after his Olympic success to minister to the people who nearly killed his family shortly after his birth during the Boxer Rebellion. Jacob Shams in his otherwise excellent review of the new film gets one thing wrong. He says, "...after his racing days were over, Liddell returned to the home of his birth, China..." Liddell's racing days were far from over! He broke the world record at the Paris Olympics when he was 22, and he left for China the very next year. I'll post more on Liddell's athletic accomplishments in China later, but the short version is that during a meet in China hosted by Japan for the Emperor's coronation, Liddell tied some of the winning times set in the 1928 Olympics earlier that year.
The farewell on the ship is a scene that may have been inspired by the Prologue in my favorite biography on Liddell, Pure Gold, by David McCasland, who saw my play and set up a tour of Tianjin for us. I'll post more on that later. In both the biography and the movie, it is quite a moving scene.
It's not long (in the film and in reality) before Pearl Harbor is bombed and citizens of all Allied nations are put into internment camps. I performed my play for Jim "Jamey" Hudson Taylor III, the great grandson of the prominent missionary to China. I'll post more on that later. Jamey, his three siblings and his grandfather were in the internment camp with "Uncle Eric," as all the students called him. After two of the three performances of my play Jamey saw in Hong Kong, he described how Uncle Eric was a father figure to so many children who were separated from their families. The new film captures this, in part with a sign Jamey Taylor mentioned to me. There were so many visits to Uncle Eric's flat that his roommate put up a sign indicating "Uncle Eric is IN" or "Uncle Eric is OUT."
The couple is separated when they're brought into the internment camp, but the new groom insists on married housing. Yoshinori Yumoto asks for proof that they are married, but of course he's taken their rings. Uncle Eric says, "What God has joined together let no man put asunder." Yoshinori Yumoto tells him, "My emperor is the god here." That much is in the trailer you can see below. It's Uncle Eric's response that is one of my favorite moments in the film on a number of different levels. I'm planning to talk about that after the NYC screenings.
The Music Department of On Wings of Eagles had a high bar set for them since Vangelis won the Oscar for his soundtrack to Chariots of Fire. My brother and I listened to the record the night before every cross-country and track meet. The new film's orchestrator, Steve Greer, arranged for a live orchestra in Macedonia to perform the music, and I think they did a wonderful job. There were two songs in particular that brought joy to my heart.
The second song that moved me was "Be Still My Soul." It was Uncle Eric's favorite hymn, and the new film introduces it early and it has a prominent place in the end.
This brings me to my disappointments with the film. Whenever a story is taken out of history and told as a movie there must be choices to fictionalize certain elements in order to make it work in the format of cinema. Sometimes those choices upset those who know the real story well. After a performance of Beyond the Chariots in Milwaukee, an audience member Lucy Storch gave me two letters she received from Uncle Eric's sister, Jenny Somerville. She said, "The girl playing myself (Cheryl Campbell) was nothing like me! I was never against my brother running....The scriptwriter (Colin Welland, who won the Oscar for it) said you need a conflict in a film, so I was the conflict!"
At a certain point in the new film, Xu Niu's subtitles indicate that he used the word hell as an expletive. I was sorry to see this because hell is a real place, and no matter how the cultural narrative downplays it, it is not temporary or benign. There is nothing in Scripture that indicates it is a lukewarm lake of fire. Though the use of the word was used to give shape to Xu Niu's character arc, I think it's a shame that the word was used in a film that should attract impressionable youths.
Early on in the film we see Uncle Eric looking the other way when a bribe being given. Even if such a moment occurred, with only 90 minutes to flesh out his life, I think it was a very poor choice to show him benefiting from an illegal act without speaking against it.
In another moment Uncle Eric is forced to run on a Sunday. It is true that he eventually decided to referee games on Sundays in the internment camp because, without his presence, fights were breaking out. But to hear the challenge without fleshing out the mental anguish that would have gone into such a choice is wrong. I hope audiences reflect on the fact that the stakes were much higher than the personal glory Uncle Eric walked away from at the Paris Olympics.
If you see your need for a Savior, you can reach out right now to the only One who bridges the gap between fallen humans and a Holy God: Jesus Christ. Visit www.RichDrama.com/MyPassion for more information.
I'll speak and take questions after two NYC screenings of On Wings of Eagles on November 3 and 4 at Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St., Manhattan. We're planning to record the Q/A session, so if you're outside the NYC area, post your questions in a comment below, and if there's time I'll answer questions that are posted here.
Here's the complete list of theaters showing it, starting November 3:
1. Kansas City, MO; Barrywoods 24
2. Atlanta, GA; Southlake Pavilion 24
3. Cleveland/Akron/Canton/Solon, OH; Solon 16
4. Philadelphia, PA; Cherry Hill 24
5. Denver, CO; Highlands Ranch 24
6. Houston, TX; Gulf Point 30
7. Dallas, TX; Mesquite 30
8. San Francisco, CA; Deer Valley Stadium 16
9. Pasadena, CA; Laemmle Pasadena 7
10. Manhattan, NY: Cinema Village
Viewers should know:
* The word hell is used as an expletive.
* War violence.
-A young boy is blown up.
-[SPOILER ALERT] Another young boy is electrocuted and it is said that he will stay on the hot wires for a week. A real electrocution in the camp probably inspired this fictional element.
See the trailer below, or if you're reading this in an email visit www.RichDrama.com/OnWingsOfEagles.
See the rest of Olympic champion Eric Liddell's Chariots of Fire story by booking Beyond the Chariots.