On Christmas Eve 2010 I had Fox News on. Tammy was with her niece in Peoria as she was trying on wedding dresses. Fox was running a story on a guy named Louis Zamperini and the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I had not heard of either, but the incredible story I was hearing caused me to tear up as I heard about Zamperini’s unbelievable story. I couldn’t wait to read the book, but had to complete my January term class at Covenant Seminary before doing so.
After completing my class I got the audiobook version of the book and heard all of Zamperini’s story. I didn’t want to turn the book off. I tell people that if a novel was submitted of Zamperini’s life it would be rejected because it wasn’t believable. I remember thinking that his life story would make a great movie (and found out recently in Zamperini’s final book – Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In – sent to the editors just two days before his death in July, that there has been talk of a movie of his life for several years, with Tony Curtis at one time scheduled to portray Zamperini back in the late 1950’s). Zamperini was thrilled that Angelina Jolie was finally going to make a film about his life. He developed a close relationship with Jolie, who spoke at his memorial service in July.
Jack O’Connell stars as Zamperini in this film. He is outstanding in the role, and I think worthy of consideration for a Best Actor nomination. Zamperini’s story is well known by now, as Hillenbrand’s book has sold about 4 million copies since its release in 2010.
Zamperini got into a lot of trouble as a young boy until his brother Pete (played by Alex Russell) convinces him to run track. He was very successful at track, nicknamed the “Torrance Tornado”, and ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, meeting Hitler briefly. He then served in World War II as a bombardier. But Zamperini’s old and unreliable plane (the Green Hornet) crashes in the Pacific Ocean while on a search and rescue mission. Only Zamperini and Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock) survive the crash. After 47 days and drifting some 2,000 miles, they are captured by the Japanese and taken to a Japanese Prisoner of War camp, where Louis is tortured by Mutsushiro Watanabe, known to the prisoners as “The Bird”. Louis hates that Bird and wants to kill him. The film version ends with the end of the war and Louis arriving back home.
But that’s not where his story ends as everyone who has read the book knows. As Franklin Graham stated on the excellent Fox News special Louis Zamperini: Journey of Faith, director Angelina Jolie did an excellent job bringing to the screen Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, but she didn’t take the story far enough. Christians know that Louis’ life is changed after attending Billy Graham’s meetings in Los Angeles when his life was falling apart (drinking heavily, his wife Cynthia filing for divorce, terrible nightmares about The Bird).
The title of Hillenbrand’s book is Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. What Jolie’s excellent film misses is the “Redemption” aspect. As the film ends, Jolie includes a few brief notes on the screen about how the change in Zamperini’s life led him from revenge to forgiveness. Watch the Fox News special to see what happened to Zamperini after Jolie’s film ends (it will be rebroadcast on December 31 at 7pm ET and on January 1 at 7 pm ET.).
Although Christians will be disappointed about how Zamperini’s Christian faith post-war is handled in the film, his son Luke has indicated that his father loved the way the film handled the subject of his Christian faith. Luke wrote on Townhall.com:
“Dad, you see, survived the horrors of war physically unbroken, but returned to the states emotionally shattered. Suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome), he tried to kill the pain with alcohol and was consumed by visions of murdering his chief Japanese tormentor, a sadistic man nicknamed “The Bird” by inmates. It was only when, at the urging of my mother, he attended a Billy Graham crusade in 1949 and surrendered his life to Jesus Christ that my father truly became unbroken. The nightmares stopped. So did the drinking. And he dedicated the rest of his life to serving others. The film version of Unbroken does not spend a lot of screen time on his Christian conversion—detailing it in a series of text cards before the closing credits. And that is exactly the way my Dad and our entire family wanted it. … [His] greatest hope for the film version of Unbroken [was] not that it would be applauded by fellow Christians, although he certainly would have been honored and humbled by their appreciation; but that it would be seen by non-Christians drawn to a rousing epic about the indomitable human spirit who, when the credits have finished rolling, might just discover there’s a whole lot more to his story than that.”
I think Jolie does an excellent job telling Zamperini’s story through his return to America after the war. The film is well-made beginning with the opening scene as Louis, Phil and Hugh “Cup” Cuppernell (Jai Courtney) fly through enemy fire to drop bombs in a frightening and exciting scene. I felt like I was in the plane with the men. The scenes on the raft adrift at sea are also incredible, as Louis, Phil and Mac battle hunger, thirst, sharks and weather issues to survive.
The film is difficult to watch at times, especially when Zamperini is tortured by “The Bird”. There is a small amount of adult language and brief nudity when Louis and Phil are forced to strip and kneel before their captors.
NOTE: If you didn’t see it when aired on December 27, check out the one-hour presentation on Fox News featuring Franklin Graham, Greta Van Susteren and an airing of the new documentary: Louis Zamperini: Captured by Grace. The Fox News special, Louis Zamperini: Journey of Faith, will re-air at 7 p.m. on December 31 and January 1.