So much of life is about the next task, the next event, the next significant moment or milestone. For Eric Liddell, of Chariots of Fire fame, his life was lived focused on the present moment. Joseph Fiennes in the current film, On Wings of Eagles, about Eric’s life post Paris Olympics and his return to his birthplace of Tientsin, China as a missionary, like his parents, gently portrays this. It is there where he meets his future wife, Florence MacKenzie (Elizabeth Arends) of Canadian missionary parentage and has three daughters with her.
The film, however, focuses on the growing uneasiness as the Japanese invade China during World War II. Eric sends his wife and daughters away to her family in Canada as tensions increase. This heartbreaking separation was an emotional moment in the film, but unfortunately not emphasized enough in any flashbacks or correspondence by Liddell. The Japanese capture and intern the British nationals in China into a camp. They harshly treat them with abuse but also withholding food and supplies, which the soldiers themselves are lacking. Eric finds every way he can to help get supplies to the camp, even by smuggling them in with the help of the local Chinese villagers.
Eric is often asked by the Japanese commander of the camp to race him, since he is world famous for his Olympic medals and known in China as their own first Olympic champion. They even try to strengthen him by giving him his own room and three full meals a day. Instead, Eric shares the food with others, especially the children. He loses the first race and is punished for not eating the food put before him. He constantly gives of himself for the sake of the others—an authentic missionary that St. Paul writes about.
The race that happens several times in the film actually brought to mind Paul’s explanation of a race, “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it” (1 Cor. 9:24). Runners, he goes on to say, exercise all types of self-control in order to win. Eric does this to not receive a, “perishable wreath, but an imperishable one.” His Christianity is visible is all that he does, not only in the crosses and Bibles that are visible in the movie. His self-sacrifice speaks volumes and grounds the film with a message of hope, freedom, goodness, and deep-seated faith in God. His spirit is free even when his body is interned in a camp. His soul soars through his spiritual outlook and yearning for a life beyond the grave. This is especially poignant when he has the opportunity to leave the camp to go to his family, but instead offers that opportunity to a young pregnant mother whose husband died in the camp.
The film portrays this sacrifice of faith but also his struggle with his increasing ill health, only later to be discovered as a brain tumor. His last race in the camp in which he beat the Japanese commander he did with a blazing migraine and shoeless in the snow. His spirit was amazingly unstoppable. The film diverts to other story lines that sometimes overtake the emotional experience of Eric and create a somewhat confused script. But, overall this film speaks to the sacrifice of one man who gave his life for the Chinese people. Director Stephen Shin says that, “This film is significant in letting more people know about the love of God…and to see that we can do nothing without faith.” Eric died five months short of the Japanese surrender, systematically ending the war. His body is buried in a plot behind the Japanese officers quarters which now has a large monument with an inscription from the book of Isaiah 40:31 that reads, “They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary.” Eric surrendered his entire life to God and epitomizes self-giving love for all who crossed his path. He not only ran so as to win an earthly prize, but truly he sprinted to that finish line, “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).