As I watched the story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) unfold on the screen in front of me during Unbroken, all I could think of was that Louie was sharing in the passion of Jesus in a very real way. In the Catholic Church, we celebrate Lent each year. It’s a time when we ‘give something up’ as a penance in solidarity with the sufferings of Jesus. I hope that none of us ever have to go through anything close to what Zamperini endured but I hope, when Lent turns to Easter, we have had a chance to look at whatever suffering or sorrow is in our lives and let it draw us closer to God.
Unbroken, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand and directed by Angelina Jolie, details Zamperini’s life as a son of Italian immigrants in Torrance, California, but especially his experiences as a POW during World War II. As a kid, Louie got into plenty of trouble and turned out to be quite the runner from all his practice escaping bullies. He ran in the 1936 Olympics and hoped to participate in the 1940 Games to be held in Tokyo, which were cancelled because of the war.
During the war, he was a bombardier on a B-24 airplane. After a successful bombing run, his plane was hit and it made a crash landing on the runway. Later, Louie finds his friend, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), the plane’s pilot, praying. Louie asks him, “Why are you praying now?” Phil answers, “I was busy before.” This sense of God and sense of humor enables Louie and Phil to stay alive for 47 days in a raft on the open ocean after they survive another plane crash. During their ordeal, Louie prays to God, “If you get me through this, I’ll thank you my whole life. I’ll do whatever you want.” When they are rescued, Louie tells Phil, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” Their rescuers are Japanese and instead of going home, they get sent to a prisoner of war camp.
The camp commander, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), singles out Louie, as a former Olympian, for particularly harsh treatment. In one scene, he is required to take a punch in the face from every other inmate in the camp. At first, they refuse but when Watanabe threatens to beat another prisoner to death, Louie tells them to do it, literally turning the other cheek. The strength of Louie’s spirit shines through in another scene in which Watanabe forces him to hold a wooden beam over his head for hours.
While the story of survival is astonishing, the truly remarkable thing for me is what happened later in Zamperini’s life, told as a postscript to the film. He returned to Japan to meet with all the former prison guards to offer his forgiveness. Only Watanabe refused to see him. In 1998, Louie ran a leg of the torch relay for the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, not far from where he had been held as a POW. He died on July 2, 2014, just a few months before the release of the movie.
Zamperini’s story in Unbroken can be an inspiration to think about forgiveness. Are there people in your life you need to forgive? Maybe you need to ask forgiveness from someone for something you’ve done. Is there some suffering in your life that needs the touch of God? Lift that beam above your head and know that God is with you.