The Rest of the “Unbroken” Story

By James Hirsen, Special for   USDR

Alfred Hitchcock once said that the drama in movies is like “life with the dull bits cut out.”

Along the lines of Hitchcock’s quote, some of life’s dull bits are indeed cut out of Angelina Jolie’s inspiring directorial triumph, “Unbroken,” which opened on the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

However, while Jolie’s film was careful to exclude some of life’s more mundane moments, one unfortunate writing and editing move made by the “Unbroken” decision makers was to not include, within the dramatic narrative about Louie Zamperini, the most important event in the World War II veteran and former Olympian’s remarkable life story.

Interestingly, Jolie’s film is doing far better at the box office than most in Hollywood were expecting that it would. As recounted in the book of the same title (written by Laura Hillenbrand), the movie tells of how, in the midst of World War II, Zamperini manages to survive a plane crash. Clinging to a life raft, he is able to stay afloat in the Pacific Ocean for 47 days. It is then that he is captured by the Japanese and is forced to endure two terribly cruel long years under unbearable conditions in a prison run by his sadistic captors.

Later, when Zamperini is able to return home, his torture continues mentally and emotionally. Nightmares drive him to seek comfort and solace in the numbing elixir of alcohol. His life is in tatters, his marriage falling apart.

Here is where the movie unfortunately departs from real life. A significant plot line is omitted, one that ultimately defines who the story’s hero is. In 1949, Zamperini’s wife Cynthia had attended one of famed preacher Billy Graham’s events, and afterward informed her husband that because she had decided to turn her life over to Jesus Christ, she was no longer seeking to divorce him.

Although skeptical, Zamperini eventually relented to Cynthia’s repeated pleas to attend one of Rev. Graham’s gatherings. After hearing the preacher use the phrase “there’s a drowning man, a drowning woman, a drowning boy or girl lost in the sea of life,” Zamperini bolted away in anger and vowed never to return again.

Still, his wife continued to implore him to give a Graham meeting just one more chance. Finally, Zamperini agreed to go, but only under one condition; and that was if she promised they could leave early, prior to the expected invitation to “come to Christ.”

However, at the moment when Rev. Graham offered the invitation to the people at the event to give their lives over to the Lord, Zamperini’s mind was filled with a promise that he himself had made to God while frightfully adrift in the vast ocean: “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.”

Little could he have known then how the promise was yet to be fulfilled. Zamperini got up to leave the event, but instead found himself moving toward Rev. Graham, where he surrendered his life to his waiting Savior.

Zamperini’s life was miraculously transformed. His internal strife and persistent nightmares came to an end. In turmoil’s place was now a heaven-sent spirit of forgiveness. He would ultimately extend out this spirit to his brutal captors.

In an article posted on Fox News, Rev. Graham’s son, Franklin, wrote, “It was this life-changing moment that blotted out the nightmares and years of torment.”

“Louie Zamperini is an example of a life that changed instantly,” Franklin added.

The most sadistic of Zamperini’s torturers was Mutsuhiro Watanabe, whose moniker was “The Bird.” Because CBS produced a documentary on his life, Zamperini was informed in the mid-1990s that Watanabe was still alive.

In 1998, in an act of unthinkable mercy, Zamperini travelled to Japan in order to reconcile with the man who had inflicted such unspeakable torture upon him. Watanabe refused to meet with Zamperini.

The generous attempt of extending mercy to one who was merciless is for so many people the most poignant and important part of Zamperini’s biography, being both a healing of an inner spirit and a redemption of a courageous soul.

Zamperini passed away July 2, 2014. He was 97 years old.

A few years ago, he described to John Drescher of the News Observer the most pivotal moment of his life, saying that on that fateful night, when he accepted the invitation given by Rev. Graham, “Something unbelievable happened when I was still on my knees. I knew I forgave every one of my guards, including Watanabe.”

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