Kathy Schiffer is a Catholic blogger. In addition to her blog Seasons of Grace, her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.
Louis Zamperini was a man of accomplishment:
He was an athlete. Zamperini competed in the 5,000-meter race in the 1936 Berlin Olympics – attracting the attention of Adolf Hitler, who requested a personal meeting with the young runner. Two years later, he set a world record in collegiate athletics, running a collegiate mile (1,609 meters) in just 4:08 minutes and earning the nickname “Torrance Tornado.”
He was a soldier. In September 1941, Zamperini enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps. He earned a commission as Second Lieutenant, and was deployed as a bombardier in the Pacific during World War II. He was assigned to a search and rescue mission in May 1943, aboard a B-24 Liberator bomber titled the “Green Hornet”; but mechanical difficulties caused the plane to crash into the ocean 850 miles south of Oahu, killing eight of the 11 men aboard.
He was a survivor, enduring 47 days on a life raft, fending off sharks while subsisting on captured rainwater, small fish eaten raw, and birds that landed on the raft.
He was a prisoner-of-war, captured by the Japanese after reaching land in the Marshall Islands, until the end of World War II. Zamperini and his fellow prisoners were severely beaten and tortured by their Japanese captors, and he was cruelly tormented by a prison guard Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird.”
Finally, he became a Christian evangelist. After his release in August 1945, Zamperini married, then struggled with his internal demons, unable to forget the abuses he had endured. It was through a Billy Graham Crusade that he finally found his way to Christ and found the strength to forgive his captors and move on with his life. He devoted his remaining years to his message of forgiveness and charitable projects.
Zamperini's dramatic life story inspired author Lauren Hillenbrand, who told his story in her 2010 best-seller Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. That same story was recreated on film in “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie and released in 2014; and now in 2018 there's a sequel, “Unbroken: Path to Redemption,” which tells the second part of the story.
Answering Moviegoers' Concerns: Were They Ignoring the Faith Element?
The Register's Steven Greydanus was among those who left the first film disappointed by the failure to address Zamperini's emotional healing, which was inspired by his renewed faith experience. Greydanus reflected the opinion of many Christian viewers, saying of the first film:
Unbroken relegated Zamperini’s religious conversion and life of faith to closing titles, which I found unsatisfying. At the time I felt that perhaps Louis’ later religious conversion and faith might have held a key to illuminating the character and his story. I still think it’s possible a film about Zamperini overcoming his demons through faith and the support of his wife and other believers might be a story worth telling.
And Religion News Service raised a similar concern, saying,
The problem? The Christianity that is central to Louis Zamperini’s life is almost entirely absent from the film.
But at a recent press junket in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to talk with Matthew Bauer, producer of both “Unbroken” and its sequel, “Unbroken: Path to Redemption.” Baer talked about his decision to tell Zamperini's story on film, and explained why the first movie ended as it did. “I know that some people were troubled after seeing the first film,” he said,
...because it didn't explain the reason for Louie Zamperini's emotional healing. His conversion to Christ occurred after his return to the U.S., but “Unbroken” ended without telling that important part of the story. Only briefly at the end did “Unbroken” make reference to Zamperini's conversion, which inspired him to forgive his torturers.
But Matt Baer explained that the big problem, from a producer's point of view, was that Angelina Jolie's “Unbroken” was already two hours and 17 minutes long; and moviegoers would not support a film which lasted nearly three hours. For this reason, the studio would not have consented to an additional half-hour in which to tell the last part of the story.
A second issue, Baer explained, was that Merritt Patterson, cast as Louie's wife Cynthia, was one of the main characters in the story. Had Zamperini's full biography been covered in a single movie, her character would have appeared in just the last half-hour of the film – which would have been an odd time to introduce a new major character.
For these reasons, Baer explained, it was determined that the “Unbroken” film should end after Zamperini's release and his return to America. However, it was always Baer's hope that “Unbroken” would be a box office success, thus persuading the studio to invest in a second movie, in which he could tell the rest of the story. “I always had the full story in mind,” Baer said, “so for me, the two films are part of the same whole.”
In theaters now is that sequel that Baer had hoped for, “Unbroken: Path to Redemption.”
Was the Graham Crusade Portrayed Authentically?
Some viewers have cited another discrepancy in the sequel. Zamperini found his faith strengthened by attending the 1949 Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles; but weren't Rev. Graham's events held in major venues such as sports stadiums? Actually, no – at least not at first. The Los Angeles prayer service that launched the Crusade was held in a modest rented tent, like that in the movie. That tent revival was the first of an eight-week Crusade that brought Graham to fame.
The Register turned to Will Graham, the grandson of the famed preacher, to compare the film to real life. Will – himself an evangelical pastor, the third generation of the Graham family to minister under the banner of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association – played the role of his famous grandfather in the film.
Will Graham confirmed that although his grandfather was just beginning to be well-known in 1949, the tent crusade in Los Angeles attracted 10,000 people – significantly more than were shown in the film version. There would have been thousands of people going forward at his grandfather's invitation, Graham explained – and Louie Zamperini would not have been singled out, as he was in the film. The two, Zamperini and Rev. Graham, did not know each other that night; they only became friends after that, joining in their evangelical zeal. These differences between reality and the film version were simply a matter of creative license, maximizing the screen presence of Samuel Hunt with close-up shots, while retaining the storyline.
Did Louis Zamperini Leave the Catholic Church?
One friend expressed concern that Zamperini, a baptized Catholic, had apostatized – leaving behind the Catholic Church of his youth, and embarking on a religious journey that took him away from his roots. But was Zamperini's childhood enriched by his participation in the Church?
Louis Zamperini's name is recorded in 1917 as having received the Sacrament of Baptism at St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church in Olean, New York. His name appears scratched in ink on Line 25 of the parish's baptismal records book, on Jan. 26, 1917, alongside the names of his parents, Tony Zamperini and Louise Dossi. The Zamperinis, who had immigrated to Torrance, California from Italy and who spoke no English, raised Louis and his three siblings in a strict Catholic household. Louis, though, was a troublemaker, an “untamable child” described by Laura Hillenbrand in her book as “thrilled by the crashing of boundaries.”
So the Olympian and war hero who found himself clinging to a life raft in the Pacific Ocean had for years been unconcerned about living a rich life of faith. He had cast aside the Catholicism of his youth; but faced with his own mortality, deprived of the earthly distractions that had occupied his mind before his plane crashed into the sea, Zamperini recognized the hand of God.
Hillenbrand described in the book how, as the plane hit the ocean and began to sink, Zamperini became entangled in plane wires. He passed out underwater and then awoke to find himself sinking deeper and deeper with the plane, but no longer tangled. With the help of his life jacket, Zamperini managed to kick his way to the surface. Laura Hillenbrand recognized the hand of God in Zamperini's dramatic escape: “If he had passed out from the pressure,” Hillenbrand asked, “and the plane had continued to sink and the pressure to build, why had he woken again? And how had he been loosed from the wires while unconscious?”
Zamperini survived on the life raft – dehydrated, exhausted and starved – for 47 days. Fighting back sharks and battling despair, he made a promise that if God would spare his life, he would serve him forever. Amber Clayson, writing in the Deseret News, summarized Louis Zamperini's faith journey, and described the moment when his life turned around.
...it is this promise that Zamperini remembered when attending a sermon by the evangelical preacher Billy Graham years after returning from war. In an interview with the Faith Community Church in his old age, Zamperini talked about the moment he recognized the hand God had in his life and was filled with faith and forgiveness.
“God kept his promise,” Zamperini said. “And I started to leave (the sermon) when I thought about that and I thought, 'You know, he brought me home alive, and here I am turning my back on him.' So when we got to the main aisle, I turned to the right and went back to the prayer room and made a confession of my faith in Christ.”
As Louis Zamperini listened to Billy Graham preach in the tent that day, Graham said, “What God asks of men is faith.” The words resonated with Louie. Hillenbrand explained,
“What resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him.... He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird had striven to make of him. In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away.”
Persuaded by Graham's strong message, Zamperini changed his life in dramatic ways: He became a Christian speaker, traveling around the country to tell his story. Once a troubled youth himself, he established Victory Boys Camp in California to help troubled youths find their purpose in life. He wrote a heartfelt letter to his torturer “the Bird,” expressing his forgiveness.
It is true that Zamperini's “come to Jesus” moment occurred not within the walls of a Catholic church. He found his way back to faith, then lived the Christian life with vigor; but he never had the opportunity to delve even deeper into the heart of God, to become one with Christ in the Eucharist and the Sacraments. Still, Louis Zamperini lived the promise he had made aboard the life raft, “Bring me home alive, and I'll seek you and serve you.”
Louis Zamperini's inspiring story is recounted in “Unbroken: Path to Redemption,” now playing in theaters across America. Starring Samuel Hunt (as Louis Zamperini), Merritt Patterson (as his wife Cynthia) and Will Graham (as his own grandfather, Rev. Billy Graham), “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” is a spellbinder of a film – captivating hearts, encouraging character, inspiring faith, and demonstrating the power of God's amazing grace.