Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Unbroken, a movie about forgiveness that opens in theatres on Christmas Day.

Forgiveness comes in different ways, times

  • December 11, 2014

The other day a real-life discussion between pals reminded me of Unbroken, a movie opening on Christmas Day and based on the best-selling book and true story of a courageous American airman during the Second World War.

I’ve long been waiting to see the movie after reading the book a few years ago. Bear with me as I connect the dots between a sure-to-be smash Hollywood hit movie and an encounter I had with a friend.

Unbroken is the story of Louie Zamperini, a troubled Depression-era young man who took up running and became a superstar of his era. He was on track to be the first person to break the four-
minute mile long before the world had ever heard of Roger Bannister.

But then war broke out and Zamperini joined the air force and was assigned to the Pacific theatre. Zamperini’s plane crashed in the ocean while on a rescue mission. Most of the crew died instantly, but Zamperini and two others managed to survive and floated in a raft for 47 days. (One man ultimately died at sea.) After surviving hunger, thirst and incessant shark attacks, Zamperini and his pilot friend were “rescued” by the Japanese Navy.

Then the hardship really began. They were thrown in prison and put into forced labour, beaten and tortured by sadistic guards. The Japanese treated prisoners of war far worse than the Germans with an Allied POW death rate 10 times higher in Japan than Nazi Germany.

A stubborn Zamperini was singled out for the harshest treatment because of his pre-war running fame and his defiance towards the guards. He refused to be broken and paid the price with daily beatings. He was also forced to do the most degrading and disgusting work imaginable.

Somehow he survived more than two years of this living hell. When he returned home to a hero’s welcome, however, things quickly spun out of control. Ironically, he was a broken man but this was only revealed after returning to the safety of the United States.

Nightmares haunted him. He was verbally and physically abusive to others, including his wife. And he became a drunk. His only “good dreams” were of revenge and a return to Japan to kill his worst tormentor, a sadistic guard named Mutsuhiro Watanabe.

Unlike his ill-fated B-24 bomber that couldn’t pull out of its tailspin into the Pacific, Zamperini pulled his life out of its death spiral. And it was the teachings of Jesus — especially the granting of forgiveness — that rescued Zamperini.

I’ve probably given away too much already and will say no more except that forgiveness is a central theme of Zamperini’s story.

He died this past July 2 at the ripe old age of 97. Angelina Jolie, who directed Unbroken, showed him the film just before he died. Ultimately, the power of determination saved him during the war and the power of forgiveness is what saved him after the war. In other words, granting forgiveness is as good as, or better, for the one who gives than the one who receives.

Which brings me back to the discussion a few days ago. In our pre-teen and early teen years, we were both tormented by a bully. In no way am I comparing Zamperini’s torture to what we faced.

But, in our own way, we were persecuted at very young ages at the hands of this bully and those experiences were imprinted and they stayed with us through the years.

The bully has changed and sought forgiveness. It has taken a long time, but I have forgiven him and it really feels quite liberating. It’s hard to forget some of the stuff, but I believe the man who once bullied us is truly a changed person. Indeed, a good man, not without faults, but a good person.

My friend simply cannot forget or forgive. He says he harbours no ill will toward the bully; he simply wants nothing to do with him. He reiterated this feeling recently when the topic re-appeared.

It’s difficult to know exactly how others feel, but it feels like I am better off, for my own good, than my friend. Maybe he’ll end up watching Unbroken and have a change of heart. I hope he does. For his own sake.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca.)

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