A tale of triumph and endurance, Louis Zamperini’s life as an Olympic star and prisoner of war will hit the big screen on Christmas Day—nearly 70 years after the end of WWII.
The life of Louis Zamperini is a patriotic blockbuster. The late 1936 Olympian and World War II prisoner of war not only defied the odds on the track—going from a infamously reckless teenager to a running sensation out of Torrance, Calif.—but he also defied the odds of survival following a deadly plane crash during a WWII rescue mission. After more than 45 days at sea in an under-supplied lifeboat, he and one other crash survivor were captured by the Japanese and held prisoner for the remainder of the war. He was released in 1945 following Japanese surrender.
On Dec. 25, director Angelina Jolie will bring his journey, starring Jack O’Connell as the young track star and war hero, to the big screen for the first time, inspired by Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 bestselling novel.
“On the job, I was blessed with very committed, expert coaches,” O’Connell says of getting into the role of the Olympic 5,000-meter star. “I would’ve been ruined without the prior training they gave me.”
The 19-year-old Zamperini became a small-town hero during the 1936 Olympic Trials in Manhattan, N.Y., where he beat the sweltering heat to finish in a dead tie with then-American record holder Don Lash in the 5,000M, punching his ticket to the games in Berlin. He was the youngest American qualifier in his event. He finished eighth at the games, running a blistering 56-second final lap that grabbed the attention of one spectator—Adolf Hitler—who would later identify Zamperini as “the boy with a fast finish.”
The running sequences were filmed near Sydney, Australia, and were a challenge for the cast due to the replicated track shoes—racing spikes from the 1920s and 1930s.
“We copied Louie’s actual shoe as closely as we could for these scenes and had them made in Mexico,” costume designer Louise Frogley says. “Basically, they’re like ballerina flats with no heels and spikes in front. We also had them constructed with different levels of spikes, because running in the shoes with the long spikes people used then for push-off would be brutal today. We used the shoes with long spikes only for close ups.”
Greg Smith, an accomplished Australian masters sprinter and coach to two 2012 Olympians, was recruited by Jolie to assist with creating an authentic depiction of Zamperini’s time on the track.
“That’s exactly the way we did it!” Smith says of the scenes, which included several runners from Sydney’s athletic clubs. He had particular praise for both Louies—CJ Valleroy (young Louie) and O’Connell. “They were great, naturals. They worked hard and looked perfect.”
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Smith says runners during that time were shaped differently than today, many being tradesmen and laborers with more visible lower-body strength. “They ran in an upright position,” he explains. “Today, runners are a lot taller, and there’s a lot more moving forward, almost leaning over. After a day of running in those shoes some of the guys were quite sore.”
Valleroy admits it took him awhile to get used to the unique shoes from that era. “I’m on my high school track team, and I do cross-country running. But this was harder,” he says. “I also had to learn to run with a straight chest and proper arms and also learn how to push off for a faster sprint.”
For O’Connell, who plays the older Zamperini as a prisoner of war, says he had a head start with preparing for the running scenes in the film.
“I was always fit, boxing and playing football, so running for the camera came naturally,” he explains. “I did have to learn to adopt Louie’s style of running. When we began these scenes, I was out of shape because I was still recovering from being emaciated [for the film]. I did it in stages, moving from the emaciated phase to the prison phase to my more natural self.”
The entire film is truly a tale of endurance, documenting the war veteran’s resilience during his two-year imprisonment in Japan, which included degrading torture and extreme starvation. O’Connell says he will always feel emotional toward his role of reenacting such powerful scenes—both celebrating on the track and barely surviving under the Japanese.
“Louis told me that whenever his strife became impossible he’d envisage a finish line, however distant it felt,” he explains. “This provided me with a reasoning throughout filming.”
In 1998, an 81-year-old Zamperini carried the Winter Olympics torch during a leg through Nagano, Japan, near where he was held captive. In 2005, he returned to the Olympic stadium in Berlin for the first time. At home in Torrance, the high school stadium is named after him, as is USC’s stadium, where he attended college on an athletic scholarship. According to Hillenbrand’s book, it was suspected that the rising star would become the first man to break the 4-minute-mile barrier, posting a national collegiate mile record—4:08—in 1938, which stood for 15 years. The streak of impressive marks gave him the nickname “Tornado Torrance” among fans and supporters.
Louis Zamperini passed away two days before Independence Day, on July 2, 2014.
“The story teaches you that no matter what happens you should never give up,” says Valleroy of the entire Unbroken project. “That’s a great lesson. Louie’s a troublemaker as kid. He’s always getting into a jam with the cops, with his father. But he grew up into a great man, a hero. I like that.”