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VOLUME 33, ISSUE 1
The Remarkable Story of One Man’s Courage
By Suzie Dickson
By now, most people know the story behind the film, Unbroken; it is based on the early life and World War II years of Louis “Louie” Zamperini. As a young boy, he was raised in a devote Catholic home, but he was often in trouble and his family seems to despair of him. The movie shows that his mother praying for him. His older brother, Peter, noticed Louis’ ability to run and encouraged him to join the Torrance Track team where he learns discipline. By the time he graduated from high school; Zamperini was the fastest high school long distance runner in the country, which was good enough for him to make the 1936 US Olympic Team. He did not medal at the Olympics, but he did set a world record for running the fastest last lap of the 5000 meter race. As many other young men of his generation, he joined the military and served as a bombardier in the Army Air Corps.
While on a rescue mission, his plane crashed. Of the 11 crew members, only he and two others survived the crash; Francis “Mac” McNamara and Lt. Russell “Phil” Phillips. After 33 days, McNamara died. But, Zamperini and Phillips were still adrift for another two weeks when they were “rescued” by a Japanese patrol boat. The movie then recounts his experiences at several prisoner of war (POW) camps. His experiences as a POW are particularly harrowing and, at times, difficult to watch. None of this is embellished for effect. Forty percent of the POWs in Japanese POW camps died and the overwhelming
majority of those men were Americans; in contrast, only one percent of the POWs died in German POW camps.
Angelina Jolie has been criticized for her directorial technique and scene choices. Those complaints seem more to be about the subjective preference of the critic than actual shortcomings of the film.
The other criticism concerned her decision not to tell about Zamperini’s post-was difficulties, which led to his conversion in 1949 and eventually his forgiveness of his torturers. He even traveled to Japan to personally deliver his forgiveness. (Post-scripts at the end of the film recount these details.) There is some validity to this criticism if the film is seen merely as the story of Zamperini, but, that is not the entire story. This is a patriotic movie and Zamperini becomes the embodiment of America.
When Zamperini is sent to the POW Camp run by the sadistic prison camp commander Mutsuhiro Watanabe (AKA The Bird), the film turns into a personal battle between Zamperini and Watanabe.
During his imprisonment, the tide of the war has turned in the Pacific and the Americans were advancing against the Japanese. The Japanese were a menacing force in the Pacific
and had ambitions which included the invasion of Australia. But, now all their gains were being undone. Japan had met a formidable enemy – the United States
Watanabe sees that formidable enemy in the person of Zamperini; Zamperini will not be defeated. Starvation, beatings, and deprivation of all comforts will not vanquish him. Toward the end of the war, he and the other POWs are moved to a labor camp in the mountains where they are forced to load coal onto barges. It is there that the most
powerful scene in the movie takes place. Watanabe orders Zamperini to hold a bean above his shoulders or be shot. As time passes, the other POWs stop loading coal to watch. Zamperini does not break, but Watanabe does. Watanabe cannot believe what he has seen and, in rage, mercilessly beats Zamperini leaving him on the dock for dead.
What Watanabe saw in Zamperini at that moment were all the attributes of a great man and by extension the attributes of a great nation. One is left with admiration not only for Zamperini, but also for all the men who fought, died, or survived the POW camps. ■