I am drawn to stories of survival. It is even more of a bonus if I know that the main character in such tales is Catholic, like Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) in Unbroken (2014). There is something about a person being tested beyond seemingly anything survivable that strikes a chord with me. And as a Catholic, the obvious parallels between such moments and what Jesus went through in His passion make the film that much more compelling. While I will talk about the religious parallels later, another reason I enjoy these kinds of films is because they are a way of measuring yourself against what you see the characters enduring. Thankfully, myself and the majority of my peers have not had to go through what Zamperini did during World War II. I pray that nobody does, and if you watch the movie you will see why.
One of the first thing you see in Unbroken is Louis staring out the nose of a B-24 bomber on its way to completing a mission in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Apparently, this is not an entirely expected place for Zamperini as a grow man. As a kid (C. J. Valleroy) growing up in rural Torrance, California, the youngest son of an immigrant Italian family, he often ended up in trouble. He is a petty thief, smokes and drinks, and fights with the local racist bullies (oh yeah, Catholics were discriminated against, too). It is his older brother Pete (John D’Leo) who gives Louis the talking to the younger boy needs to turn his life around. Pete also gets Louis to turn his talent for running from the police to competing for their school’s cross-country team. So outstanding of a runner does Louis become that he earns a spot on the United States Olympic team at the 1936 games in Berlin. Though he does not medal in his event, he never gives up and turns in an impressive final lap that should have brought him a chance to take part in the next Olympiad had it not been for the outbreak of World War II. These flashbacks are interspersed early on with his B-24 crew barely making it back from the first mission we see them in, only to be sent back out in a defective plane to search for other downed airmen adrift on the Pacific Ocean. Doing so only brings them a similar fate, and Louis is among the three crewmen who survive a crash landing on the ocean. The others are the pilot, Lieutenant Russell “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson), and Francis “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittorck). Together, they survive sharks, storms, and Japanese strafing runs for over forty days, though Mac eventually succumbs to the hunger and thirst and dies. They are rescued, not by Allied forces, but by the Japanese, who make them prisoners of war. At each moment, they believe they are going to be executed. Instead, the pair are taken to mainland Japan. There, Louis and Phil are put in separate camps. The one that Louis is detained in is overseen by Sergeant Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi), called “Bird” by the inmates. Not long into his captivity, Louis is recognized for being a former Olympic athlete, but this only seems to earn further arbitrary ire from Bird, who regularly beats him. Because of Louis’ fame, the Japanese have him record a radio message to be broadcast to the United States. He agrees to do so provided he be allowed to say his own words, to which the Japanese officials initially agree. Though he is able to say that he is alive and is being treated “as well as can be expected,” the Japanese request that he make another message where he denounces America and praises Japan. He refuses and returns to the prison camp where Bird arranges to have each prisoner punch him in the face in order to teach the American respect. Shortly thereafter, Bird is transferred, but it ends up being to a coal mine where Louis and the other inmates are taken when Allied bombing gets too close. There they are forced to load coal onto barges all day on meager rations. Louis gets progressively worsens, particularly when he is randomly pushed off the gangway to the barge and injures his ankle. When he is later caught taking a moment’s pause between loads, Bird forces Louis to hold a thick wooden plank over his head. He is told that if he drops it, he will be shot. For seemingly hours Bird and a few guards sadistically look on as Louis summons what little strength he has left to keep the board aloft. His arms do lower a bit, but just as he is about to succumb, he lets out a scream and pushes it back up high. Bird is shamed by this act of defiance, and is not seen again. The war ends not long after this, and Louis is able to go home and reunite with his family.
You would think that anyone who went through what Louis did in Unbroken, which is a true story, would be bitter towards the people who committed these acts. Such sentiments would be understandable. However, that was not Louis Zamperini. In the film, during a storm, while being tossed about and clinging for life to their rescue boat, Louis cries out to God that he will do whatever God asks of him if he survives. This is another moment to which I believe many of us can relate. Often, we turn to God in times of desperation and promise Him anything if whatever situation we find ourselves in turns out as we hope. While I know God wants us to come to Him in any and all situations, how many times do we follow through with whatever it is we tell Him? This is why many Christians are careful about swearing oaths. Honoring commitments is important, especially to God. I confess that I knew nothing about Louis Zamperini before this film, and I assumed that when he made his request to God that he would go on to become a priest. This sort of thing has happened before in similar circumstances. That is not what happens, however. There are innumerable ways in which you can serve God. One of the themes of the film is forgiveness, and that is something God asks of everyone. First, Louis had to forgive himself for being somewhat of a juvenile delinquent as a kid. Then he had to come to terms with Mac eating most of their rations early on in their stranding on the Pacific. Yet, the hardest to do was for Louis to forgive his captors. Before the credits begin rolling, we see how this is the way he made good on his promise to God. He met with many of the guards from the camps in which he was held, except for Bird, who had been labeled a war criminal and was apparently too ashamed to face Louis. I may have been disappointed that Louis did not become a priest. Still, the film serves as a great reminder that there are no distinctions in such gestures in the eyes of God, and just like ourselves, they are all precious to Him.
Interestingly, Angelina Jolie directed Unbroken. She did a good job, but I also could not help but notice (being who I am) that the word “Catholic” does not appear in the film. That is clearly Louis’ Faith, and it is what he credits for helping him not only survive, but to have the strength to meet his captors after the war. This is my one complaint of the film. Otherwise, it is an inspiring film to watch that, while difficult at times to see, is a good one nonetheless.