Zamperini film pushes perception of unbreakable athlete but truth is more complex

First Fortnight is festival that challenges mental health prejudice through the arts

Most New Year resolutions are broken after 24 hours. The first of mine was broken on the day itself. Because with cosmic irony the film Unbroken makes for such shatteringly thirsty viewing there was no chance of spending the month on the dry. Few people will walk away without the immediate need for a drink.

Clocking in at a carefully paced two hours and 17 minutes, Unbroken may qualify as a cinematic marathon but it's more of a sprint, racing, as it were, through the early life of Louis Zamperini, who by now should need little introduction. Born in New York, to Italian parents, he grew up in Torrance, California, where he fast became an American running prodigy.

At just 19, having already run a world high school mile record of 4:21.2, Zamperini qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, in the 5,000m. There, running against athletes of far weightier reputations, he finished a respectable eighth – clocking a particularly quick 56 seconds for his last lap.

"Ah, you're the boy with the fast finish," Adolf Hitler said to him, via a German translator, after seeking out Zamperini. This scene doesn't actually appear in the film, although Zamperini recounted it, in his original biography, Devil At My Heels, published in 1956. He also told it to Laura Hillebrand, who spent eight years working on the book Unbroken, which then spent another 180 weeks on the New York Times best seller list, after it was published in 2010.


Deft collaboration

The only surprising thing about the film – released here and in the US over Christmas – is that it took so long: Universal Pictures acquired the rights in 1956, and actors from

Tony Curtis


Nicholas Cage

were at times associated with the Zamperini role. Instead, some 57 years later, it took

Angelina Jolie

to bring it to the big screen, and thanks to some deft collaboration with the Coen brothers, amongst others, she’s done a respectable job.

That’s because the Zamperini story soon turns from one of an Olympic runner into something beyond imaginable. Five years after competing in Berlin, he’s fighting in the second World War.

In May 1943, stationed at Kualoa in Hawaii, he’s sent on a search-and-rescue mission, only his own already beaten B-42 also crashes, somewhere deep in the Pacific, about 850 miles south of Oahu.

Without spoiling the rest of the story, Zamperini (played by British actor Jack O’Connell) then survives 47 days drifting in his life raft, along with pilot Russell ‘Phil’ Phillips (played by our own Domhnall Gleeson).

One other survivor is broken by the thirst and starvation, yet Zamperini and Phillips somehow manage to stay alive long enough to be picked up by the Japanese, after drifting into the Marshall Islands.

That's only the beginning of his ordeal: singled out for being an Olympic athlete – his "number one prisoner" – by the perverse Japanese officer Mutsuhiro 'the Bird' Watanbe, Zamperini endures a range of cruel and unusual punishments at the POW camp, such as being punched repeatedly in the face by each one of his fellow inmates until night falls, or raising a railway sleeper over his head with the threat of immediate death should he let it drop.

"If I can take it I can make it," Zamperini says to himself, at various points throughout the film, as a runner first and then a prisoner; or else something like "a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory". What Unbroken makes no effort to disguise is the notion that his ultimate survival is at least partly attributable to the same mental and physical endurance that made him an Olympic athlete – or the notion all proper athletes have this extra shield of strength and self-belief, wouldn't dare wilt in public, no matter how great the pressure.

Exacting revenge

Zamperini certainly survived, living to the brilliantly ripe old age of 97, before his death last July. Although he wasn’t entirely unbroken: for years after his release he was tormented by thoughts of exacting revenge on his captors, briefly spiralling into alcoholism, before re-emerging as a Christian inspirational speaker, inspired by

Billy Graham


This part of his life is only flirted with in the closing credits of Unbroken, and yet the struggle and insecurity he felt after his survival may well be as rich a tale.

Indeed Zamperini always played down any influence his success as an athlete may have had on his survival, especially in his later years. Part of that came from the realisation that plenty of other Olympic athletes were simply cut down in their prime, including Gunner Hockart from Finland, who won the gold medal in that 5,000m in Berlin and four years later was killed in action on the Karelian Isthmus, on the old Russia-Finland border.

Still the perception remains that all proper athletes are unbreakable, both mentally and physically, particularly those in modern professional sport. Only recently is that perception being challenged, because otherwise the consequences can be tragic, and it’s possibly one of the most important themes of First Fortnight, the annual festival aimed at challenging mental health prejudice through the creative arts.

Pressure to perform

Last year, in the round table talk ‘Over The Bar’,

David Gillick

spoke about how close he came to being broken by the pressure to perform on the international stage, as did

Richard Sadlier

, his former schoolmate at St Benildus in Ballinteer, who spoke about the challenges he faced when his soccer career was cut short by injury.

It's a message that needs reiterating, and 'Over The Bar' returns next Tuesday, with a panel that includes Conor Cusack (former Cork hurler), Nora Stapleton (Irish women's rugby player), and David Corkery (former Ireland rugby international). The focus won't just be on rugby, although clearly that's one sport where the physical and mental pressure is near breaking point.

‘Over The Bar’ takes place at the Twisted Pepper on Dublin’s Middle Abbey Street next Tuesday at 8pm. See