Angelina Jolie has successfully campaigned to direct “Unbroken,” Universal’s prestige movie about Louis Zamperini. The American distance runner participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics where he met Adolf Hitler. As a US Army Air Force bombardier whose B24 bomber crashed in the Pacific on May 27, 1943, he survived 47 days on a raft, then two years as a Japanese POW. He is now 95.
According to Deadline, the film has been 55 years in development, possibly some kind of record. The latest script, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-seller “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption,” was penned by William Nicholson, who rewrote a draft by Richard LaGravanese. Nicholson’s 18 screenplays include those for “Gladiator” and the upcoming “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” He also co-wrote “Les Misérables,” which opens on Christmas Day.
There’s a Spielbergian girth to Zamperini’s story of survival, which makes Jolie’s capturing of the coveted project significant. On the back of her directorial debut on the independently financed Bosnian war romance “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” she apparently impressed Universal executives “with her sophisticated treatment of difficult subject matter,” writes Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr. “Her detailed take on Zamperini won her this job.”
Born in Olean, New York, in 1917, Zamperini was raised as an Italian-speaker in Torrance, California, and became a brawler constantly in trouble with the police. Diverted by his older brother into his school’s track team, in 1934 he set the interscholastic world record for the mile, subsequently winning the state championship and a place at USC.
In Berlin, he finished eighth in the 5000 meters, but his 56-second final lap excited Hitler, who demanded a meeting with the 19-year-old American athlete and shook his hand.
When Zamperini’s B24 crashed 850 miles west of Oahu, eight of the 11 crew were killed. While being strafed by Japanese planes and fending off sharks, Zamperini, pilot Russel Phillips, and tail gunner Francis McNamara survived on rain water and small fish. McNamara died after 33 days at sea. Two weeks later, Zamperini and Phillips were captured by the Japanese Navy in the Marshall Islands. They endured beatings and torture until the end of the war in August 1945.
Zamperini, who was married to Cynthia Applewhite from 1946 until her death in 2001, dealt with his post-traumatic stress disorder by becoming a Christian inspirational speaker under the auspices of Billy Graham. In 1950, he traveled to Japan and met, forgave, and embraced some of the guards who had abused him.
In 1998, Zamperini ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. While there, he tried to arrange a meeting with the Class A war criminal Matsuhiro Watanabe, who had been his chief tormentor at the Öfuna camp, near Yokohama. Watanabe, who had never been prosecuted for his war crimes, refused to comply, despite Zamperini’s forgiveness. He died in 2003.
It is not clear yet if this strand of Zamperini’s remarkable life will feature in Jolie’s film.
Images from top: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images; Courtesy Louis Zamperini