‘Unbroken’ Film Channels Respect for the Greatest Generation

‘Unbroken’ Film Channels Respect for the Greatest Generation

The film “Unbroken” is captivating audiences nationwide and abroad. Since its Christmas day release, the film has generated nearly $88 million in ticket sales.

“Unbroken” follows the story of late World War II hero Louis Zamperini, who died last July at age 97. The film is inspired by the namesake bestselling book by Laura Hillenbrand.

The film begins in Torrance, California, where  young Louis Zamperini is disinterested in going to church and more interested in causing mischief. Much to the dismay of his Italian immigrant parents, Zamperini sneaks liquor and has run-ins with law enforcement. Though his childhood in Southern California was marked by delinquency, Zamperini would later turn his life around through running. With the loving encouragement of his brother, Zamperini trains into a powerful running machine.  After years of persistent effort, Zamperini performs for the United States in the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany.  While he didn’t receive a gold medal, Zamperini broke a single lap record time and made a shocking comeback after trailing for much of his race.

Unfortunately for Zamperini, his life story ceases from being a fairy tale after his Olympic success.  During WWII, Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Airforce and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.  After a couple harrowing bombing missions, Zamperini and his crew suffered a mechanical failure, and their bomber crashed in the Pacific Ocean without much hope of being rescued.  Zamperini and two of his crewmates survive the crash: pilot Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips and Francis “Mac” McNamara.

The three men keep their lives and spirits afloat via two inflatable life rafts.  In this point of the film, Zamperini begins questioning his faith given his bleak circumstances.  McNamara is initially a complete morale killer as his own lack of faith spills from his mouth.  Zamperini and Phillips are able to persuade McNamara to keep pushing on.  The three men survive by fighting off constant shark attacks, eating raw fish and albatrosses, and even dodge multiple strafing runs from Japanese planes!  McNamara eventually dies after a whopping 33 days at sea.

After 47 total days at sea, Zamperini and Phillips are captured by the Japanese Navy.  The two men are severely tortured and much like loyal American soldiers are tasked to do, they provide the Japanese with false military intelligence.  Zamperini’s resilience and determination while being tortured is nothing short of admirable.  The two American airmen are eventually separated and transferred to different Japanese prison “camps.”

Where “Unbroken” shines brightest is its presentation of a complex relationship between Zamperini and his nemesis  Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe.  “The Bird” would eventually be listed as one of Japan’s top 40 most wanted war criminals after WWII.  The Bird takes a special interest in Zamperini and proceeds to make his life even more hellish with special beatings.  For example, “The Bird” has every other U.S. and British POW punch Zamerpini in the face in succession.  The symbolism of “turning the other cheek” is blaring, and the parallels to nonviolent protesting cannot be missed.  Despite his warranted hatred for the Japanese military, Zamperini tackles his torturing like he handled his Olympic training.  The film makes this more obvious by having Zamperini reflect on his brother’s encouragement.  “The Bird” tries to break Zamperini by forcing him into a footrace with a Japanese soldier.  Obviously malnourished and suffering all sorts of physical trauma, Zamperini performs horribly.  Despite suffering torture, starvation, humiliation, and personal jabs from Watanabe, Zamperini remains “unbroken.”

The climax of the film features “The Bird” subjecting Zamperini with a life-or-death situation.  Zamperini is tasked with holding a heavy wooden beam with his arms and shoulders with the threat that should he at any point drop his beam, he will be shot instantly.  Zamperini’s struggle becomes the focus of the entire prison camp; guards and prisoners alike watch as Zamperini stands for what appears to be hours. Right when Zamperini appears to be wavering, he lets out a powerful and primal scream only to put the beam ABOVE his head.  “The Bird” is instantly overcome by the spectacle and punches Zamerpini to the ground.  He’s emotionally distraught after seeing Zamerpini’s larger-than-life strength and tears fill his eyes.  Director Jolie does a fantastic job of alluding that Zamperini is on fire with the Holy Spirit and his tormenter’s wretched soul has been  touched by the encounter.  The film ends rather abruptly after this powerful moment and once the POWs learn the war is over, Zamperini looks for The Bird one last time in his office only to learn he has fled the camp in fear of persecution.

“Unbroken” should be commended for doing what few “Christian-message” films do; it never comes across as preachy, and it contains a universal message of faith that can even inspire an atheist.  In an interview, director Jolie reveals that her and Zamperini’s goal for the film was to inspire as many people as possible, and “Unbroken” clearly achieves their mission.  Many Christian films rely on dialogue to get their point across; “Unbroken” relies on historical events and shockingly brutal realities of WWII to do so.  With the high-budget CGI set pieces, riveting soundtrack, believable acting, and complex character relationships, “Unbroken” is nothing short of a masterpiece in the secular world.  With a Christian lens on, however, an audience member can certainly find subtle yet deep Christian allusions that are just extra icing on an already glorious cake.

Undoubtedly, “Unbroken” will renew one’s appreciation for the men who defined the Greatest Generation. In a time where cowardice is lauded and selfishness abounds, this film highlights the true bravery and selflessness found among past servicemen who made the world a freer place.

This blog post was written by Gabriella Hoffman and Johnny Whichard at Counter Cultured.

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