Photos: Louis Zamperini
Timeline: The life of Louis Zamperini
Related: Who should play Louis Zamperini in the 'Unbroken' adaptation?
Talk about a made-for-Hollywood plot.
Encompassing the sweep of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, 47 days adrift in the Pacific evading sharks and the jarring brutality of two years in a Japanese POW camp, it's a story that plumbs the depths of one man's courage, despair and rage, soaring ultimately into a vision of good overcoming evil.
And, remarkably, it's all true.
Ever since the life story of Torrance Olympic runner Louis Zamperini was so masterfully told in Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 runaway best-selling book "Unbroken," there's been a renewed push to get the story onto the big screen.
"It's going to take a couple of geniuses to sort it all out," Zamperini said in a telephone interview from his home of 56 years in the Hollywood Hills. "I'm pretty old and I've had a life that's unbelievable."
"Unbroken" gives new life to a Zamperini movie
Having just celebrated his 96th birthday Saturday, Zamperini has had a long and incredible journey.
In fact, his larger-than-life story has been swirling around Hollywood as a movie prospect for more than half a century.
Tony Curtis was tapped to play the leading role in the 1950s when Universal Pictures first acquired the rights to Zamperini's 1956 autobiography, "Devil at My Heels," but the film was never made.
In 1998, after a brief CBS documentary aired in conjunction with the Winter Olympic Games, Nicolas Cage expressed interest in playing Zamperini in a film version for Universal Pictures, which still owned Zamperini's story rights.
That also went nowhere.
But the outlook for a big screen feature now looks promising with Hillenbrand's release of "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption."
On the New York Times best-seller list now for 113 weeks, Hillenbrand's acclaimed literary masterpiece - which took seven years to research and write - has jump-started talk of a film that is already drawing strong interest among some big names.
While it's still early in the process, Universal's latest attempt to get the film made has a high-profile director on board - award-winning actress Angelina Jolie - and a draft script.
There's no precise timeline yet for the film, said "Unbroken" producer Matthew Baer, who has tried for nearly 15 years to bring the Zamperini story to the big screen.
"But I can certainly say it's the closest it's ever been to becoming a reality," he said.
In an interview with the Los Angeles News Group, Hillenbrand said the process seems to be moving along quickly - both she and Zamperini will serve as consultants. (She also was a consultant on "Seabiscuit," the 2003 film made from her first book that was nominated for seven Academy Awards.)
"He laughingly says, `It better not take too long to make the movie,"' said longtime Zamperini friend and 1976 four-time Olympic gold medal swimmer John Naber.
Whenever it gets made, Zamperini thinks the movie will be a winner.
"It can't miss," he said. "It's got enough action and it's a true story.
His son, Luke, of Tarzana, agrees.
"The family hopes that the movie will tell the story the way the book has told the story," he said, praising Baer for sticking with the project through the years. "These were my bedtime stories growing up and (yet) I couldn't put ("Unbroken") down. ... If they can make the movie like the book, it will be fantastic."
Jolie, 37, is still finalizing the details of what is said to be a seven-figure deal for her if the film gets made. She already has been speaking with Hillenbrand and Zamperini.
Casting won't get under way until a screenplay is approved and in place.
Jolie, who could not be reached for an interview, beat out several others vying for director rights and is said to be passionate about the project.
"Angelina read ("Unbroken") through once and when she finished the last page, she turned back to the first page and read through it a second time," Zamperini said. "She and (fiance) Brad Pitt came (to the house) and spent a couple hours. She's real sweet, she gave me a couple of hugs. She's really gung-ho on this."
Of Jolie, Baer said: "She's as crazy-passionate about Lou and his amazing story as I am. It's a dream come true."
The Torrance Tornado
There's plenty of action packed into Zamperini's story, which begins with his delinquent childhood (he was smoking, drinking and stealing by the time he was 7). But he also could run like the wind. It was his older brother, Pete, who encouraged Zamperini to enter some track competitions.
Nicknamed the Torrance Tornado, Zamperini began to break records at Torrance High, setting a world interscholastic record in 1934 for the mile.
He went on to USC and won a spot on the 1936 Olympic team that traveled to Berlin. After one of his laps, he was invited to shake Adolf Hitler's hand.
He was training hard and looking forward to the 1940 Olympics when war clouds began to form. Drafted into the Army, Zamperini was shifted to the Army Air Corps after the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.
Flying a mission as a bombardier on May 27, 1943, Zamperini crashed 800 miles south of Hawaii. After drifting 2,000 miles in a raft for 47 days and near death, he and one other survivor (a third had died on the raft) were taken captive by the Japanese and imprisoned on one of the Marshall Islands known as "Execution Island."
As horrific as his castaway experience had been, things were about to get much worse.
For the next two years until the camp was liberated in 1945, Zamperini endured countless brutal beatings and near starvation. He barely survived.
But from Zamperini's standpoint, his story is most importantly one of redemption and forgiveness.
He returned from the war a haunted man, filled with bitterness and rage after the war, his once promising running career over. Suffering from what today would be recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, Zamperini took to heavy drinking.
Then, everything changed.
He experienced a rebirth after reluctantly attending a 1949 Billy Graham revival tent meeting on the streets of Los Angeles at the urging of his wife, Cynthia.
"The whole book is about change," Zamperini said. "I changed from a rotten kid into an athlete who went to the Olympics. From there I changed into a soldier in World War II. Then my life fell apart after the war.
"I had nightmares every night, for 2 years I had nightmares. I couldn't take it anymore, and my wife was going to divorce me. Then I accepted Christ as my savior and I was on my knees. My whole life changed in a matter of seconds... The change took place immediately."
He abruptly quit drinking. His rage and desire for revenge were gone. Beginning that first night, the nightmares vanished and never returned.
Zamperini became, according to a church friend from several years ago, "the happiest man I have ever known."
Far from wanting to carry out his onetime desire to hunt down and kill his former captor, Zamperini wrote a letter of forgiveness to "The Bird," Mutsuhiro Watanabe, the Imperial Japanese Army sergeant who took special interest in torturing the American track star in his POW camp and the central character in many of Zamperini's post-war nightmares.
While he never was able to meet with Watanabe, Zamperini did travel back to Japan to meet with many of the other guards who had held him captive and later were imprisoned on war crimes.
(Watanabe had escaped prosecution after the war and in 1998 refused to meet with Zamperini at the Winter Olympic Games held in Japan. He died in 2003.)
After his conversion, Zamperini, who joined First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, devoted the rest of his life to ministering to troubled youth (he founded an Outward Bound-style Victory Boys Camp program) and sharing his story.
"After his Billy Graham conversion, he began to tell the story all the time, endlessly," said his son, Luke. "He's gone to universities all across the country. He's been to military bases, he speaks to anybody who wants to hear his story."
What Zamperini endured through the war, fellow Olympian Naber said, fades next to his powerful message of forgiveness.
"He never has seen himself as a victim and he's just as independent and strong- willed now as he was then," said Naber, who accompanied Zamperini in 2011 for an hourlong private meeting with Graham. "The message that I get out of the book is not one of survival as much as it is one of forgiveness."
Zamperini's life goes public
Celebrity status isn't new for Zamperini.
The man who took up skateboarding at 65 and was still jogging at 87 has been especially revered as a Torrance icon. His boyhood home at 2028 Gramercy Ave. has been awarded landmark status. Both the Torrance airport and the stadium at Torrance High School have been named after him, as has the brick plaza outside the USC track stadium.
But it was Hillenbrand's masterful telling of Zamperini's tale that captivated a new generation with his story and breathed fresh life into the movie project.
The 45-year-old author, who works from her Bethesda, Md., home where she is often housebound due to severe chronic fatigue syndrome, first stumbled on Zamperini's story as she researched her first book, "Seabiscuit, An American Legend," published in 2001.
"They were both runners at the same time," Hillenbrand said in a telephone interview, recalling how stories of Zamperini and the famous Depression-era racehorse kept popping up in tandem on front pages throughout her research.
"She didn't pay much attention until she read underneath my picture where I'd said, `Seabiscuit is my hero,"' Zamperini said.
Hillenbrand, in fact, had become somewhat obsessed with Zamperini's story, an extraordinary tale of "a man who refused to be broken" in her words.
"She sent me the ("Seabiscuit") book tape and a letter and we began talking on the phone two or three times a week," Zamperini said.
After a few months, Hillenbrand broached him with the idea of writing his biography.
"I said, `You're just spinning your wheels,"' Zamperini said, noting he'd already written his autobiography. "But she said, `I've got to do it."'
What followed were more than 75 telephone calls between the two - they didn't meet in person until after the book's release - as Hillenbrand, who in college aspired to become a history professor, meticulously began putting the story together.
"The interviews were very long, sometimes we'd be on the phone for three hours," Hillenbrand said. "He was so patient with me.
"He was just a dream subject."
Crucial to the process was corroborating "everything," she said.
She pored over newspaper accounts. She found and interviewed eyewitnesses, including the man who was on the raft with Zamperini after the plane crash in the Pacific.
"I found many of the POWs who served alongside Louie, I had hundreds of affidavits. The amazing thing was how accurate (Zamperini's) memory was," Hillenbrand said.
Zamperini's memory - along with his diaries, letters, photographs and other memorabilia - was central to her work, Hillenbrand said.
"He was very, very honest," she said of the process. "Some of the articles that had been written about him had exaggerations or outright falsehoods and he was always quick to point those out to me."
Hillenbrand and Zamperini finally met in person last year at her home. The two, who have developed something of a father-daughter relationship, continue to talk by phone each week.
Zamperini even presented her with one of his Purple Hearts, saying she'd suffered through her debilitating illness - which came on while she was in college - much longer than he'd ever had to suffer during the war.
"It was a tremendous thrill for me to meet him finally in person," Hillenbrand said. "The first thing I did was I took his hands because I wanted to see the scars."
One was from when Zamperini's Trojan ring caught onto the plane's shattered window frame in that 1943 ocean crash. The other was from the peck of an albatross Zamperini and his fellow survivors caught by hand from their inflatable raft.
When it comes to making a movie about it all, perhaps the main challenge will be getting it all into one film.
Adapting "Unbroken" to the big screen
The Rev. Chris Cannon, the pastor of King's Harbor Church who grew up in Torrance hearing of Zamperini's exploits, said, "I don't know how they're going to tell the story in less than four hours."
Cannon's church is sponsoring an early morning talk by Zamperini on Feb. 3 at the Armstrong Theater in Torrance, but the event's 500 tickets already are sold out.
How to encapsulate "Unbroken" in a movie has long been turning around in Baer's mind.
"From the first day in 1998 when I started working on the story of Lou Zamperini, the most repeated question has been `How are you going to tell this story? How much of it can you include in a film?"' Baer said.
"The challenge is including as much as we can in a way that works as a film on its own terms."
Hillenbrand's book, Baer said, "is the most amazing rope of what is a beautiful story. It keeps pulling you along, there are no lulls. There's just spirit and adventure, pain and loss, love and life."
Hillenbrand said she's excited to see the various scenes play out on the big screen.
"I think it's going to translate very well onto film," the author-historian said.
Her main concern is to see "Louie portrayed as Louie was, my obligation is to the history here."
And for audiences, Hillenbrand said, there will be plenty of life lessons to take away.
"None of us is going to go through the experiences he went through," she said. "We're not going to be in plane crashes or on a raft for 47 days being attacked by sharks.
"But Louie's life offers lessons that apply to all of us about the capacity of people to endure - and the breadth of possibility there is in each of us that sometimes we don't see.
"Louie went all the way to the end of human endurance and came out of it a happy man."