Unbroken: A Movie Review

Once upon a time, I used to work as a denominational staff person (13 years ago) and was ordained. I must still be on some clergy mailing lists because I was invited to a clergy and ministry leaders advance showing of the upcoming movie Unbroken (releases Dec 25).

I really thought that Unbroken was an important book to read, and Bookwi.se has three separate reviews of it because it is one of those books that you just want to tell people about.

However the story is hard. This is a subject matter that you can’t enjoy, although you want to tell everyone about it.

I am not going to worry about spoilers here, this is a movie based on history and a best selling book. (I am using Wikipedia to supplement my memory of the specifics of the history.) I am sure there will be some that walk into the movie with no background, but I doubt that is true of many.

If you do not want to read spoilers, know that the movie is very well done, but I do have a few quibbles. For those that willing, keep reading.

Louis Zamperini was an olympic medalist in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and had World War II not started, he would have likely run in the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo.

But World War II did start, and Zamperini became a bombardier in the Pacific. On May 27, 1943, after their previous plane was severely damaged and several of their crew were injured, Zamperini and the remaining crew were given another plane, reassigned to Hawaii and sent on a search and rescue mission. The plane failed in flight and crash landed approximately 850 miles south of Hawaii. Zamperini, the pilot and another crew member survived the crash and drifted for 47 days in the ocean before being captured by the Japanese navy (Mac died at sea after 33 days.)

Zamperini and Philips were held in captivity in the Marshall Island and regularly beaten (but not reported as prisoners of war.) In Aug 1945 they were moved to Japan and separated. Zamperini was eventually at three different camps. But two of the camps were commanded by Mutsuhiro Watanabe (The Bird).

Zamperini’s torture at the hands of The Bird is well illustrated by the movie and very true to the book. Although reading about someone being beaten and watching someone beaten are two different things. Both the book and the movie make a real point about the fact that Zamperini was a special object of torture by the Bird. The humiliation, the pain and the psychological abuse make this a movie that should not be seen by everyone.

The treatment of prisoners of war by Japan was very bad. 37% of all US Prisoners of War held by Japan died in custody, many times the rate of those held by German or Italy. Although it is estimated that about a third of those that died in custody were killed by Allied bombs or bullets (Japan refused to mark prisoner of war transport ships or prisons so they would not be bombed.) A stat that I remember from reading the book is that the average Allied prisoner of war in Japan lost 80 pounds (from an average starting weight of about 150 pounds.) The VA also has a white paper on prisoners of war if you are interested in the broader issues. Japan signed the Geneva Convention but never ratified it and explicitly denied they were bound by the rules during the war. The VA white paper suggested that culturally Japan did not understand prisoners of war and that in Japan’s own military rules were instructions to commit suicide rather than be captured.

Particularly striking for me as I was watching the movie was the fact that the report on CIA uses of torture was released the say I saw the movie. So after having read a fair amount about US involvement in torture, it was difficult to watch a movie that also is primarily concerned about torture.

The reason that clergy and ministry leaders were invited to this screening is that the story of the book is not about the torture, but about the forgiveness. The introduction by the promotional staff called the movie one of the most memorable stories of forgiveness ever on screen.

The book certainly is about forgiveness. Louis Zamperini came to our church and read the letter he wrote (see below for a video of Zamperini reading the letter at another church.) But the movie really missed capturing the power of the forgiveness.

At the end, when the prisoners were still in the camp, but the guards had left, Zamperini is shown going to the Bird’s room and seeing a picture of the Bird as a boy with his father. I think this is supposed to give some context to the Bird, but it does not (or at least I didn’t feel it).

The movie ends with updates. Zamperini was able to carry the torch in the Tokyo Winter Olympics at the age of 80 in 1998. And the movie says that Zamperini gave his life to God’s service which he credits with saving his life. It does say that Zamperini forgave the Bird and attempted to meet with him and forgive him in person but that the Bird refused to meet with him. (Zamperini passed away at the age of 97 this past July. Jolie had been working on the movie for quite awhile at that point.)

What the movie does not say is that in 1952, Zamperini went to Japan, gave his testimony and preached about forgiveness to prisoners that were being tried for war crimes, including to some people that were former guards. (The Bird was in hiding at this point.)

Zamprini’s letter of forgiveness to the Bird is really the piece that ties the tragedy of the story with at least some sense of meaning. Without fully understanding that, the movie can feel like unredeemed violence (or at least just the power of the individual against great odds.)

There were two other points of religious significance/imagery in the movie. At a crucial point in the movie, Zamperini is pulled out in front of everyone. Zamperini is at the end of his strength, he is weak and has injured his foot and can barely walk. But the Bird pulls him aside and makes him pick up a beam and hold it above his head under threat of being shot if he drops it. It is a clear image of crucifixion. Zamperini not only keeps it up but raises it higher to enrage the Bird, who then comes and beats him mercilessly. What is right about that scene is that the power of the cross is not about its strength, but about the weakness and submitting to the violence.

Later the prisoners know that the war is about at its end and they are all afraid that they will be murdered before they can be rescued (there was a known kill order if Japan fell). They are all herded to water to ‘bathe’ and all fearful that they will be shot by the guards. They walk partially into the water and a US bomber flies overhead and the guards put down there weapons and sheath their bayonets and start walking away.

That image of potential death but instead feeling the freedom that they do not yet have is powerful. But the water/baptism imagery seems off.

In the end, this was a very well done movie. The Coen Brothers adapted screen play and Angelina Jolie’s direction will probably earn some award nominations. There really isn’t anyting I would take away from the movie. It was already nearly 2 and a half hours. But it did not feel like it dragged or spent too much time on any particular area.

I really do encourage you to read the book. It is well written and only $2.99 on kindle right now. I am not going to complain about the movie not being true to the book. I think that it was very true and the adaptation really captured the heart of the book even in changes.

The movie is graphically violent in a way that feels appropriate to the subject without glorifying the violence or hiding it. The movie did not show any of the PTSD or alcoholism after Zamperini’s return to the US, although it was mentioned in the summary screens at the end. So maybe the letter would have needed more introduction. But I think it would have been worth the extra 4 or 5 minutes to include it in the wrap up and really complete the idea of forgiveness as the main theme of the movie.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand Purchase Links: HardbackKindle EditionAudible.com Audiobook Audiobook is discounted to $3.95 with purchase of Kindle Book 


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