by Tim Jones 12/30/14
A movie of mind-boggling cruelty, suffering and evil • I recently went to see the movie Unbroken and anyone that’s not familiar with it should check it out if they can. It’s based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand who tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, a son of Italian immigrants, in vivid detail.
The life story of Zamperini can broken down into three parts, the first of which is him growing up as a somewhat wayward kid in Torrance, California, whose brother discovers he has a natural talent for running. Zamperini trains, competes, and develops into a world-class runner reaching the pinnacle of his athletic career by competing at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This is the same one of infamy that was hosted by Hitler prior to start of World War II and that Jesse Owen, a black American, participated in much to the chagrin of the Führer.
The next two parts of his life comprise of Zamperini’s ‘unbroken’ experience of survival on the ocean and two Japanese internment camps, and then his life back in California following the end of the war and his liberation.
An early scene in the movie depicts Zamperini at church with his family where you see a close-up of his feet in ADD-like nervous movement. His father gives him a light slap to the back of the head to pay attention and then another as the young teenager eyeballs an attractive older woman in a pew on the other side of the aisle while the priest is giving a sermon that seems to presage what’s to come in his life.
When WWII breaks out, Zamperini is on a search-and-rescue mission hundreds of miles from their base in Hawaii when their plane, totally lacking in proper maintenance, loses its engine power and crashes into the ocean. From there it is an unbelievable story of his survival, spending 47 days on a raft with two of his fellow airmen. One of his compatriots, however, succumbs to death due to lack of food, water, and exposure to the elements. Zamperini and the other crewman then have the terrible misfortune of being captured by Japanese sailors that came across the two floating in their raft.
At this point Zamperini’s nightmare only gets worse as he is taken to a Japanese prison camp outside of Tokyo. It is there that he is tormented by the prison commandant that goes by the nickname “the Bird.” The beatings are incredibly brutal, and while reading the book and watching the movie, it boggles the mind how one person could withstand and sustain such incredible pain and brutality over such a long period of time. His bad luck gets even worse as he’s transferred out of the prison camp to a coal-processing slave labor camp where the Bird had been promoted to oversee, and it’s here the torture of Zamperini starts over where it had left off by the sadist.
The essence of the movie is captured in a scene where a soot-covered, incredibly weary Zamperini is forced by the Bird to lift a large wooden beam over his head and hold it there, otherwise he will be shot if he lets go or drops the heavy piece of wood. The symbolism is unmistakable, much like Willem Dafoe near the end of Platoon where he is shot in the back and falls to his knees in a Christ-like pose, Zamparini is Christ on the Cross in this scene embodying the pain and sacrifice he endures because of evil that exists in the world and revealed throughout history so many times in it worst possible manifestations. It is the ongoing story of man’s inhumanity to man, the duality of the good and bad that reside in all of us, and that can only be reconciled by Christ and his ultimate and enduring sacrifice on the Cross.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t portray the third and what may be the most important chapter in Zamperini’s life (but well-covered in the book) and that is his return to California following his liberation in Japan. He marries, has a daughter and a son, then descends into a life of confusion, rage and alcoholism. It is his wife that makes him go to a Billy Graham sermon in downtown Los Angeles to help straighten out his life. The year was 1949 and the event is the first major spiritual revival campaign by Graham’s emerging worldwide Christian ministry.
It is now that Zamperini begins to turn his life around, first by becoming a born-again Christian then devoting his life to Christ by working at an organization to rehabilitate wayward boys much as he was when he was as a teenager. It was during this time he also returns to Japan on a couple of occasions. He wants to meet his captors, especially the Bird, face-to-face, and to forgive them. The cowardly man will not meet with him but in the act of ultimate graciousness and forgiveness, Zamperini becomes the living embodiment of Christ in forgiving not just an enemy but near absolute evil on earth. It is in his forgiveness that Zamperini becomes truly free not just physically but spiritually as well. He even returns to Nagano, Japan in 1998 at the age of 80 to be part of the torch-carrying members that leads to the lighting of the Olympic flame signalling the start of the international winter games.
I’ve read a criticism of the movie that religion is treated too generically, that Zamperini’s dedicating his life to Christ is not portrayed, and finally it seems to be inspirational but begs the question “inspirational to do what?” I think the writer made a good point and a great question. Here is a man who was on the cusp on being physically destroyed by evil, but with superhuman perseverance he survived his ordeal and went on with the grace of God and used his experience to convert and to live a life of Christ-centered inspiration and who is fully redeemed.
In the highly secularized society that is America today that does little to challenge the spirit or the flesh and replaced by the search for perpetual comfort and pleasure in a trivialized world, the question then becomes how does one become inspired and motivated to live a Christ-centered life like Zamperini? I know I personally struggle with this question and even more so after watching a movie like Unbroken.
Postcript: Anyone that finds the book and the movie, Unbroken, one of the best stories of survival under the worst possible conditions of brutality and depravity should find another equally vivid portrayal in the book, Tears in the Darkness. Like Zamperini in Unbroken, Tears in the Darkness follows the real-life story of Ben Steele, a country boy raised on a farm in Montana, who ends up part of the infamous Bataan death march in the Philippines also during WWII. I’m not sure which experience was more horrific, but Tears in the Darkness is another testimony to resilience and survival in the face of unimaginable cruelty, suffering, and evil: the ongoing story of man’s inhumanity to man. • (973 views)