What sad pre-holiday news: American Olympian track star and WWII hero Louis Zamperini passed away last night at age 97, just one day short of Independence Day. It’s somehow poignant that Zamperini’s shadow hovers over the July 4th holiday; it comes half a year before the Universal Pictures release of Unbroken, the Angelina Jolie-directed adaptation of the Laura Hillenbrand bestseller about a man whose unwillingness to break despite the most difficult of circumstances in a Japanese POW camp made him the personification of struggle and heroism. Part of that struggle included getting a movie made on his extraordinary life; imagine, Universal’s first attempt at a Zamperini film came in the 1950s, when Tony Curtis sparked to playing Zamperini as his follow-up to Spartacus.
Many know Zamperini’s story because of the superb book by Seabiscuit author Hillenbrand, and the world will celebrate him at year’s end when Universal releases the film in Oscar season, with Jack O’Connell playing Zamperini. I have been obsessed with Zamperini since I saw a segment on his ordeal broadcast by CBS during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and have written about the movie at Variety and Deadline since then at the slightest provocation, because it seemed such a worth screen story. When CBS chronicled his story, Zamperini returned to Japan to run with the Olympic torch, covering ground not far from where he spent an unimaginably brutal stretch in a Japanese prison camp during WWII. That is only a small part of Zamperini’s legend.
A troubled and rambunctious Depression-era kid, Zamperini found his stride as a track prodigy who was the youngest member of the U.S. team that traveled to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics. He didn’t medal, but turned in such a blazing final lap that Hitler asked to meet him. The expectation was that Zamperini would be a favorite to win a medal in the 1940 Olympics scheduled for Tokyo. Unfortunately, those games were canceled because of WWII and when Zamperini set foot on Japanese soil that year, he was wearing the uniform of a U.S. Air Force bombardier.
Sent on a rescue mission, Zamperini’s aircraft went down in the Pacific. He and two crew mates survived on a raft in the hot sun for 47 days, battling hunger, thirst and sharks. One succumbed and just when the other two saw a rescue boat in the distance, their hopes were dashed when they realized it flew the Japanese flag. That started a terrifying term of captivity at the hands of brutal Japanese POW camp guards, who threatened to behead Zamperini and beat him brutally. One sadistic guard in particular exulted in trying to break him, but he could never do it. After he was freed, Zamperini was haunted by his captivity and by thoughts of revenge against his captors. He drank to forget, and who could blame him? Besides the beatings, and the daily threat of being beheaded, Zamperini and other POWs were subjected to medical experiments and forced to consume noxious concoctions that strained their already depleted systems.
Zamperini’s salvation came when he found God, and let go of the bitterness by actually forgiving those who had treated him so horribly. By the time Zamperini returned to Japan and carried that torch, he’d forgiven his brutal captor – known as The Bird – and even offered to meet him to forgive him in person. The surly guard is depicted on camera by CBS, refusing Zamperini’s generous offer.
The studio first bought Zamperini’s rights back in the 1950s, for Curtis to follow Spartacus. Few movies gestate as long as this one, but Hillenbrand’s remarkable book was worth the wait. Zamperini had a lot of work to do to making himself whole again after enduring an ordeal that would break even the strongest of men. Producer Matthew Baer has developed the property since around the time of the Nagano Olympics; he kept the flame lit for 16 years and bolstered Zamperini’s spirit, insisting that his was too good a story not to be turned into a major feature. Hillenbrand’s book provided the urgency needed to get a green light, with Angelina Jolie set to direct it.
I spoke with Jolie when Deadline revealed that she had been chosen by Universal (Donna Langley loved her debut In The Land Of Blood And Honey), and wow, was Jolie excited. She knew the Zamperini story inside and out, and when she met him, it was love at first sight. She described how hard she had prepared for her audition (several directors tried for the assignment), and how she and husband Brad Pitt waited anxiously for the phone call, with Pitt suggesting she call to find out what was happening. I imagine such a thing rarely happens with that couple, who most often have to tell a lot of people “no” for all of the movie offers they receive. At the time, Jolie called Zamperini “a true hero and a man of immense humanity, faith and courage.”
It is sad he didn’t get to be there at the film’s premiere — he succumbed after battling pneumonia for 40 days. Baer often told me how important it was to the humble Zamperini that his story be told, and I can only hope he got to view a rough cut before he passed away at age 97. Here is the live link to view the Nagano segments on Zamperini, broken into four installments. If you have a little time, it will be technicolor clear why he was such an exceptional man.