In 'Unbroken,' the riveting survival story of POW is tepidly told
From airplane wrecks in the Andes to tales of castaways on the high seas, we love stories of survival, ones that demonstrate the determination and ingenuity of the human being in horrible, impossible situations.
How they find the strength to overcome such privations and, sometimes, unbelievable cruelty at the hands of others is a story that never fails to fascinate, one whose power to uplift even "reality" television shows cannot diminish.
Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the highly regarded "Seabiscuit," has thoroughly researched and related the facts and dates of Louie Zamperini's harrowing World War II odyssey from crash survivor to prisoner of war.
But, for the most part, she does so in such a hit-and-run newsreel style narrative that there's very little emotional involvement for the reader.
Mr. Zamperini, now in his 90s, is one tough customer and quite a character. He's gone from a youth of petty theft and juvenile delinquency in Torrance, Calif., to Christian proselytizer for the Billy Graham Crusade.
He made a few stops along the way, including one as a distance runner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and fame at the University of Southern California as a candidate to beat the four-minute mile.
Ms. Hillenbrand fast-forwards through those years until spring 1943 when Mr. Zamperini, now a battled-tested Army Air Corps bombardier on a B-24, crashes in the Pacific, miles from nowhere.
One of three survivors, including pilot Russell Allen Phillips and tail gunner Francis McNamara, Mr. Zamperini was in the best shape and was able to keep them alive as they floated aimlessly for weeks on end.
Even when their raft was deteriorating and they began to weaken and starve, he was able to devise ways to catch rain water, to snare the occasional fish and to kill an albatross.
It is believed that they were adrift for 47 days, which may be the record. In mid-July, they found themselves in sight of land -- the Japanese-occupied Marshall Islands. They had drifted for 2,000 miles and were barely alive when the Japanese picked them up and took them prisoner.
He had survived, but in some ways, Louis Zamperini's travails were just beginning.
He was treated roughly at first; then, perhaps because the Japanese learned that he was a well-known Olympic athlete, he was given food and medical treatment. He spent the next year at a camp on Kwajalein, known as "Execution Island," then at Ofuna, an interrogation camp.
It was awful; but when Mr. Zamperini was transferred to Omori, a prison camp near Tokyo, things became much, much worse.
There he was singled out by a sadistic corporal named Mutsushiro Watanabe, a wealthy, well-educated man who was furious at not being made an officer. This, Ms. Hillenbrand notes, "would have tragic consequences for hundreds of men."
Nicknamed The Bird, he would fly into rages, beating prisoners into submission for the slightest infraction and, according to testimony, achieving sexual pleasure while meting out punishment.
He zeroed in on Mr. Zamperini, his "number one prisoner," and spent several months torturing, punching and clubbing him until even Louie began to doubt he could continue to take it. Ms. Hillenbrand details several of these vicious beatings.
Obviously, he did survive. Estimates are that 36,000 of the 132,000 POWs held by the Japanese perished, 12,935 of them Americans.
Unfortunately, Ms. Hillenbrand brings nothing new to this familiar story. There is something impersonal, dispassionate and distancing about her writing, about the manner in which episode after episode she simply tells us what happened.
She spent hundreds of hours listening to Louis Zamperini; instead of allowing him to speak, instead of giving him a voice in this narrative, she tells his story for him. The effect is flattening. It's like watching a biopic of a terrifically interesting person without a single close-up of the subject.
First Published December 19, 2010 12:00 am