Unbroken: Louie Zamperini’s Journey

When he passed away on July 2, 2014, at the age of 97, Louie Zamperini wasn’t quietly mourned, he was victoriously celebrated as a true American hero.  This former Olympian, whose long, incredible and inspiring life has been described as one of the greatest stories of triumph in the 20th century, lived through and beyond what most could comprehend.  His tale of crippling despair trumped by indomitable will and redemption continues to serve as a message of hope for the millions who have been affected and inspired by his journey.

It began almost a century ago.

Torrance, California

As a youth in Torrance, California, the youngest son of Italian immigrants, Louie was an incorrigible delinquent, breaking into homes, stealing from shops and brawling with anyone who dared challenge this untamable boy.  As a teenager, with the persistent encouragement of his older brother, Pete, Louie turned his life around by channeling defiant energy into a shocking talent for running.

Breaking record after record across the nation, the 19-year-old “Torrance Tornado” qualified for the 1936 Berlin Olympics and surprised everyone whom he encountered—from his famous teammate Jesse Owens to the man who almost veered mankind toward global destruction: Adolf Hitler.

Like most young people of his generation, when World War II broke out, the young USC student who had come within seconds of breaking the four-minute mile put his dreams on hold and enlisted in the service.  His military career would lead him to become an Army Air Corps bombardier, in which 2nd Lt. Zamperini embarked upon numerous missions across the Pacific—a daunting profession in which approximately 50 percent of his fellow airmen wouldn’t make it through the war.  In April 1943, Louie’s defective B-24 Liberator, the Green Hornet, on a rescue mission in the South Pacific, suffered engine failure and crashed into the sea, killing eight of the 11 crew members upon impact.

Louie and the Green Hornet’s two fellow survivors—Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips, the craft’s captain, and Sgt. Francis “Mac” McNamara, its tail gunner—drifted in a six-feet-long by two-feet-wide raft in the open Pacific for many weeks.  Mac managed to hang on for an incredulous 33 days—surviving seven rounds of strafings by a Japanese bomber and the omnipresent sharks that circled their vessel—before he tragically succumbed to his hunger, dehydration and exhaustion.  Louie and Phil lasted for a total of 47 days, a record in the annals of history for survivors on a raft, and ultimately drifted two thousand miles to an atoll in the Marshall Islands, with the remnants of a typhoon carrying them to shore.

Just as they saw land and were beginning to float toward it, they were captured by the Japanese navy and imprisoned in the first of what would be several POW camps.  During more than two years of torturous captivity, Louie—alongside his fellow prisoners—was starved, not to mention mentally and physically abused beyond comprehension.  Louie was singled out by an unbalanced prison commander named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, known to the men as “The Bird,” for particular sadistic acts of mind games and deplorable brutality.

Louie survived these ordeals across the most severe regions of war-torn Japan before he learned, on August 20, 1945 (two weeks after the 9,000-pound bomb called “Little Boy” annihilated Hiroshima), that the Allied prisoners were free men and that the war was over.  As Laura Hillenbrand writes in the definitive Louie Zamperini tale, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption”: “In the midst of running, celebrating men, Louie stood on wavering legs, emaciated, sick and dripping wet.  In his tired mind, two words were repeating themselves over and over: ‘I’m free!  I’m free!  I’m free!’”

The veteran who had survived so much returned home to Southern California, but his life was forever changed.  Louie was plagued by nightmares and a crippling mental disorder that would not be classified as such until decades later: PTSD.  Like the countless heroes who returned from the far reaches of these cruel detention camps with night terrors alternating with waking hell, Louie found post-war life a monumental struggle.  For four years after his internment, he battled crippling anxiety, alcoholism and demons that visited him every time he went to sleep.

Revelation of Forgiveness

Only after Louie and his new bride, Cynthia, heard a young pastor by the name of Rev. Billy Graham speak in September 1949 would he have a revelation of forgiveness.  Embracing Christianity, he turned around a life that had come to be tortured by murderous regret.  In subsequent years, Louie devoted himself to spreading the word of spirituality, fortitude and forgiveness…going so far as to travel back to Japan and making peace with the very tormentors who had starved him and beat him senseless.  Only “The Bird” refused to meet with him.

Louie’s story had all the makings of an unforgettable film.  In fact, Universal Pictures had long been interested in his life.  In 1957, the studio acquired the rights to Louie’s book “Devil at My Heels.”  Back then it was planned as a vehicle for Tony Curtis, but when Curtis went on to star in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, the project was shelved before a script was drafted.

CBS Documentary

In 1998, a CBS Sports documentary on Louie’s life aired on the network and breathed life back into the project.  When producer Matthew Baer watched the piece, he was tremendously affected by what he saw, unknowingly embarking upon what would be a 16-year quest to get the film made.  He met with Louie and his family, then brought Louie’s story back to Universal Pictures, as the studio remained tied to the rights.  The studio was once again interested in bringing this epic saga to the screen.  Although several screenplays were commissioned at the time, no director signed on to the project.

In 2002, however, a turn of events changed everything.  Louie Zamperini and best-selling author Laura Hillenbrand’s eight-year journey together began just as the author finished “Seabiscuit: An American Legend.”  During her research for her first book, she kept coming across another famous Californian who was discussed as the only one who could give Seabiscuit a run for his money.  She thought: “Someday, I’m going to look into this guy.”  Once she had locked her copy, she wrote Louie a letter, and he wrote back.

The more they communicated, the more Hillenbrand was fascinated by what she learned about the man whose lifelong attitude was “If I can take it, I can make it,” and asked the nonagenarian if she could write her next book about him.  Louie agreed, even though he had written his own story years before.  His life dedicated to service, he wanted to spread the word of reconciliation as far as he could.

During their collaboration (which ultimately spanned more than 75 phone interviews and exhaustive globe-spanning research supported by approximately 400 endnotes), Hillenbrand and Zamperini agreed not to meet in person until the book was published.  The author needed to envision Louie as the young troublemaker whose spirit would transform him into a hero for the ages…and the subject was busy enough with a charitable schedule and speaking engagements that seemed impossible for men half his age.

Published in 2010, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” became a runaway best-seller, spending more than 185 weeks (15 of those in the top position) on The New York Times hardcover best-seller list.  The book continues to reside today on The New York Times trade paperback nonfiction best-seller list, most recently at No. 1.  To date, it has sold more than four million copies in the U.S.  Among its many accolades, “Unbroken” was awarded Best Nonfiction Book of the year by Time magazine, and won the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year Award for Biography.

After years of having Louie’s amazing story turned down by other financiers, Baer, buoyed by the public’s embrace of Hillenbrand’s book, brought Unbroken back to Universal for consideration.  The studio acquired the book in December 2010, and its success lifted plans for the project to head toward production.  “Lucky Louie” would have another shot at seeing his tale developed for the big screen.

Several directors expressed interest in helming the film and, in 2011, screenwriter Richard LaGravanese was engaged to write the screenplay.  Brought on board by fellow Unbroken producer Erwin Stoff, with whom he had worked on director Francis Lawrence’s Water for Elephants, LaGravanese’s first challenge was to figure out how to tell Louie’s story and exactly which elements to include.

The writer’s first draft ended with Louie’s post-war life, before William Nicholson took a pass at cracking the story.  Nicholson’s script ended with the conclusion of World War II and Louie returning home to America.

But, just as with every other major arc in Louie’s storied life, it would take a bit of intervention to get the tale from screenplay to screen.  And that would come when Baer sent a draft of the Nicholson script to several directors, including Louie’s nearby neighbor in the Hollywood Hills: Angelina Jolie.