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War hero's story finally makes it to the screen

Unbroken to open on Christmas day

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November 25th, 2014
Louis Zamperini looks through hole in side of B 52 bomber.
Louis Zamperini looks through hole in side of B 52

Movie studios traditionally release some of their best films on December 25—call it tinsel town’s gift to moviegoers. One of this year’s most anticipated Christmas day releases is Unbroken, director Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s perpetual bestseller Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. It is the story of Olympian Louis Zamperini, who survived a plane crash, 47 days of floating in the Pacific Ocean, and torture at the hands of Japanese guards while being held as a prisoner of war.  

By any measure, this “gift” is long overdue. While Hillenbrand’s book was published in 2010, Zamperini’s story was first told in his autobiography Devil at My Heels, published in 1956. From the start, Zamperini’s story seemed to have all the makings for an epic war film, and Universal Pictures purchased the rights to it for the screen—announcing that Tony Curtis would star in the film.

Fifty-five years in the making

In one of those odd mysteries of Hollywood, the project languished in development for over fifty years. Now, it is finally ready for the big screen with a young English actor named Jack O’Connell playing the part of Zamperini. With a screenplay written by Academy Award-winners Joel and Ethan Cohen, there is a good deal of Oscar buzz surrounding Unbroken. 

Angelina Jolie had a strong desire to helm the Zamperini story, but it wasn’t just handed to her. She had to pitch her ideas to Universal Studios and then to Zamperini himself. She reportedly made poster boards by hand—laying out the film she wanted to direct. In the end, her vision won her the job. 

“In her life and in her work, Angelina has embraced stories and causes involving great struggle and triumph over tremendous odds and the basic human condition,” says Universal chairman Adam Fogelson. “She has a real ability to illustrate the strength in human spirit, which will be essential in telling Lou’s story of survival and great heroism.”

Once she had the job, Jolie said she felt a tremendous responsibility to do justice to Zamperini’s story. Over the course of the production, the director and the war hero became the best of friends. Last year, when accepting her honorary Oscar, she gazed down to the front row, at the man who was sitting beside Brad Pitt—Zamperini—and called him her hero. 

A hero’s journey

Born in 1917, Zamperini grew up in Torrance, Calif. From the start, he seemed to have a knack for getting into trouble. From fistfights to mischief and pranks, Louis was a familiar face at the local police station. In an attempt to redirect Zamperini’s focus, his older brother Pete got him involved in running.  

Zamperini was a natural, easily winning races against more experienced runners. With a few victories under his belt, Louis devoted himself to becoming the best. In 1934, he set the interscholastic record for the mile at 4 minutes and 21.2 seconds and won a scholarship to the University of Southern California. 

Zamperini was just 19 when he earned a spot on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. He traveled to Berlin, where he shared a room with the great Jessie Owens. While he placed eighth in his event, the 5,000-meter, his dynamic burst of speed near the finish made him the talk of the games. Even Adolf Hitler wanted to meet him. “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish,” Hitler remarked when they shook hands. 

World War II

Returning home to California, Zamperini set his sights on medaling at the 1940 Olympics to be held in Tokyo, but like scores of men of his generation, his plans were interrupted by the advent of World War II. Zamperini did make it to Japan; however, it was not Olympic glory he found there. 

Zamperini joined the army and became a bombardier. In 1943, his B-24 Bomber went down over the Pacific Ocean. Eight of the eleven men on board were killed instantly. Equipped with little more than two flimsy rafts, an oar, and a ridiculously insufficient survival kit that contained fishing line but no hooks, Zamperini and his crew floated through shark-infested waters, torrential storms, and blistering heat. One of the men died in the raft.

The remaining two were so badly malnourished and dehydrated, they were near death. On their forty-seventh day at sea, they were rescued...by the Japanese. Zamperini went on to endure two hellish years at the hands of brutal guards and an insane war criminal known as “The Bird.” 

When the war ended, Zamperini received a true hero’s welcome back in America. He married and spent his time giving speeches about his experience, hobnobbing with movie stars, and collecting many honors from those who wanted to express their appreciation for his service. 

Appearances aside, Zamperini’s life did not seem destined for a fairytale ending. Like so many veterans of war, he had enormous difficulty adjusting to civilian life. He turned to alcohol, and it nearly destroyed his marriage. 

Finding peace

Zamperini credits Billy Graham for helping him get his life back on track. He became a missionary and in a surprising twist, he returned to Japan and found himself preaching the gospel to many of the guards who had held him captive. He was quoted as saying, “The most important thing in my Christian life was to know that I not only forgave them, verbally, but to see them face-to-face and tell them that I forgave them.”

Sadly, Zamperini died in July of this year. He was 97. While he didn’t have the chance to see the completed film, Jolie has said that he did see some edited scenes and that he liked what he saw. Of his passing, Jolie says, “It is a loss impossible to describe. We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him. We will miss him terribly.”

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