Louis Zamperini (1917–2014) was a miracle of a man. He truly lived — better, survived — one of the greatest stories ever written. Nonfiction stories are written, too, you know. “In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16). Some stories wake us up and remind us of this mouth-stopping truth. Louie’s life could only have been born in the mind and heart of God.
A film opens today bringing Louie’s epic story to the big screen. It’s based on Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable telling of Louie’s extraordinary story, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Louie’s life is a Lord of the Rings trilogy born in the flesh of one strong, but feeble man. The Coen brothers (writers), Angelina Jolie (producer and director), and everyone else involved should be applauded for taking on a life as excruciating and inspiring as Louie’s. It is a monumental task — one too large for life, much less for a full-length feature film.
I won’t offer any spoiler alerts, because I don’t believe this article will spoil anything for you — at least anything that’s not already suggested in the title (Unbroken: Survival. Resilience. Redemption). In fact, having read Hillenbrand’s book, I consider this an anti-spoiler — like reading up on the history and landmarks of Washington D.C. before you spend a week there. I believe you’ll enjoy the film (and Louie) more knowing the full story, especially the pages not covered in Jolie’s 137 minutes.
Worse Than World War II
Unbroken, the film, begins with the trouble-making son of Italian immigrants, chronicles his unlikely and meteoric rise to fame as an Olympian, displays some of the unspeakable horrors of war, and highlights the resilience and strength even weak men can have in the face of agonizing pain and unrelenting terror. What the film does will be intense and emotional enough to sober and inspire most of us. Violence, starvation, and torture will even be too much for many. After a plane crash into the ocean, Louie and two fellow soldiers were trapped on a raft for 47 days before they were captured by the Japanese. The Bird — the military officer who held and mercilessly tortured Louie — is rightly, if not inadequately, portrayed as an awful, sadistic villain and criminal. But there are worse horrors hidden in this edition of the story.
The movie simply doesn’t go low enough, and therefore cannot end high enough. If the worst things in life were war, torture, and death, then the movie might have done Zamperini justice. Louie himself, though, would testify they are not. There are worse evils and worse fates facing all of us — the darkness within each of us and the darkness we therefore deserve.
Fairy Tale or Horror Film?
Those who don’t read the story will miss the reality that Louie was actually a very broken man — horribly broken by sin and then sweetly broken by God.
Shortly after his feet landed back on American soil, Louie went back with his family to his childhood home in California. They enjoyed food and conversation, unwrapping several years of unwrapped Christmas gifts — everything seemed peaceful, almost normal. Then his sister Sylvia played a recording of Louie’s voice that had been broadcast over public radio during the war. “Take it off! Take it off!” Louie fell into a violent, screaming convulsion — a scene that would sadly mark most of his next several years.
Like the immature, insecure boy before the Olympics, post-war Louie picked fights over nothing, then drowned his emotional scars and nightmares with endless alcohol and suffered the pervasive curse of POWs: post-traumatic stress disorder. These men were anxious and depressed — thirty percent more likely to commit suicide. Hillenbrand says, “They carried unspeakable memories of torture and humiliation, and an acute sense of vulnerability that attended the knowledge of how readily they could be disarmed and dehumanized” (349).
Louie did meet a pretty girl on the beach and two weeks later convinced the poor, naïve Cynthia to marry him. They eloped a short time later to the absolute outrage of her parents. It wasn’t long before Cynthia realized the tortured, drunken, unsafe monster she had married. Not being able to convince him off of the bottle, she stopped appearing with him in public, embarrassed by and even afraid of what he might do.
Louie Zamperini was horribly broken by sin, and then sweetly broken by God.
The Bottom of Brokenness
Spiraling dangerously and hopelessly out of control — visited every night by his Japanese torturer — Louie came to the conclusion that the only path to freedom was to kill the Bird. He began plotting a mission to murder the man who had ruined his life and now patrolled his nightmares. He wildly and foolishly invested the family’s money in dead ends, trying to scrape together enough to finance his murderous dream. Bloody vengeance against Mutsuhiro Watanbe had become this broken hero’s only hope.
No one could reach Louie, because he had never really come home. In prison camp, he’d been beaten into dehumanized obedience to a world order in which the Bird was absolute sovereign, and it was under this world order that he still lived. The Bird had taken his dignity and left him feeling humiliated, ashamed, and powerless, and Louie believed that only the Bird could restore him, by suffering and dying in the grip of his hands. A once singularly hopeful man now believed that his only hope lay in murder. (365–366)
In another crazed nightmare, this ugly insanity forced Louie on top of his poor wife in the middle of the night, beating and strangling her. Weeks later, Cynthia found him shaking their screaming baby girl. She finally filed for divorce.
Better to Be Broken
Everything changed in the fall of 1949. Billy Graham emerged in the nation’s eye by holding a campaign in Los Angeles that drew tens of thousands of people — including one hurting and despairing wife and mother. Cynthia heard Graham’s gospel, surrendered her heart to Jesus, and informed Louie that she no longer wanted a divorce. Louie was relieved she had decided to stay, but skeptical and even offended by her conversion.
She pled and pled with him to attend one of the meetings, but over and over he angrily refused. Eventually, she had to lie to get him to come along, and he did. Graham preached:
“Darkness doesn’t hide the eyes of God. God takes down your life from the time you were born to the time you die. . . . [He will] pull down the screen and shoot the moving picture of your life from the cradle to the grave, and you are going to hear every thought that was going through your mind every minute of the day, every second of the minute, and you’re going to hear the words you said. And your own words, and your own thoughts, and your own deeds, are going to condemn you as you stand before God on that day. And God is going to say, ‘Depart from me.’” (373)
Louie was enraged, horrified that this man would dare to accuse him like this, after all he had been through for this country, after all he had endured. I am a good man, he thought, I am a good man (373). Graham continued:
Here tonight, there’s a drowning man, a drowning woman, a drowning man, a drowning boy, a drowning girl that is out lost in the sea of life. (373)
This sent Louie spinning, and he eventually stormed out before Graham was finished. But it would be the beginning of the end of Louie’s resilience. He had survived opposition before, but nothing like this. The next day, under the powerful preaching of the cross, Louie Zamperini was born again — rescued again.
In the end, Louie was broken after all, but not by the Bird. God has done what the Bird, weakened by the flesh, could not do, by sending his Son, Jesus Christ — and then a tall, blond-haired messenger named Billy Graham. God had painted yet another picture of his perfect patience, saving the foremost of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15–16) — the selfish, angry, violent, abusive, murderous, and unforgiving alcoholic.
Hillenbrand describes Louie’s conversion:
When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird had striven to make of him. In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed, he was a new creation. (376)
Savor the Unseen Sequel
The true climax of Louie Zamperini’s story is his second visit to Sugamo Prison. Standing inside the walls that had watched him suffer so badly, he now looked into the eyes of many of the very men who had inflicted the blows. For the first time since the war, he was seeing the faces of his pain and humiliation. How did he respond? Did he devolve into a seizure of violent screaming? Did he silently burn with fear and rage? No. “Louie was seized by childlike, giddy exuberance. In bewilderment, the men who had abused him watched him come to them, his hands extended, a radiant smile on his face” (373).
He later wrote a letter to the Bird:
As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare. . . . But thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you. (396–397)
Forgiveness, not survival, was the victory laurel of Louie’s life.
So when you see the movie, and enjoy Louie stepping back into freedom, savor the steps he would take years later into true freedom — freedom from anger, depression, alcohol, fear, violence, and revenge. Freedom that would last through eternity.
Forgiveness, not survival, was the victory laurel of Louie Zamperini’s life.