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‘Unbroken’ faith: The religious journey of Louis Zamperini

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Editor's note: The following summarizes the life story of Louis Zamperini from the biography "Unbroken," which may reveal key plot points from the upcoming film.

The unforgettable story of Olympian and American war hero Louis Zamperini will be told on the big screen beginning Christmas Day.

Zamperini's experiences as an “untamable” child, Olympic athlete, prisoner of war and distraught veteran on the brink of divorce who eventually found God are chronicled in the biography "Unbroken," written by Laura Hillenbrand. The book was on the New York Times best-seller list for three years. Angelina Jolie directed the film adaptation, which stars Jack O'Connell as Zamperini and opens in theaters nationwide Dec. 25.

Zamperini's journey is one of faith — both in himself and, eventually, in Jesus Christ. And while the film version is more subtle in its depictions of prayer and belief in God and does not address Zamperini's post-war conversion, faith and Christianity are integral parts of his life story as portrayed in Hillenbrand's book.

Zamperini grew up in Torrance, California, and loved to get into mischief. He found structure and success in running, which led him to the University of Southern California and, eventually, the 1936 Olympics, where he placed eighth in the 5,000 meters. His hopes of competing in the 1940 Olympics were crushed when Europe exploded into war. Zamperini was drafted and became a bombardier for the American Air Corps.

During a rescue mission to search for an American plane that had disappeared over the ocean, the plane Zamperini and his crew were flying began to have engine failures and crashed into the ocean. After suffering 47 days floating in a raft, he was taken captive by the Japanese military. Zamperini spent two years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps where he was beaten, starved and tormented by the guards.

Zamperini survived the camps and made it back home to his family. He died this past year on July 2 from pneumonia at age 97.

Though Zamperini didn’t grow up a practicing Christian — he was described by Hillenbrand as being “thrilled by the crashing of boundaries” — there were multiple times throughout his ordeal where he recognized the hand of God, according to the biography.

The most significant moment followed the crash of the Green Hornet, the plane Zamperini and his crew were flying on the rescue mission. As the plane hit the ocean and began to sink, Hillenbrand writes, Zamperini became entangled in plane wires. He passed out underwater and then awoke only to find himself sinking deeper and deeper with the plane but no longer tangled. Zamperini managed to kick up to the surface with the help of his life jacket.

“If he had passed out from the pressure, and the plane had continued to sink and the pressure to build, why had he woken again?” Hillenbrand asks. “And how had he been loosed from the wires while unconscious?”

The seed for religious faith was planted.

Zamperini’s faith continued to grow as he spent 47 days — dehydrated, exhausted and starved — on the raft with fellow soldiers Phil and Mac, the only other survivors from the crash. The life-threatening conditions led Phil and Zamperini to turn to prayer. Twice, Zamperini promised that if God would spare his life, he would serve him forever.

One of those prayerful promises is depicted in the film when the men are fighting a storm, trying to keep their raft afloat in the middle of the crashing waves.

According to Hillenbrand's biography, 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."

The book and the film depict the horrors Zamperini experienced as a prisoner of war. He was beaten, starved and deprived of water. He was forced to dance, exercise and humiliate himself by a multitude of guards. But the most rampant offender was Japanese sergeant Mutsuhiro Watanabe, aka “The Bird.” Hillenbrand explained that the Bird had a special fixation on Zamperini, stalking, tormenting and beating him every day.

After being liberated after two years in prisoner-of-war camps and returning to the United States, Zamperini tried to live a normal life. He married and seemingly “moved on,” but the Bird continued to haunt him. His inability to forgive slowly ate away at his soul. God was forgotten. Thoughts of murdering his tormentor festered in his heart, destroying his health and marriage.

Zamperini's inability to forgive left him "with murder in his head," writes Hillenbrand. "A once singularly hopeful man now believed that his only hope lay in murder."

But in a moment, it was gone. According to the biography, Zamperini was first introduced to Graham when his wife convinced him to go hear the preacher speak. The first night Zamperini attended, Graham told the story of Jesus Christ forgiving the woman taken in adultery. Zamperini was twisted up inside. At first, he refused to go back, but he then gave in to his wife's pleadings. The second time Zamperini attended a sermon, Graham spoke of war, suffering and miracles.

"What God asks of men," Hillenbrand records Graham testifying, "is faith."

The words sparked Zamperini's memory of the promises he once made to God.

“What resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him,” writes Hillenbrand. “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.”

While the biography goes into great detail about Zamperini's change of heart, the film version of "Unbroken" omits the postwar conversion and Graham himself. However, it does acknowledge, in closing, that Zamperini "made good on his promise to serve God."

Zamperini became a Christian speaker, traveling around the United States telling his story. He established the nonprofit Victory Boys Camp in California to help troubled youths rediscover their purpose in life. Hillenbrand writes that Zamperini remained firm in his conviction that “everything happened for a reason, and would come to good.”

In a final act of forgiveness, Zamperini wrote a letter to the Bird admitting to his post-war horrors and sharing his discovery of faith.

“Love replaced the hate I had for you,” Zamperini wrote. “Christ said, ‘Forgive your enemies and pray for them.’ ”

Amber Clayson has a bachelor's degree in communications from BYU.