Cynthia Applewhite and Louis “Louie” Zamperini met on the beach in Florida in January of 1946. She was captivated by this unusual man with an incredible background—the child delinquent who became an Olympic long-distance runner … the World War II B-24 bombardier who survived 47 days on a life raft after his plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean … the prisoner of war in a Japanese camp who suffered two years of sadistic torture.
After a whirlwind two-week courtship, Louie and Cynthia were engaged. Two months later they were married.
Of course they barely knew each other. And soon it became evident to Cynthia that her new husband had not survived the war unscathed. Tormented by flashbacks and nightmares, he turned to alcohol. Cynthia urged him to get help, but in those days few doctors understood post-traumatic stress disorder. His life continued to spiral downward; on one occasion he dreamed he was strangling the man who had persecuted him in the POW camp, and he woke up to discover he was on top of his pregnant wife with his hands around her neck.
In October of 1949 Cynthia heard some neighbors talking about a young evangelist named Billy Graham, who was in the middle of the Los Angeles revival that made him famous. Louie wouldn’t take Cynthia to hear Graham, so she went by herself. “She came home alight,” writes Laura Hillenbrand in her best-selling book, Unbroken. “She found Louie and told him that she wasn’t going to divorce him. The news filled Louie with relief, but when Cynthia said that she’d experienced a religious awakening, he was appalled.”
Cynthia convinced Louie to attend the revival. When Graham made his traditional call to commitment, Louie fled, but he decided to return the next night. This time a war memory returned: He was back on the life raft, dying of thirst, when he made a vow to God: “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.”
On that night Louie received Christ as his Lord and Savior. He gave up his anger, his desire for revenge, and felt the love and peace of God. Never again did he have a flashback or nightmare of the war.
Louie spent the remainder of his life telling others about what Christ had done for him. He and Cynthia were married for 55 years until her death in 2001. And Louie lived until 2014, dying at the age of 97.
A movie without an ending
The story I just told is familiar to those who read Hillenbrand’s memorable book about Louis Zamperini. His experiences were so incredible that they almost defy belief, and the author’s chapter about his conversion is masterfully told—it’s the culmination of the story.
I wish I could say the same about the film Unbroken, which was released in theaters last Christmas and recently on DVD. I had high hopes for the movie, directed by Angelina Jolie, and apparently many critics were similarly optimistic. As Richard Corliss of Time magazine wrote, “All year long, this was the unseen movie with the biggest promise.”
But the film fails to match those high expectations. Some sections are thrilling, and visually it is beautiful and compelling. But in the end it feels empty. You feel the pain of Louie’s suffering on the raft and in the POW camp, but you don’t really connect with him emotionally. And the biggest disappointment was the filmmaker’s decision to end the story when Louie is reunited with his family after the war. The only reference to his struggles with PTSD and alcohol, and to his redemption, are a few words that appear on the screen as a postscript, just before the credits: “After years of severe post-traumatic stress, Louie made good on his promise to serve God, a decision he credited with saving his life. Motivated by his faith, Louie came to see that the way forward was not revenge, but forgiveness.”
It’s like ending a play before the final act. And I was surprised by the number of film critics who agreed—rarely do critics wish a film had more religion! Gary Thompson of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote:
You wonder if Jolie may have missed a bit by not showing Zamperini later in life, wrestling with post-traumatic stress, drawing on his beliefs to make peace with his tormentors and himself.
And Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times, told National Public Radio:
In real life, Zamperini’s postwar story has a tremendous ending. He endures years of alcoholism and PTSD before a religious awakening, inspired by Billy Graham, changes his life. Yet, the film relegates this drama to a few brief seconds of text on screen. This decision wreaks havoc with the story’s equilibrium, making Unbroken into a drama about torture, not redemption. The result is a film we respect more than love, and that’s a wasted opportunity.
The beauty of brokenness
Perhaps what Angelina Jolie, who developed a strong friendship with Zamperini, didn’t fully understand was that he did not survive the war unbroken. It takes an incredible strength of will to become a world-class distance runner, to survive 47 days in a life raft, and to endure two years in a Japanese POW camp. Yet there are some things a strong will cannot overcome.
At that Billy Graham revival in 1949 Louie finally realized what he had become. He acknowledged his brokenness, confessing his sin and receiving the redemption and forgiveness God offers through Christ.
As Louie learned, there is beauty in brokenness. His life changed and his marriage was healed when God took his shattered life and made him whole.
If only the film had told that part of the story.