The ‘Unbroken’ Story of Louis

27 Dec

War and Faith

A New York best-seller
Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken, was New York Times’ best-seller for three years long before Angelina Jolie made it into a film adaptation that was released on Christmas Day 2014. It is the unforgettable story of Olympian and American war hero, Louis Zamperini. The narrative records his experiences as an ‘untamable’ child, an Olympic athlete, a prisoner of war and a distraught veteran on the brink of a divorce, who eventually found God.

Zamperini grew up in Torrance, California, and loved to get into mischief. He found structure and success in running, which led him to the University of Southern California and, eventually, the 1936 Olympics, where he was placed eighth in the 5,000 meters. His hopes of competing in the 1940 Olympics were crushed when Europe exploded into war. Louis Zamperini was drafted into the army and became a bombardier for the American Air Corps.

During a rescue mission to search for an American plane that had disappeared over the ocean, the plane Zamperini and his crew were flying had engine failure and crashed into the ocean. After suffering 47 days floating in a raft, he was taken captive by the Japanese military. Zamperini spent two years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps where he was beaten, starved and tormented by the guards.

Zamperini survived the camps and made it back home to his family but not for too long. He passed away on July 2, 2014, just six months short of the release of the film on December 25. He died from pneumonia at the age of 97.

Religious Faith steps in
Though Zamperini didn’t grow up a practicing Christian — he was described by Hillenbrand as being “thrilled by the crashing of boundaries” — there were multiple times throughout his ordeal where he recognized the hand of God.

The most significant moment followed the crash of the Green Hornet, the plane Zamperini and his crew were flying on the rescue mission. As the plane hit the ocean and began to sink, Hillenbrand writes, Zamperini became entangled in plane wires. He passed out underwater and then awoke only to find himself sinking deeper and deeper with the plane but no longer tangled. Zamperini managed to kick up to the surface with the help of his life jacket.

“If he had passed out from the pressure, and the plane had continued to sink and the pressure to build, how had he woken again?” Hillenbrand asks. “And how had he been loosed from the wires while unconscious?” Hillenbrand and Louis himself see divine intervention playing a role. Whatever the interpretations, for Louis, the seed for religious faith was planted.

Zamperini’s faith continued to grow as he spent 47 days — dehydrated, exhausted and starved — on the raft with fellow soldiers Phil and Mac, the only other survivors from the crash. The life-threatening conditions led Phil and Zamperini to turn to prayer. Zamperini was heard, more than once, by his fellow survivor to say and promise that if God would spare his life, he would serve him forever.

One of those prayerful promises is depicted in the film when the men are fighting a storm, trying to keep their raft afloat in the middle of the crashing waves.

According to Hillenbrand’s biography, it is this promise that Zamperini remembered when attending a sermon by the evangelical preacher, Billy Graham, years after returning from the war. In an interview with the Faith Community Church in his old age, Zamperini talked about the moment he recognized the hand God had in his life and was filled with faith, humility and forgiveness.

The Book and the Film
It is difficult to know why Jolie tells a beautiful story but leaves out some vital details. In fact the turning point of the book never made it to the film. So, perhaps Hillenbrand’s bestseller might not sell to audiences if they knew the whole truth, because the film story is incomplete, even though the film is a classic. Yes, Jolie, who directed the film and the Coen brothers who wrote it left out the most important part of Zamperini’s story.

There have been many World War II stories told in film depicting triumphs of personal courage and survival. The story of Louis Zamperini is one such story, but with an added dimension. Zamperini, who died earlier this year at age 97, came home an angry man. He became addicted to alcohol and cigarettes and verbally abused his young wife as he wrestled with his inner demons. The skeleton of his story is in the film — the plane crash at sea while on a rescue mission; the 47 days floating on a raft before being picked up by a Japanese ship and thrown into a prison camp; the relentless torture and eventual liberation at the end of the war.

After returning to Los Angeles we see Zamperini hugging his brother and parents, but the story ends there, in the film. Director Angelina Jolie attempts to put some flesh on the bones at the end of the film with some still shots and words that tell us that Zamperini’s faith led him to return to Japan on a personal mission of reconciliation. In media appearances, Jolie has refused to discuss why the most remarkable part of Zamperini’s story was excluded from the film. That would be the night he was converted at the 1949 Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles.

As Hillenbrand tells it in her book, Louis came home, poured his alcohol down the drain, threw out his cigarettes, was reconciled to his wife and became a new man because, he said, he had asked Jesus Christ to be his Saviour.

As stories about faith have made a recent comeback on TV and in movies, attracting high ratings and large ticket sales at the box office, it is puzzling why the film leaves out the most important part of Zamperini’s story. Once word gets around that Zamperini’s conversion, which was so faithfully and beautifully chronicled in Hillenbrand’s book, is not in the film, one would suspect that many who share Louis’ faith will not buy tickets. Apologists for Universal Pictures say people can always read the rest of the story in the book. Yes, they can, but then why should they see a film that highlights only half a life?

Just before he died, Jolie showed Zamperini a rough cut of the film. He seemed humbled by the portrayal and did say that it didn’t force religion down people’s throats.

[T.D’Souza –adapted from Wikipedia –Christmas 2014]

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