On Wings of Eagles-the sequel to ‘Chariots of Fire’ about Eric Liddell in the Paris Olympics–comes to theaters November 3rd. Award-winning stage and screen actor Joseph Fiennes (Risen, Shakespeare in Love) offers a remarkable performance as Eric Liddell in China as a missionary teacher after the Olympics. Eric Henry Liddell (1902 – 1945) was an international Scottish rugby player. He was also a missionary, who chose his religious convictions over competing in an Olympic race held on a Sunday, as depicted in the Academy Award-winning movie Chariots of Fire (1982).
Eric was born in Tientsin (Tianjin) North China as the second son of Reverend and Mrs. James Liddell, who were missionaries with the London Mission Society. He went to school in China until he was five. When he was six, he and his eight-year-old brother Robert were enrolled in Eltham College, a boarding school in south London for the sons of missionaries. They attended this school, when his parents and sister, Jenny, returned to China. During the boys’ time at Eltham, their parents, sister, and new brother Ernest returned home on furlough two or three times, so that they could all be together as a family in Edinburgh.
At Eltham, Liddell was an outstanding athlete. He earned the Blackheath Cup as the best athlete of his year. He became captain of both the cricket and rugby union teams. His headmaster, George Roberts, described him as being “entirely without vanity.” Athletics and rugby continued as a big part of Eric’s University life. He ran in the 100 yards and the 220 yards races for Edinburgh University and then later for Scotland. He played rugby for Edinburgh University and played in seven Scottish Internationals. He was well known as the fastest runner in Scotland.
Liddell was also known as a strong Christian. For example, he was chosen to speak for the Glasgow Students’ Evangelistic Union because he was a devout Christian. Hoping he would draw large crowds to hear the Gospel and to evangelize the men of Scotland, the GSEU would send out a group of eight to ten men with Liddell as the lead speaker to areas where Liddell could speak, and they would stay with the local population.
In 1924, Liddell participated in the Summer Olympics in Paris but he refused to run in the heats for his preferred 100-meter race because they were held on a Sunday. Instead, on a weekend, he competed in the 400-meter race, which he won. After the Olympics and his graduation, he returned to North China in 1925 to serve as a missionary teacher from 1925 to 1943 – first in Tientsin (Tainjin) and later in Siaochan. During a first furlough in 1932, he was ordained as a minister. He married Florence Mackenzie, who had Canadian missionary parents, when he returned to Tientsin, China in 1934.
In 1941, life in China was dangerous because of Japanese threats, but Liddell accepted a position at a rural mission station in Xiaozhang, which served the poor. This area had suffered much during the country’s civil wars and had become a treacherous battleground with the invading Japanese.
Eric’s brother, Rob, was a doctor at the mission station in Xiaozhang. The station was severely short of help. The missionaries suffered from exhaustion with the constant needs of the local people, who came at all hours for treatment. Eric arrived at the station in time to relieve his brother, who needed to go on furlough due to illness. When the British government advised families to leave China, Florence and their daughters left for Canada. At the time, Florence was pregnant with Maureen.
In 1943, Eric was interned at the Weihsien Internment Camp (in the modern city of Weifang) with the members of the China Inland Mission, Chefoo School (in the city now known as Yantai), and many others. He became a leader and organizer at the camp; but food, medicine and other supplies were scarce. Liddell helped the elderly, taught at the camp school Bible classes, arranged games, and taught science to the children. They referred to him as Uncle Eric. Liddell suffered many hardships himself as a missionary, finally succumbing to a brain tumor in the Weishien camp until his death in 1945.
The upcoming powerfully inspirational movie, On Wings of Eagles, presents actor Joseph Fiennes as Eric Liddell, in China from 1934 forward. It is directed by director Stephen Shin and it is due for release in theaters November 3rd. Stephen graduated from the Sociology program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in 1975. When in college, he founded a drama club at CUHK and directed plays. He also started writing scripts for television and joined Television Broadcasts (TVB) and Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) as programming director and director. In addition, Shin worked on the scripts for films such as Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978) and The Rascal Billionaire (1978). With his directorial debut, Affairs (1979), Shin joined the ranks of young directors who would be collectively known as the Hong Kong New Wave.
He directed and produced many notable films and became executive director at D & B films, where he led the planning, developing and supervising of production of over 60 movies, including his own. Shin and his partners then founded their own production company, Citi-media. Shin joined the public company Junefield Group in 1998 as an executive member of the board. Later, he directed The Source of Love (2003), a Christian evangelical feature.
In 2004, Shin became the vice president and Hong Kong regional president of the Beijing company SMI Corporation, serving at the same time as executive director of Sing Pao Daily News and chief executive officer of Sun TV. He later founded a production house in China, developing several scripts. Shin had also been active in theater, directing notable plays and musicals. He is currently the Chief Operating Officer of Sil-Metropole Organization.
Sonoma Christian Home caught up with Stephen Shin for an in-depth look at the film. SCH Editor At Large Dr. Diane Howard reports. This is significant for Dr. Howard because her own family was involved in serving China during this period of Chinese history. Her great uncle, Clifford Lowe, was a missionary in Shanghai until 1940, which was about the time that Eric Liddell served alone in a dangerous area of China and was interned by the Japanese. A few years later, her father, Col. H.S. Lowe, followed the liberation of China from the Japanese (after serving with General Patton in Europe in WWII) and was assigned to China to serve as a liaison officer to Chiang Kia Shek. Dr. Howard was born just before her parents went to China and then evacuated with them to Japan when the communists overtook China. Her interview with Stephen Shin was enlightening:
SCH: How did you become familiar with Eric Liddell’s work in China?
SS: In 2004 I was preparing an exhibition for the 2008 Olympics. I learned of the Olympics story of Eric Liddell, later learned of his missionary story, later wanted to make a movie about him.
SCH: Did you find it difficult to tell a Christian story in China today?
SS: The Chinese government today allows Christian depictions in movies but does not allow promotion of any religion. The Chinese bureaucracy for permits is challenging. It took over ten years to make this movie.
SCH: Have you told the Eric Liddell story in other forms?
SS: Yes, it is in a book in Chinese and will soon be available in English.
SCH: What was his impact on China and his legacy there?
SS: Although the foreign missionary movement in China ended, the Christian movement did not. It grew from the seeds sown by Eric Liddell and many missionaries like him.
SCH: The dialects seem authentic. Did you cast actors who knew the dialects? Did you have a dialect coach?
SS: We worked on authentic dialects in many ways. We cast Chinese actors. They had scripts in Chinese and English. The non-Chinese actors had a dialect coach.
Stephen Shinn verified the following history of Chinese Christians:
After Japan went to war with China in 1937, most missionaries left. However, hundreds stayed in “Free China,” beyond Japanese reach, and ministered during the Pacific War. But over 1000 others were interned in camps by the Japanese, where many died, including Eric Liddell.
Chinese Christians who remained under Japanese rule now had full responsibilities for their churches and fellowships. Rising to the challenges, many Chinese Christians developed leadership skills that were later helpful after the communist takeover. Also, in the brief period between the Japanese surrender in August 1945 and the communist victory in 1949, a few thousand missionaries returned. With foreign treaties gone, foreigners were under Chinese law. However, missionaries soon had to evacuate as the communists invaded, established their communist rule in 1949, and in 1951 expelled all foreign missionaries. However, as the foreign missionary movement in China ended, the Christian movement did not.
One of Eric Liddell’s fellow internees, Norman Cliff, later wrote a book about his experiences in the camp called The Courtyard of the Happy Way in which he described Liddell as “the finest Christian gentleman it has been my pleasure to meet. In all the time in the camp, I never heard him say a bad word about anybody”.
Langdon Gilkey, who also survived the camp and became a prominent American theologian, said of Liddell: “Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humor and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.”
Liddell died of an inoperable brain tumor five months before liberation. Langdon Gilkey also wrote, “The entire camp, especially its youth, was stunned for days, so great was the vacuum that Eric’s death had left.”
Another fellow missionary said that Liddell’s last words were, “It’s complete surrender” referring to his relationship with God.
Eric and Florence had three daughters, who have lived in Canada. The youngest, Maureen, who never met her father, speaks of the road to recovery in the family’s loss of Eric. The two oldest daughters also speak of their father and mother in a featurette with insights from Joseph Fiennes about Eric Liddell.
To learn more about this author, please visit Dr. Diane Howard