Last week I had the privilege of seeing the new movie “Unbroken.”
It’s a hard movie to watch, but an amazing story to digest.
It’s taken me several days of thinking and soul-searching to fully appreciate the story. Did I mention it isn’t easy to watch?
“Unbroken” is based on the true story of a WWII airman “Louie” Zamperini. The movie is largely focused on the events occurring during Zamperini’s captivity as a prisoner in a Japanese detention camp. He was often singled out for ridicule and cruelty, at least in part because he was a former Olympic athlete, and he drew the jealousy and disdain of the commander of the camp.
The movie portrays a troubled kid who finds direction and ambition through distance running. He was fast enough, successful enough, to participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, and though he didn’t win a medal, he set a record for speed in the final lap of the 5000 meter race. He was slated to participate in the next Olympics, scheduled to be in Tokyo.
Ironically, Zamperini would visit Tokyo, but under very different circumstances than as an Olympic hero.
With the outbreak of WWII, lives and plans changed, and Zamperini joined the Air Force, becoming a bombardier. When he and the crew he flew with crashed in the Pacific, Zamperini and two others survived the impact. The three men salvaged two inflatable rafts and managed to live over a month with very little food, rainwater, and the hope that came from remembered family scenes and sheer will to stay alive. Finally, on day 33, one of the three dies, leaving Louie and the pilot still adrift on the ocean.
But if the time on the ocean was horrific, day 47 brought a change for the worse. The two airmen were picked up by the Japanese, and were subjected to inhumane living conditions, near starvation, frequent beatings, mental cruelty.
It was hard to watch.
The strength those men displayed was inspiring. How do you keep going when you have nothing left?
And how do you find the courage to look your tormentor in the eye and dare him to do his worst with your look?
At one point Louie is told that he was reported to have died, and he’s offered the chance to speak to his family by radio to assure them he’s still alive. He accepts the offer, but when he’s asked to follow the first broadcast with another one, spreading Japanese propaganda, he refuses, and also passes up the easy life he could have had if he’d cooperated with his captors.
The first camp was attacked, so the prisoners were moved to another location. At the new camp the prisoners worked loading coal barges, and the commander who had singled out Zamperini earlier was again in charge. When Zamperini injures his ankle and struggles to work, the commander orders him to lift a heavy wooden beam above his head, and orders his guards to shoot Zamperini if he drops it.
Watching Zamperini struggle with the heavy load, covered in coal dust, weakened, almost defeated in every way…but then somehow, someway, manage to lift the beam…not just lift it but push it high, fully extending arms to hold it up…the other prisoners stopped in their tracks, the guards and the commander all stared at this man who reached within himself to find unbelievable strength. The commander was so incensed at this victory by his captive enemy that he beat Zamperini savagely, and then broke down himself. It was a scene that seemed to demonstrate how even when brutally beaten Zamperini’s courage humbled and embarrassed his tormentor.
The war ended soon after and the captives were freed, reunited with their families and able to resume their lives.
Louie married and had two children. But do you think he escaped the memories and the nightmares of his ordeal?
The end of the story is told with a series of photos from Louie’s life, and a narration about how he was truly unbroken.
Louie eventually returned to Japan to meet with his former captors and to forgive them. The only one who would not meet with him was the commander who had treated him so cruelly.
In the end, Louie realized that forgiveness was more powerful than revenge.
He was even able to run in an Olympic Games in Japan, when he took part in carrying the Olympic Torch in 1998. Zamperini died just last year, July 2, 2014, at 97.
I wonder if we still have people like that among us? Men who can face the un-faceable with a determination that seems almost superhuman.
But you only had to see the scars to know: he was only too human.
I watch movies like this and I wonder: do I have that kind of strength? The kind that only appears when the direst of circumstances calls for it? The kind that you wouldn’t guess is there, until suddenly it’s on display for the world to see?
Courage blooms in the strangest of places. And some things that don’t seem courageous can be hardest of all.
I would be willing to bet it was harder, took more courage, for Zamperini to go back to Japan and meet with his captors than withstanding the beatings and hardships of prison.
Why? Because withstanding the beatings was an act of defiance, an act of sheer willpower and determination to survive. And though I can’t imagine the strength that took, I know the will to live is strong and gives power even when hope is gone.
Forgiving was an act of choice, an act of generosity, showed a bigness of spirit that can hardly be imagined.
Unless…oh yes, unless you grew up on a faith that celebrates that very attribute.
I’m grateful to acknowledge: I’ve never known the physical suffering that was portrayed in the movie. I’m sad to know that many people, even today, could likely identify with many scenes.
I’m humbled to acknowledge: I don’t know if I could forgive my enemies, if I had lived through that horror.
I’m challenged to acknowledge: I want to reach the point of knowing I could forgive, whatever the hurt. That doesn’t make me a saint…it means I want to be big enough to put myself aside and know: peace comes through forgiving, not revenge.
The final images of the movie were of a smiling elderly man. I’m sure Louie Zamperini died with physical scars from the injuries he endured as a prisoner. But I’m equally sure he found a way to escape the prison of hatred.
I’ll bet his soul was beautiful, even if his body wasn’t.
That’s my goal…I don’t have to overcome physical injury. But I’ve had my share of hurt and damage. I’m 54, and I have baggage. It’s not a contest…I know compared to many, my scars would be light. But the point isn’t the severity of the scars…the point is the healing power of forgiveness, the power that transforms scars into beauty.
Is it easy? Of course not! Does it take courage? Only all you have to give.
It takes an unbroken spirit to forgive those who tried to break it.
It takes an unbroken spirit to forgive those who tried to break it.
Unbroken spirits are not given, they are forged…forged in the will of determination and self-knowledge.
Unbroken spirits are not super-human, they are super-sure: Sure of who they are, what they stand for, and how to be bigger than pain, bigger than mean, bigger than revenge.
Unbroken spirits are called to rise to the challenge, rise big, be strong, be a light and a story that people will see and tell about.
Only time can tell if I will be unbroken…able to rise when I face challenges that would beat me down, and able to forgive when I’m beaten. But I hope I have that will, that grace, that strength, to the degree that I’m challenged in life.
I don’t need to be the stuff of movies. It will be enough if I inspire my children to be strong, or someone struggling with their burden. But I’d like to earn that title: Unbroken. It would be humbling, and an honor, to be anywhere near the character of Mr. Zamperini.