“If you can take it, you can make it.”
Those words of exhortation come from Louis Zamperini’s older brother, Pete, when the two sons of Italian immigrants are still in high school. But it turns out Louis will need to cling to Pete’s counsel again and again throughout the excruciating trials that soon pile painfully upon him.
Bullies menace Louis in high school, resulting in fights he gets blamed for. It’s a volatile situation, especially when combined with his penchant for smoking and drinking. But Pete’s seen how fast Louis runs from teenage thugs and school administrators, so he encourages his little bro to join the track team … even offering to help him train.
Turns out Louis is fast. Really fast. As in, the fastest high school distance runner in America. Before he knows it, the so-called Torrance Tornado is competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he turns in a record time on the last lap of his race. Louis dreams of competing again in the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo. And he does make it to Tokyo … but hardly how he’d hoped.
World War II scuttles those Games, and Louis winds up as the bombardier on a B-24 Liberator in the Pacific—a plane that earned the nickname of Flying Coffin. That moniker proves prophetic when the engines on Louis’ bomber fail, prompting his friend (and the plane’s pilot) Russell “Phil” Phillips, to ditch it.
Louis, Phil and another airman named Mac are the only survivors. They lash two life rafts together … and begin marking time and praying for rescue as they strive to stave off starvation and sharks. Mac dies 33 days in. Two weeks after that—47 days after crashing in the ocean—Louis and Phil are rescued … by the Japanese.
Their rescue-turned-capture begins a two-year ordeal for Louis (who’s soon separated from Phil) in three different POW camps: one near where they’re captured, another near Tokyo and a third far to the north. In the last two camps, Louis and his fellows must endure not only the degradation of being prisoners of war, but the sadistic cruelty of Mutsushiro Watanabe, a monstrous man the Americans call “The Bird.”
Beaten and humiliated time and again over the course of two years, Louis takes refuge in memories of his mother’s prayers, his friend Phil’s faith and those powerful, guiding words of his older brother:
“If you can take it, you can make it.”
Encouraged by Pete, Louis becomes a disciplined runner—discipline that takes him to the Olympics and helps him endure wartime suffering. Pete also tells Louis, “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory. Remember that.”
After plunging into the Pacific, Louis adopts an optimistic attitude, in contrast to Mac, who cries, “We’re gonna die!” Louis responds, “No we’re not, Mac.” Mac focuses on the worst outcome, while Louis heroically remains positive. Mac dies and Louis lives, and the only difference in their fates is apparently the mental determination Louis exhibits. Indeed, as they drift for a month and a half, Louis continually stimulates his and his companions’ hope and courage.
Still, Louis isn’t made of steel. Early on in his lengthy stay at the Ōmori Detention Camp near Tokyo, he hovers near despondency, saying, “I don’t give a d–n. Let ’em shoot me.” Another American POW counters, “We beat ’em by making it to the end of the war alive. That’s our revenge, officer.” Louis once more recalls his brother’s counsel: “If I can take it, I can make it.”
The Japanese know Louis is famous and attempt to use him for propaganda purposes by coaxing him to read a script on the radio in exchange for posh treatment (a deal some Americans had already taken). Louis refuses, and he’s returned to the general prison population, knowing what awaits.
When the war ends, Louis walks into Watanabe’s empty room. He sees a picture of his tormentor as a boy standing before a stern-looking father, and an expression of perhaps compassion or understanding comes across his face as he seems to ponder how anyone could have become so cruel.
Louis Zamperini is the youngest son of a devout Italian Catholic family. Not that he’s much interested in religion. He drinks, smokes and has an eye for the ladies. But in a moment of peril, he recalls his mother’s prayers (and we see her praying again later in the movie). He and Phil talk about faith and prayer and heaven. And we see Phil pray—taking a bit of ribbing from Louis for it.
Louis cries out to God to rescue him during a massive storm in the Pacific. “If You get me through this,” he pleads, “if you answer my prayers, I swear I’ll dedicate my whole life to You. I’ll do whatever You want. Please!” As the film ends, we’re told that Louis made good on his pledge, becoming a Christian and eventually going back to Japan to meet with his captors (though not Watanabe, who refused) in order to offer forgiveness.
In church, a priest quotes Genesis 1, a discussion that leads to the topic of Jesus’ mission to overcome darkness. He says Christ came “not to wage war on the sins of man, but to forgive them.” Jesus, he says, “smiles on sinners” and helps them “live through the darkness.”
As mentioned, Louis eyes a pretty young woman in church. He also hides under the bleachers at a track meet, looking up at the backsides of some female classmates. In a conversation about Louis’ best mile time of 4 minutes, 12 seconds, a fellow soldier quips, “I hope you’re not that fast in the sack.” We see a quick glimpse of small pinup-girl pics in an airplane. Soldiers stage a version of Cinderella at Ōmori in which they dress in drag.
Louis’ early run-ins with bullies who hit him foreshadow the awful brutalities he will experience later. In captivity, he is bludgeoned repeatedly with fists, feet and shafts. Watanabe carries a bamboo staff that he uses to throttle Louis and other POWs. Louis’ face and body are bloodied and bruised, and we see so much damage done to him that at times you wonder how anyone could survive such savagery.
As punishment for being “disrespectful,” Watanabe has every prisoner in the camp—hundreds of them—hit Louis in the face. We see and hear perhaps two dozen of those blows in what becomes a brutal, lengthy scene. After a number of hits, Louis isn’t able to stand any more, and Japanese soldiers hold him up for more. (Watanabe threatens to beat another, more severely injured man with his bamboo staff if the POWs refuse to hit Louis. And to his heroic credit, Louis urges his fellow prisoners to do what their captors demand so that no one else would be injured.) Louis is forced to hold a wooden beam on his shoulders for hours; Watanabe tells his men to shoot Louis if he drops it. He doesn’t, which prompts The Bird to beat Louis again. Finally, crumpled and unconscious, Louis is left outside (shirtless) until the next day.
Airmen are shot and bloodied and killed. Planes are blasted out of the sky. Tokyo is bombed, and we see the blanket-covered corpses of civilians lined up in rows. Louis, Phil and Mac’s life rafts are strafed by warplanes and attacked by a shark. The men suffer quite a lot while adrift in the Pacific, their skin painfully blistering. Mac dies, as noted, and his body is lowered into the water. A man carrying a bucket of coal trips and plunges off stairs to his death.
Japanese guards force Louis and Phil to strip naked and kneel. They think they’re about to be executed, but their captors pour water on them instead. (We see quite a lot of their emaciated bodies, including both men’s bare rears.)
Three s-words. We also hear a half-dozen uses of “d–n” or “d–mit,” and one or two uses each of “a–” and “b–ch.” God’s name is misused two or three times (once paired with “d–n”), and Jesus’ name is abused once. Bullies repeatedly taunt Louis with the racial slurs “dego” and “wop.” Pete throws the former slur at his brother to make him run faster.
As an adolescent, Louis seeks solace in secretly drinking (from bottles painted white to look like milk, hiding the alcohol in them) and smoking. Soldiers smoke cigarettes and cigars; we hear talk of going to a bar, and Louis drinks a beer in a posh Japanese restaurant.
We see that trying to eat a raw albatross results in vomiting for Louis, Phil and Mac. A soldier cleaning excrement from the latrine quips, “For a bunch of guys who don’t eat anything, we sure do s— a lot. I think this one’s mine.”
In one of my high school literature classes, the teacher outlined the general categories of conflicts readers might encounter in stories: man vs. himself, man vs. nature and man vs. the inhumanity of his fellow man. All of those struggles are present in Unbroken, the true story of Louis Zamperini. No sooner does Louis overcome one conflict than he’s plunged into another. And each is worse than the ones that came before.
Yet Louis somehow endures.
Directed by Angelina Jolie and based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling 2010 book, Unbroken suggests it’s a combination of Louis’ natural grit, memories of his mother and brother, and, ultimately, a God who cared for him that got him through. While Jolie reined in the violence and foul language enough to secure a PG-13 rating, this is a movie that reminds me a great deal of three other significant, difficult-to-watch historical dramas: Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List and 12 Years a Slave. As happens to so many people in those films, Louis endures unimaginable hardship, then emerges from his crucible of suffering as a heroic icon of hope, courage and perseverance.
Unbroken, then, is hard to watch but easy to praise. The horror of the inhumanity it depicts is wrenching. The triumph of one man’s spirit and heart is both astounding and deeply inspiring.
A postscript: Louis’ son, Luke, tells us that his father, who passed away just months before the film arrived in theaters (he was 97), loved the way it “handled the subject of his Christian faith.” Luke wrote for townhall.com, “Dad, you see, survived the horrors of war physically unbroken, but returned to the states emotionally shattered. Suffering from PTSD, he tried to kill the pain with alcohol and was consumed by visions of murdering his chief Japanese tormentor, a sadistic man nicknamed “The Bird” by inmates. It was only when, at the urging of my mother, he attended a Billy Graham crusade in 1949 and surrendered his life to Jesus Christ that my father truly became unbroken. The nightmares stopped. So did the drinking. And he dedicated the rest of his life to serving others.
“The film version of Unbroken does not spend a lot of screen time on his Christian conversion—detailing it in a series of text cards before the closing credits. And that is exactly the way my Dad and our entire family wanted it. … [His] greatest hope for the film version of Unbroken [was] not that it would be applauded by fellow Christians, although he certainly would have been honored and humbled by their appreciation; but that it would be seen by non-Christians drawn to a rousing epic about the indomitable human spirit who, when the credits have finished rolling, might just discover there’s a whole lot more to his story than that.”
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.