Where is Louie Zamperini in the movie “Unbroken”?

The movie Unbroken does not seem to do justice either to Laura Hillenbrand’s book or to Louis Zamperini himself. In many ways the movie presents Louie as a cipher. We don’t really see or hear much about why he does what he does. He just does it.

The movie also distorts the Japanese side. Instead of showing the viciousness inherent in the Japanese military, the movie presents the brutality inflicted on Louie as the doing of one particular person, and tries to explain that person’s sadism as caused by disappointed ambitions, not his upbringing and the norms of behavior he has absorbed. (Read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanjing to understand how the Japanese Army brutalized its soldiers to make them capable of the worst atrocities.)

Laura Hillenbrand tries to explain Zamperini’s endurance in terms of his innate dignity and his abiding hopefulness. We have already looked into the weakness of “dignity” as an explanation for Louie’s strength, and indeed as a universal concept for human living. In the next post we will turn to the incident in both the book and the movie where one of Louie’s comrades loses hope, and to the general question of whether it is possible to carry on without hope.

In some ways, however, by not mentioning the concept of “dignity” the movie does do justice to Zamperini. It presents Louie training and performing as an Olympic athlete, running in the 1936 Berlin games. In flashbacks, we see Louie’s running through the pain over and over. We also hear his brother Pete spur Louie to keep going with the admonition: “A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain.” Louie may have sought the “glory” of an Olympic medal, but in the POW camps he merely wanted to survive. He wasn’t seeking the admiration of his fellow prisoners, although he earned it. Rather Louie just wanted to get home to his family. He did that not by insisting on his dignity as a human being, though he certainly demonstrated immense dignity. Nor did Louie survive until the end of the war by hoping that he would. Rather, the movie shows Louie doing what Laura Hillenbrand puts into words in his head as he ran the final lap of the 5,000 meter race faster than any human before him had run:

He found himself thinking of Pete, and of something that he had said as they sat on their bed years earlier: A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain. Louie thought: Let go.

In the movie we see Louie letting go as he is subjected to prolonged and intense physical punishment. We see it, but we don’t hear.  We hear Pete’s advice about the trade-off between pain and glory, but not Louie’s translation of that advice into Let go!

Running is a solitary sport. Remember the movie The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The movie Unbroken shows Louie standing alone even while surrounded by his fellow prisoners. By his actions the movie gives us some sense of how he survives by letting go. Yet, the movie leaves out an important part of Louie’s character and in so doing makes him even more of a loner and a cipher, and makes it harder to understand how he survived by letting go of the pain. In early parts of the movie we see the young Louie as a prankster, a jokester, and a bit of a thief. Even before he was an athlete, he was a prankster. We don’t see any of that side of Louie in the camp scenes in the movie. Laura Hillenbrand describes the many times that Louie resisted by playing tricks on the guards and by mocking and joking with his mates about their captors. Laughing is another way of surviving by letting go. Unfortunately, Louie Zamperini the adult prankster does not appear in the movie Unbroken.

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