On Religion by Terry Mattingly

The Broken Soul at the Heart of 'Unbroken'

For decades, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's World Wide Pictures unit produced many films with titles like "Souls in Conflict," "The Heart is a Rebel," "The Restless Ones" and "The Prodigal."

Critics relentlessly noted the formula that drove most of these films: The sins of the main character would cause a crisis, then -- somehow -- he would hear a Graham sermon and be born again. Roll credits.

That was cinema. But the drama was real in 1949 when a shattered sinner named Louis Zamperini attended Graham's historic "Canvas Cathedral" crusade in Los Angeles.

Come judgment day, warned the evangelist, "they are going to pull down the screen and they are going to shoot the moving picture of your life from the cradle to the grave, and you are going to hear every thought that was going on in your mind every minute of the day ... and you're going to hear the words that you said. And your own words, and your own thoughts, and your own deeds, are going to condemn you as you stand before God on that day."

When Zamperini told his life story -- a rebellious childhood, Olympic glory, then the horrors of World War II, including 47 days adrift in the shark-infested Pacific, followed by two hellish years in prison -- this was the climactic scene. He had been soaking his nightmares in alcohol, and he was facing divorce and obsessed with killing his torturers.

Graham said: "Here tonight, there's a drowning man" at the breaking point, someone "lost in the sea of life." It took a sermon or two, but Zamperini surrendered.

That's what millions read in "Unbroken," the bestselling page-turner by Laura Hillenbrand, but that scene isn't in Angelina Jolie's new "Unbroken" film. The director has publicly said that Zamperini, who died last summer at age 97, embraced her decision to skip the Christian specifics and offer a message of "universal" faith and forgiveness.

Obviously, the Graham team disagreed with her artistic choice.

"The key to the whole story is that Louis Zamperini was a broken man. ... But it wasn't the Japanese who broke him. He broke himself," said the Rev. Franklin Graham, the eldest son of Billy and Ruth Graham. "He came back from the war and was trying to find peace by seeking the things of this world."

While he has chosen not to see her film, Graham said it appears Jolie told a spectacular story, while ignoring its climactic chapters. Thus, the Graham team has released its own film about Zamperini, including references to the years of testimonies he shared in Graham crusades. The documentary, "Louis Zamperini: Captured by Grace," has been posted at the BillyGraham.org website.

"We're not talking about a Billy Graham movie here," said Franklin Graham. "We're talking about real life and, most importantly, what happened in this man's real life. All of our lives are going to spiral down if we don't grab a life rope. That's what Louis Zamperini did and his life was changed for eternity."

In particular, Graham said he wished that Jolie had been willing to include the dramatic episode in which, soon after his conversion, Zamperini returned to Japan to forgive -- face to face -- as many of his prison guards as possible. "You can just imagine that scene in your mind. ... It's like she forgot the punch line," he said.

The Jolie film does include references to spiritual crisis and prayer. A self-professed agnostic, the superstar actress and director told reporters at one press event: "If you were looking for symbolism and miracles in the film, you will see them." Thus, during the movie's sea ordeal, Zamperini prays: "If you get me through this, if you answer my prayers, I swear, I'll dedicate my whole life to you. I'll do whatever you want. Please."

But in the Graham documentary, the real man stressed that, at first, he didn't keep that promise. The unbroken man, in reality, came home spiritually broken.

"Yes, I had a lot of great times, a lot of great experience, a lot of escape from death, but I still didn't like my life after the war. I came home alive. God kept His promise. I didn't keep mine," said Zamperini, five years before his death. "The heart of this story is when I found Christ as my Savior. That's the heart of my whole life."