The movie “Unbroken,” the story of the amazing life of Olympian and World War II prisoner of war Louis Zamperini, opened this week on the day Christians celebrated the birth of their savior.
Zamperini was a Christian and a man of great faith. How unfortunate that the movie barely recognizes Zamperini’s Christianity and his remarkable forgiveness of his barbaric captors.
The story of Zamperini, who died in July at age 97, is astounding. You couldn’t make it up. He was a truant in Torrance, Calif., who took up running, became the fastest high school miler in the country and bolted his way into the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he roomed with Jesse Owens and met Hitler.
While serving as an Army bombardier during the war, he survived a B-24 plane wreck in the Pacific Ocean and 47 days in a life raft, only to be captured by the Japanese. He spent more than two years as a prisoner and frequently was beaten and tortured, especially by one sadistic guard known as the Bird, who delighted in humiliating his famous prisoner.
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The Japanese were brutal captors. As author Laura Hillenbrand points out in “Unbroken,” the book on which the movie was based, 1 percent of Americans held as prisoners by the Germans and Italians died. Of U.S. prisoners held by the Japanese, 37 percent died.
Nightmares of the Bird
Zamperini returned to Southern California after the war, still haunted by the Bird. He had nightmares and was drinking heavily. His life and marriage were breaking up.
His wife badgered him into attending a revival held in Los Angeles in 1949 by the Rev. Billy Graham of Charlotte. Before his eight-week stay in Los Angeles, Graham was “little more than just another spirited but obscure young gospel-slinger,” wrote Graham biographer Marshall Frady. But Graham, boosted by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, drew big crowds and rocketed to national fame.
The first night Zamperini heard Graham, he walked out in anger. He and his wife argued for hours about going again. Zamperini relented but again was miserable. “He felt accused, cornered, pressed by a frantic urge to flee,” Hillenbrand wrote.
As Zamperini was leaving, he flashed back to his time on the raft when he was dying of thirst. If he lived, he had promised to serve God. He turned toward Graham. Zamperini told me and other interviewers that this was a pivotal moment in his life.
“He (Graham) said something that really got me. He said when people come to the end of their rope, they turn to God,” Zamperini told me in 2011. “Something unbelievable happened when I was still on my knees. I knew I forgave every one of my guards, including Watanabe.”
Mutsuhiro Watanabe was the Bird. Zamperini learned in 1996 from CBS, which was working on a story about him, that the Bird was alive – and not remorseful.
Nonetheless, Zamperini continued to forgive the Bird. He went to Japan in early 1998 and wanted to extend his hand in friendship and forgiveness. But the Bird would not meet with him.
After CBS aired “The Great Zamperini” at the end of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan, producer Draggan Mihailovich received “stacks and stacks and stacks of mail. Seventy-five percent was about his faith and his willingness to forgive. That’s what really touched people,” Mihailovich, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, told me.
Angelina Jolie’s movie effectively ends with Zamperini’s return to California. It’s true, as Alfred Hitchcock once said, that movies are real life with the boring parts cut out.
But Zamperini’s awakening at the Graham crusade wasn’t boring. It’s among the most powerful segments of Hillenbrand’s book. Any retelling of Zamperini’s story that doesn’t emphasize his faith and forgiveness doesn’t reveal why this extraordinary man truly was unbroken.