It is rare for two films to complement each other in faithful telling of a true story, particularly if one is a Hollywood film.
The First ‘Unbroken’
The first film would be well-known because it was directed by Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, and the writers included the Coen brothers.
The film was based on a biography of Louis (Louie) Zamperini written by Laura Hillenbrand Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. The title sums up the theme of the movie and interestingly, also the follow-up movie that was produced by a different group and had a different basis for its message.
Louie is played by Jack O’Connell, in a physically and emotionally demanding role that sets the foundation for a full telling of his story.
Zamperini had been an Olympic runner in the 5000 metres at the1936 Berlin Games finishing 8th, though it was not his primary race preference, and circumstances meant this was the only Olympics he would participate in. That race, and other races over many years provided him with a public persona as the Torrance Tornado (from the town in California where he mostly grew up). His wider fame was due to his surviving for 47 days in a life raft after the crash of his aircraft during a normal search and rescue mission. Of the three men (out of 11) who initially survived, McNamara died after 33 days. Zamperini and the pilot Russell Allen Phillips eventually arrived at the Marshall Islands and as they were still under occupation, were quickly picked up by the Japanese navy.
The time in the life raft vividly illustrated their uncompromising battle with the elements as they survive the sea, sharks, while drinking rainwater, and for food, the fish they could catch, and even birds (these scenes would certainly put most people off eating a raw bird).
They were both held in captivity in different locations including Japan as POWs in internment camps. Zamperini was regularly beaten, and tortured in ways to impact his mental health. The primary treatment was metered out by prison guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed ‘The Bird’, who never succeeded in breaking him.
Zamperini’s experience in the life raft and also with his treatment provide the foundation for his later conversion and acceptance of what had happened. He had made a promise in the life raft: “God, if I survive this ordeal and get back to America alive, I’ll seek You and serve You.”
This promise was complicated by his POW experience and though Zamperini was liberated after the war ended in August 1945, his tormenter was not brought to justice, and this festered like a wound that could not heal, but it also laid the foundation for his eventual dramatic change of life and Zamperini’s fulfilment of his promise.
Unbroken is the pre-evangelism film, providing the amazing story from a Hollywood context that enabled connection with a wide audience.
Unbroken: Path to Redemption (2018)
This ‘Chapter Two’ type film sits comfortably in the ‘faith-based’ category of contemporary film and begins where Unbroken concludes, telling the next chapter of his life. Zamperini’s return from the ‘dead’ (he had been declared dead after missing for a year), his marriage to Cynthia, and struggle to adapt to civilian life as the nightmares of his torment continued. God was always there for him, and with Cynthia’s help they both attend Billy Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles Crusade. After leaving early the first night, Zamperini comes back for a second time, still trying to fathom the complexity of his unbrokenness in the camps and brokenness as a man. This time he hears the word of grace and forgiveness for himself and others, including his tormenter. Both out their trust in Jesus Christ, renewing their marriage and as the subtitle says, for Zamperini, starting on the ‘path to redemption’.
In a lovely touch in this film, Will Graham plays the role of his grandfather Billy at the crusades.
Louie’s passion for providing hope was ignited after his conversion. Not only did he begin a regular ministry of providing his testimony at Billy Graham Crusades, but he was also led to start a ministry to provide hope for boys that the world and even their families had given up on. These Victory Boys Camp retreats became a base for a wider ministry of support for camps all over the USA that is now conducted through the Louis Zamperini Foundation. Zamperini died at age 97 on 2 July 2014, before the first Unbroken was released, but his story through these two films is now a visual testimony for many more in the world to hear.
If you would like to read more about Angelina Jolie’s connection with Zamperini during the making of Unbroken, check out Amy Manners fascinating article published in Christian Today; a good story of the hope that Zamperini found and for this time of pandemic concern: Christian war hero made Angeline Jolie believe in the power of prayer | Christian Today Australia
Peter Bentley is a Sydney (Australia) based writer and commentator on church, media and cultural issues. He is a former President of the Australasian Religious Press Association.