Condolences to the family and friends of the late Louis Zamperini, the former Olympic athlete and World War II survivor of a Pacific Ocean plane crash and Japanese prisoner-of-war camp who went to become an inspirational speaker and lived to the ripe old age of 97. Ditto his legions of admirers. Zamperini passed yesterday in Los Angeles. Sorry. Hats off.

Zamperini’s life was turned into a book by Laura Hillenbrand and then adapted into a forthcoming Oscar-bait film, Unbroken (Universal, 12.25), by director Angelina Jolie and screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. Jack O’Connell (whom I admired in ’71 after catching it at the Berlinale last February) portrays Zamperini in the film.

All along the word about Jolie’s Unbroken has been that it’s not so much another survival-at-sea film (a la Life of Pi and All Is Lost) as an inspirational piece about a man’s indomitable spirit. I haven’t read any of the drafts, much less Hillenbrand’s book, but the film may contain a thematic undercurrent that I haven’t paid attention to until now.

If Jolie’s film follows Zamperini’s life after his WWII ordeal, the message or theme that may emerge isn’t so much about Zamperini having survived hellish conditions during WWII, although he certainly did that and then some. Or that he was a hell of a fighter and a never-say-die fellow, and that such qualities are obviously admirable and inspirational. But the underlying statement may be about forgiveness and transcendence.

This is due to the fact that (a) Zamperini overcame post-traumatic stress disorder by becoming a born-again Christian, in part due to the influence of his wife, Cynthia (Morgan Griffin), as well as evangelist Billy Graham, and then (b) offered forgiveness to his Japanese captors — in particular Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a.k.a. “the Bird” (Takamasa Ishihara) — who brutally mistreated Zamperini during his captivity in the P.O.W. camp.

In other words, the undercurrent in Jolie’s Unbroken may (I say “may,” not having read any of the drafts) not simply refer to one man’s irrepressible will to survive, but to his triumph over feelings of anger and vengeance and his embracing of Christian values, particularly the concept of forgiveness.

In other words, Unbroken may have a little something in common with other forgive-your-enemies-and-tormentors films such as William Wyler‘s Ben-Hur (not to mention Paramount’s forthcoming remake of Ben-Hur from director Timur Bekmambetov and faith-based producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey), Nagisa Oshima‘s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Jonathan Teplitzky‘s The Railway Man and Stephen Frears and Steve Coogan‘s Philomena.

I don’t know if Unbroken will reveal itself as Christian-themed or not. It may not necessarily go there…who knows? But if it does and if it makes a big third-act deal out of Zamperini forgiving “the Bird”, I have a thought about that. I originally expressed it in a riff about The Railway Man. Here it is:

“It takes an awful lot of energy to sustain negative feelings (hate, resentment, lust for revenge) over the years. It’s much healthier to let it go and move on. But at the same time I don’t understand why people who have clearly suffered due to another person’s cruel or sadistic behavior need to forgive the perpetrator in order to flush it all out. Why does it have to be an either/or proposition — i.e., keep the hate going or forgive the tormentor/torturer?

“What about a middle road in which the former victim says, ‘The guy who made my life hell when I was younger was a vile, vicious fuck at the time. He might feel badly about this now due to maturity and mellowing and that’s fine, but there’s no way I’m giving him a ‘go with God’ card. Which isn’t to say I don’t believe in a ‘be here now’ approach. I do. You can’t live with hate. It only eats away at your soul so I’m living in the present and the past is the past. But the guy who tortured me is going to have to deal with his karma on his own dime. He’ll get no backrubs from me. And if he dies of lupus or ass cancer sometime soon or down the road? C’est la vie.”

I also had this to say about the forgiveness offered in Philomena.

I also said the following last April about Paramount’s Ben-Hur remake: “The idea of selling Ben-Hur to ‘faith-driven consumers’ is just as phony a sales pitch as the one used when the original Ben-Hur author, General Lew Wallace, called his book ‘A Tale of the Christ.’ As screenwriter Gore Vidal explained in a ‘Making of’ documentary about the 1959 version, Ben-Hur is the story of betrayal and revenge between a Jewish boy and a Roman boy that ends in after-the-fact forgiveness. Rage and bitterness are washed clean at the finale by Christ’s blood trickling into a stream, fine…but Ben-Hur never would have never been made into a film if the character of Judah Ben-Hur had followed the Nazarene’s teachings.

“If Judah (Charlton Heston) had returned from Jack Hawkins’ villa in Rome and decided to turn the other cheek and forgive Messala (Stephen Boyd) after learning that his boyhood friend had condemned his mother and sister to prison and the scourge of leprosy (instead of doing what he does in the film, which is to challenge and then defeat Messala in the chariot race, which results in Messala being trampled to death by horses), Ben-Hur never would have gotten the go-ahead. So don’t give me any of this religious thematic crap because Ben-Hur is about having your cake (i.e., sweet revenge) and eating it too (i.e., being re-born at the finale).”