Not all books convert well to
the big screen. Laura
Hillenbrand was already a successful author (“Seabiscuit”), and had
already once successfully converted her book to screenplay, when she
(collaboratively) wrote “Unbroken,” the story of an Olympic athlete who
was a bombardier during World War II, and survived a plane crash at sea and
a brutal prisoner of war camp.
Though there have been many WW II diaries
published over the last couple of decades (as veterans wanted to hurry up
and get their experiences written down while they still could), not many
stories are as colorful as that of Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell, a
Brit), mainly because he was so willing to tell the unvarnished truth about
He wasn’t exactly a model kid.
Not only did he not pay attention in church, he
stole stuff. Just
because he could. The son of Italian immigrants, he claims the other boys
made fun of him, and called him “Wop,” and routinely bullied him.
So he was a loner, and probably headed to
“reform school,” when his older brother encouraged him to try running
you can take it, you can make it,” was the mantra, meaning that all Louie
had to do was be tough mentally, and trade off a few moments of pain in
order to win the prize.
(Of course, that philosophy only works if you
possess extraordinary talent in the first place, but we’ll leave the
nature/nurture debate for now.)
Louie Zamperini not only became
a track star, he set the California state record for the mile run at the
time, and made the Olympic team (4:21 wouldn’t win most high school meets
is the first opportunity missed----getting Louie to the Berlin Olympics in
1936, yes, the one where the Nazi supremacists were aghast to see the black
American Jesse Owens beat all those supposedly superior Aryan Caucasians. (Zamperini
even met Adolph Hitler, at The Fuhrer’s request). But Director Angelina
Jolie chooses to skim over that part, and just use the Olympics as a
movie starts in a B-24, being shot at somewhere over the Pacific (we
aren’t even told where, specifically, the bombing targets are).
Here’s another missed opportunity---we might
have enjoyed getting to know the rest of the crew, and the close camaraderie
of a bunch of guys thrown together to hurl themselves into imminent
peril---but this movie wasn’t about them.
We know what happens just
because of the previews----they crash into the Pacific, and only Louie and
two crew members survive, and they’re marooned on a life raft for many
days, surviving, somehow, on catching fish (including a circling shark), and
drinking rainwater. During
a storm at sea, Louie has his “foxhole conversion” moment, where he
promises the Lord that he’ll believe if he can survive this. The good news
is that somebody finally finds them.
The bad news is that it’s the enemy.
The Japanese Army’s Prisoner
of War camp was brutal for everyone, but particularly so for Louie,
especially when his captors found out that he had been an Olympic athlete.
Somehow that singled him out for abuse,
especially from a particular guard, Corporal Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara).
Once again, Louie told himself that if he could
take it, he could make it.
When their camp near Tokyo was bombed (an event
which actually brought encouragement to the prisoners), they were all moved
to the mountains, excavating coal, though even there, Corporal Watanabe
continued to single out Louie for special abuse.
But here is another opportunity
missed---instead of spending times on the continued beatings, perhaps we
could have learned more about how the prisoners managed to form a little
sub-society of their own, to help them all survive.
Anyway, it’s heart-warming, at
the end, to see images of the “real” Louie Zamperini running again in
the Olympics, at age 80, in Japan (well, he carried a torch prior to the
1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano).
But though it mentions his P.T.S.D., we don’t
get that story, either.
What we do get is a lot of dreary time on the
life raft, and even more dreary POW travail.
The truth is, if you’ve seen the promo
trailer, you’ve seen the movie.
Yes, it’s a good story. But it sure could
have been told better.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the
Parish Associate, Woodhaven Presbyterian Church,