“Prayer begins where human capacity ends.”
(Marian Anderson, 1972 UN Peace Prize recipient.)
For 50 years the option of filming Louis Zamperini’s life story sat on a shelf at Universal Studios waiting for someone to have enough confidence in the subject to make it happen. Tony Curtis was chosen to play Louis, but it never got off the ground.
Finally Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, got wind of the story and wrote Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. When the paperback edition came out, the book spent four years on the New York Times bestseller list. It came as no surprise that a screenplay was soon in the works.
Enter Angelina Jolie.
She had read the book and was so inspired by Zamperini’s story she became a driving force in bringing his journey to the big screen. Jolie also discovered she could see Louis’s house from where she lived in Los Angeles, and in the process of filming they became close friends.
Three stories in one film
The film covers Louis Zamperini’s life in three parts.
In childhood flashbacks he is portrayed as a scrappy young Italian immigrant boy, living in California, who regularly gets into trouble with the local police for smoking, stealing and drinking. And he’s not yet 10!
His rise to fame as an Olympian begins when his older brother, Pete, encourages Louis to take up competitive running. Pete’s advice? “If you can take it, you can make it.” While Louis did not win any gold medals, he did set a new record in 1936 by running the last lap in an amazing 56 seconds.
His wartime experiences begin when his plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean in 1943. Adrift on a life raft with two crew members he prays “God, if you get me through this, I will dedicate my whole life to you.” For the next 47 days Louis and one crew member (the second one died) struggle to survive as they catch and eat raw fish, fight off sharks and dodge bullets from an enemy plane overhead – only to be picked up by the Japanese and sent to a POW camp. There he meets “the Bird,” a preening dandy and a sadist, who has it in for Louis. He beats and tortures him at will. But Louis’ strength lies in his fierce but calm restraint. His goal is to survive. Both Jack O’Connell as Louis Zamperini and Japanese pop artist Miyavi as the Bird put in strong performances.
The power of the human spirit
Probably because of the immense amount of material in the book, Director Jolie played it safe. She stayed within a popular three-part format and kept the length of the film to 137 minutes. The plot is basic and it moves along well.
Both Jolie and Zamperini wanted the film to have universal appeal. In order to qualify for an age 14 rating, some of the violence inflicted on Louis by the Bird is creatively shown off screen. Still, it is not easy to watch what human beings can do to one another. I had to remind myself the film is less about cruelty and more about the power and resilience of the human spirit.
The film ends when the war is over and Louis returns home safely, a truly amazing experience after coming through so many life or death challenges.
Jolie adds a written epilogue (paraphrased here): Louis Zamperini married and had two children. He experienced debilitating post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSD) for quite a few years. Louis was converted at a Billy Graham Crusade in 1949 and the PTSD symptoms left him. He made good on his promise to serve God for the rest of his life.
Jolie hopes the film shows that no matter how dark, hopeless or overwhelming life can be, the strength and resilience of the human spirit is an extraordinary thing.
Many Christians were disappointed that the film ended when Louis returned home from the war. They wanted to see more of his conversion. But Louis himself suggested that anyone interested in more read Laura Hillenbrand’s book.
Louis’ real victory was his ability to forgive his captors, including the Bird, although he would not meet with Louis when he travelled back to Japan.
Louis Zamperini, 97, died July 2, 2014. A few days before his death, Jolie downloaded a rough version of the film onto her laptop and showed it to him in the hospital.
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