A shorter version of this review also appears in the February ET
Many readers will be aware of the book War and grace by Don Stephens, a collection of short biographies of Christians from the two world wars, that was published in 2005 and again, in a new edition, last year.
The first story in that book concerns an American of Italian extraction called Louis Zamperini. The new edition reveals that he died on July 2, 2014 and mentions the 2010 biography Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and the then forthcoming film of the same name, directed by Angelina Jolie. This film has now appeared, going on general release in British cinemas on Boxing Day, 2014.
We are always looking for ways to introduce Christ to our unbelieving neighbours and so the fact that a biopic about a Christian has appeared is good news. Sadly, the film, unlike the book that it is drawn from, chooses very much to downplay the fact that Zamperini became a Christian after the war and spent much of his life talking about Christ and the forgiveness that can be found only in him.
In his book, Don Stephens prefaces his life of Zamperini with seven summarising bullet points. The first five of these are well covered in the film.
The three middle points are covered the most extensively – An Air force bomb aimer, decorated for gallantry in action; a survivor of 47 days adrift on a life raft; an ill-treated prisoner of war of the Japanese for two and a half years. The bulk of the film looks at these periods, most of the time being devoted to his harrowing years as a POW when a man known as 'The bird' did all that he possibly could to 'break' his prisoner. Much of this, which includes a great deal of senseless violence, does not make pleasant viewing. Hence the '15' certificate. If you do see this film, be prepared for that. Zamperini had recurring nightmares after his experiences, until he came to Christ. One can imagine some people having nightmares after watching this presentation.
The first two bullet points (a juvenile delinquent in California and an Olympic runner at the Berlin Games of 1936) are covered in the film by means of flashbacks that bring out his Italian background, the racism he suffered, his delinquency and the way his older brother eventually steered him in a better direction by means of sport, leading to some success at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
As for Stephens' final two bullet points – a drunkard who almost wrecked his marriage and a Christian – these are almost entirely ignored. The main film ends when the war ends and just a few subsequent points are covered in a brief epilogue, where written material is combined with contemporary stills to fill in the rest of the story.
All this means that the only real Christian elements in the film itself are a snatch from a sermon by a Roman clergyman when Zamperini was a boy (blurring the fact that he later rejected Catholicism for the gospel), his prayer in the life raft that he would dedicate his life to God if he survived and some conversations about God with his fellow survivor Russell Phillips.
It is hard to understand why the film makers were not keener to depict the moment when Zamperini returned to Japan after the war in 1950 and, having preached to his former guards, warmly shook them by the hand and expressed his forgiveness. They chose not to do it this way, however.
That still leaves us with an opportunity to take advantage of the brief spotlight on Zamperini to draw attention to him and his Saviour by means of Don Stephens' book or other materials that do highlight his conversion and Christian life.
One other point to make, if it is not too esoteric, is that if you watch the film carefully you will notice that sometimes Zamperini is framed in an iconically Christ-like way. Further, near the end we see him symbolically crucified, symbolically dead, symbolically raised and this is followed by a symbolic pouring out of the Spirit and a mass baptism. Some have also detected his representative character, his temptation by Satan and his final ascension too. These elements may be helpful or unhelpful in the long run but are worth keeping in mind.