The film first shows Liddell, played by Joseph Fiennes, trudging into an internment camp in 1943, then flashes back to the eastern port of Tianjin and his years in the city as a teacher and missionary after his Olympic victory. After the Japanese invade, he sends his pregnant wife (Elizabeth Arends) and their two daughters to Canada. At the camp with hundreds of other civilians from Allied countries, including Americans, British, Canadians and Australians, he becomes a quiet but steadfast leader, helping to obtain food and supplies for other prisoners with the assistance of some sympathetic Chinese.
BEIJING — Thirty-five years ago, a low-budget film from Britain about two runners who represented the country in the 1924 Olympics became a worldwide hit and went on to win four Academy Awards, including best picture.
Propelled by a throbbing electronic score, the film, “Chariots of Fire,” stirred audiences with the triumphs of the athletes — the Jewish Englishman Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and the Christian Scotsman Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) — but struck a sobering note at the end with the information that Liddell later became a missionary in China, like his parents, and died in 1945 during the Japanese occupation.
Now, that story too has been dramatized in a new film, “The Last Race,” a Hong Kong-Chinese production that opened in more than 50 Chinese cities last Friday. (It does not yet have a North American release date.) Co-directed by the veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Shin and the Canadian Michael Parker, it focuses on the final years of Liddell’s life, when he was held in a Japanese labor camp in the coastal province of Shandong.
With its themes of religion and wartime aggression, however, this unofficial sequel wound up requiring some careful negotiations with the Chinese censors.
As “Chariots of Fire” recounted, Liddell made headlines during the 1924 Games in Paris after refusing to compete in the 100-meter dash because his heat was scheduled for the Sabbath. Later, though, he won a gold medal in another event, cementing his reputation as both an extraordinary athlete and a man of unshakable religious convictions — the convictions that sustained him in his difficult last years.
“It means a lot to me to be able to tell this story of an Olympic champion who came to China and sacrificed so much to help others,’’ Mr. Shin, who is also a Christian, said in a recent interview.
“These days, I’m not so much into making movies for money or fame anymore,” added the director, now 66. “I’m old now. I just want to make movies with good stories.”
Mr. Shin said he first learned about Liddell’s life in China while working on a project related to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Because Liddell was born in China and died here, some refer to him as the country’s first Olympian.)