EXCLUSIVE: After more than 54 years of trying, Universal Pictures is getting closer and closer to telling the unbelievable story of Olympian-turned-WWII POW Louis Zamperini in a feature film. Walden Media has just signed on to co-finance with Universal Pictures the screen adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. The Water for Elephants team of screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and director Francis Lawrence are prepping the story about the unbreakable spirit of Zamperini, the former Olympic track prodigy who endured unimaginable hardship as a WWII POW at the hands of Japanese prison guards. Matthew Baer and Erwin Stoff are producing; Lawrence and Mick Garris are exec producers.
Universal bought Zamperini’s rights back in the 1950s, when Tony Curtis planned to play him right after he completed Spartacus. Zamperini, still kicking at age 93, has waited all this time to see his story turned into a feature film. Baer has been pushing the ball up the hill for more than a decade, but it turned out that the best thing to happen to the project was Hillenbrand’s book, which has drawn a fresh audience to Zamperini’s story of perseverence. Universal previously turned Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit into the Gary Ross-directed hit. In book form, Unbroken blew past Seabiscuit‘s sales figures in its first four weeks, and has been at or near the top of The New York Times bestseller list since its publication six months ago.
Zamperini went from a Depression Era trouble-maker into a world-class runner who became the youngest American to compete on the US team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Though he didn’t win a medal, Zamperini ran a final lap so fast that Hitler asked to meet him. Zamperini was expected to mature into medal form by the 1940 Tokyo Games. Those games were canceled, and by the time he made the trip to Japan, Zamperini was an Air Force bombardier. After his aircraft went down in the Pacific during a rescue mission, Zamperini and two other crew mates survived on a raft in the hot sun for 47 days, battling hunger, thirst and sharks. It got worse. They were caught by the Japanese Navy, and that marked the start of a terrifying term of captivity at the hands of brutal Japanese guards who threatened to behead Zamperini, and beat him brutally. One guard in particular exulted in trying to break Zamperini, but he could never do it.
It’s hard to imagine any movie could take more than 50 years to come together. After all this time, I just hope the filmmakers pull it together in time for Zamperini to attend the premiere.