Joseph Fiennes is playing Eric Liddell in The Last Race

Joseph Fiennes is playing Eric Liddell in The Last Race June 25, 2015

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Does Joseph Fiennes have a thing for “faith-based” movies?

Back in 2003, he starred in Luther, a film about the Augustinian monk who kicked off the Protestant Reformation; next year, he will star in Risen as a Roman officer who investigates the resurrection of Jesus; and now, word comes that he is playing Christian missionary Eric Liddell in The Last Race, which is being billed as a sort of unofficial sequel to 1981 Best Picture Oscar winner Chariots of Fire.

People have been trying to make a sequel to Chariots of Fire for years. The last time I wrote about this, in 2007, there were two in development: Beyond the Chariots, written by Rich Swingle, and With Wings as Eagles, produced by Ken Wales. But as far as I can tell, those projects never got beyond the writing stage.

The Last Race, on the other hand, is already in production. The Hollywood Reporter said today that the film began shooting in North America five months ago and has since moved to China, where it will finish principal photography in August.

Because the film depicts Liddell’s last days during the Japanese occupation of China — he died of a brain tumour in 1945 while interned at the Weixian Internment Camp — the filmmakers hope to premiere the film on December 13, the 78th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre. The film will then be released in March of next year.

Interestingly, while the people behind the other would-be sequels are known for their “faith-based” connections, The Last Race is written and co-directed by a Hong Kong filmmaker, Stephen Shin, who is tapping into the burgeoning Chinese movie audience. (The other co-director, and possible co-writer, is Michael Parker, a Canadian.)

Shin told the Reporter that the film had to be a Chinese co-production so that it would qualify for exhibition in China itself. China allows only a limited number of foreign films into its theatres, and the ones it lets in are usually major blockbusters.

The film could still run into trouble with the country’s atheist censors, depending on how it handles Liddell’s faith. However, the film will also focus on Liddell’s friendship with a Chinese man, and on how they both suffered at the hands of the Japanese occupiers during World War II, so that might appeal to the powers that be.

Plus, The Independent notes that Liddell is something of an officially recognized hero in China to this day, despite his religious affiliation:

Liddell is regarded as a hero by many religious and non-religious Chinese, suggesting that the potential audience for The Last Race is large.

A memorial stone in Isle of Mull granite stands in his honour near his grave in Weifang and a plaque marks the Tianjin address, 38 Chongqing Dao – formerly known as Cambridge Road – where he used to live.

He is praised in China for his leadership in the internment camp as much as for his sporting achievements. Liddell is believed to have organised the smuggling of food into the camp. And he refused to leave despite Winston Churchill negotiating a prisoner swap. Instead, he gave up his place so a pregnant prisoner could walk free.

Stephen Metcalfe, who was interned with Liddell in China, wrote: “He gave me two things. One was his worn out running shoes, but the best thing he gave me was his baton of forgiveness.

“He taught me to love my enemies, the Japanese, and to pray for them.”

Hmmm. If this is handled properly, The Last Race could give western Christians the World War II athletics-and-suffering-and-forgiveness story that they wanted but failed to get from Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, which reduced Louis Zamperini’s conversion and forgiveness of his Japanese captors to a closing title card.

As ever, we shall just have to wait and see.

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