“If I can take it, I can make it.”
Unbroken is the best picture that I have seen in many a year. Its themes are faith, patriotism and endurance in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity. Everything about the film is superb. My review is below and the usual caveat as to spoilers is in effect.
The film opens with the protagonist, Louis Zamperini, very ably portrayed by English actor Jack O’Connell, serving as a bombardier on board a B-24 liberator in the Pacific during World War II. The CGI effects are magnificent and capture the tragic beauty of air combat. The mission featured is a harrowing one as Zamperini and his crew barely get the plane back in one piece, landing the bomber back at base without brakes. There is a flashback in the middle of the mission where Zamperini recalls bits of his childhood, beginning with Zamperini at mass not paying attention to the sermon of the priest, which earns him a slap to the back of his head from his father. He then focuses on a shapely female parishioner which earns him another paternal slap to the back of his head. He then briefly focuses on the sermon and then the crucifix above the altar. The priest has been describing how God created the light, but did not set a boundary between the light and the darkness. Christians in this world have to make their way through the night and always remember to forgive their enemies. After the mission Zamperini sees the pilot praying. He asks him if God ever talks back to him. The pilot says sure, that God tells him that his bombardier is a dope! The tone is lighthearted, but God is never far beneath the surface throughout the film.
In subsequent flashbacks we see how Zamperini was a juvenile delinquent, the despair of his parents, one step away from reform school. However, he can run, and his brother tells him that he should try out for track, and that he can succeed at track and everything else at life. He gives him the statement that becomes Zamperini’s motto: “If you can take it, you can make it.” Track proves his salvation and earns him a scholarship. He participates in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, coming in eighth in the 5000 meter dash, but finishes his last lap in a then astonishing 56 seconds, shattering the previous Olympic record for a final lap in the 5000 meter dash of 69.2 seconds.
On a rescue mission for a lost bomber on May 27, 1943, Zamperini’s bomber develops engine trouble and crashes into the Pacific 850 miles south of Oahu, killing all of the crew except Zamperini, the pilot and a rear gunner. (A friend of mine, in his nineties, served as a carrier pilot in the Pacific, and has often related to me the numerous ways in which his fellow pilots died without any enemy action. The Wright Brothers had only first invented heavier than air flight in 1903, and many of the technologies used to develop the planes in World War II were so new and cutting edge, that simply flying them was often an invitation for extreme risk taking that could swiftly spin into disaster.) I found the scenes that followed the crash, the 47 days that Zamperini spent on life rafts, absolutely mesmerizing. Followed by sharks, Zamperini and his two companions turn the tables on the predators and haul one aboard and eat it. Their experiences at sea are gut wrenching, including being strafed by a Japanese plane, with Zamperini promising to serve God if He will preserve him during a storm. The gunner dies after 33 days, of starvation and dehyrdration, and is buried at sea. Zamperini wonders why he and the pilot survived out of the eleven man crew. Was it random chance or a part of God’s plan? Washed ashore in the Marshall Islands, 2000 miles from where they crashed into the Ocean, both Zamperini and the pilot are more dead than alive, as Zamperini feebly tells his friend that he has good news and bad news, as he sees that their “rescuers” are Japanese soldiers.
Taken to Kwajalein where nine US Marines had recently been beheaded, the skeletal Zamperini and his companion are subjected to relentless interrogation and beatings. Eventually he is shipped to Japan on board a “hell ship”, one of the ships that the Japanese packed with POWs under conditions that simply were indescribable in regard to filth and heat, and with virtually no food or water.
Zamperini arrives at the Onmori POW camp near Tokyo where his real ordeal begins. The abuse he suffers is difficult to watch, but the film really sanitizes his experience as a POW. For example, there is no mention of the medical experiments performed upon him and other POWs at the camp. Some 27.1% of western POWs died in Japanese captivity, a death rate seven times that of British and American POWs in the hands of Nazi Germany. A fully accurate rendition of what POWs endured under Japan would probably have most of the audiences fleeing from the theaters prior to the ending of the film, the horrors being literally unwatchable.
It was at Onmori that Zamperini came under the brutal ministrations of Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe. A member of a family of great wealth, Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird” by Allied POWs, had failed to obtain a commission as an officer. In his rage over this slight, he lashed out at POWs at every opportunity. After the War he was number 23 on MacArthur’s top 40 list of Japanese war criminals, and only escaped prosecution by going into hiding for seven years, emerging after the end of the American occupation. Zamperini, due to his Olympic status, became a special target of “The Bird” as Watanabe seeks to break a man who refuses to be broken.
At one point Zamperini is offered a chance to leave the nightmarish world he inhabits. He agrees to make a brief appearance on Radio Tokyo to let his parents know that he is alive, they being informed by the government that he was presumed lost at sea. After he has done that broadcast we see him eating a good meal at a Tokyo hotel. He is then informed that he can stay at the hotel for the remainder of the war if he makes propaganda broadcasts. Zamperini adamantly refuses to say a word against America, and is returned to the camp, to the amazement and ire of “The Bird”. Eventually “The Bird” is promoted and transferred and Zamperini gets a brief reprieve. However, ultimately he and other prisoners are transferred to Naoetsu where “The Bird” is also now stationed and his private war against Zamperini begins all over again.
The culmination of the brutality is when “The Bird” forces a long line of Allied POWs to slug Zamperini. Zamperini encourages them to do so, after “The Bird” brings out another POW and begins to beat him to death after the initial refusal of the POWs to hit Zamperini. Zamperini’s ordeal ends only with the end of the War, and the film finishes with him returning to the US and kissing the ground as his family runs to greet him.
It is only in the epilogue to the film that we learn the most remarkable feature of Zamperini’s story. Haunted by his wartime experiences, Zamperini after the war began a descent into alcoholism, as he saved his money for a future trip to Japan to hunt down and kill “The Bird”. His fixation almost caused the ending of his marriage. His life was turned around when he attended, at the request of his wife, a Billy Graham crusade in 1949 and forgave, out of obedience to Christ, in his heart his captors. That night the nightmares about his experiences ceased, never to return. In later years he would travel to Japan, and look up guards to personally forgive them. Most of them were stunned by this and some converted to Christianity as a result. The only guard who refused to see him was “The Bird”, who died unrepentant in 2003, wealthy in worldly terms. Zamperini died on July 2 of this year. July 2 was the date on which the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence and which John Adams predicted, erroneously, would be observed by posterity with celebrations and fireworks. It was a fitting date for an American hero to die on.
The film is a must see for faithful Christians, patriotic Americans and lovers of very good films.