Hell or high water

Published in The Spectator (January 24th, 2011)

Unbroken: An extraordinary true story of courage and survival by air, sea and land by Laura Hillenbrand (4th Estate)

As his battered bomber hurtled towards the Pacific in May 1943, Louis Zamperini thought to himself that no one was going to survive the crash. If he had had the slightest inkling of what lay ahead of him, he readily admits that he might have preferred death, staying beneath the surface of the water rather than wrestling his way from the wreckage as it sank.

Clambering into a life raft floating amid the blood and wreckage, he knew the odds were bad. Search planes were more likely to crash — just as his barely airworthy B-24 had — than rescue downed airmen. Only three of the crew survived — and one had a severe head injury, while the other was so traumatised that he wailed ‘We’re going to die’ until slapped, then scoffed their only food, a handful of chocolate bars, when night fell.

They ended up drifting for 47 days — enduring 13 days longer than the previous known record on an inflated raft. Tormented by hunger and thirst, their sunburned lips swollen grotesquely, they lived off raw albatross and rainwater trapped during the occasional shower. At one stage they had to patch their flimsy craft while fighting off sharks and being strafed with gunfire by a passing Japanese aircraft. By the time of their rescue, the two survivors had each lost half their body weight.

And that was just the start of their troubles. Ahead lay the horrors of Japanese captivity, with the emaciated Zamperini being beaten, humiliated and tortured — but never quite broken. He is picked upon by The Bird, ‘the most vicious guard in any prison camp’, according to one of his superiors — who is distinguished by both his depravity and his fleeting, quasi-sexual affection for his victims. This monstrous man, so sadistic that he ends up as one of Japan’s most wanted war criminals, makes it his personal mission to destroy Zamperini. At one stage an entire prison camp is made to punch him in the face; another time he is forced to clean out pig sties by hand.

It is an astonishing tale of fortitude in the face of scarcely believable adversity, a cruel odyssey that descends from battling the elements into the darkest hell of human depravity. More than one third of the American prisoners-of-war captured by the Japanese died, compared with just 1 per cent held by the Nazis. Many of those who lived were left physical or mental wrecks. But Zamperini refuses to yield despite the savagery, the starvation and the slave labour that broke so many of his comrades.

It is little wonder the film rights have already been sold: just as Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand’s previous book, was a parable for America’s survival in the Depression era, so this tale is a parable for America at war. Her previous hero was a small horse that defied the odds to stun the sporting world and inspire a nation. This time, it is another sporting hero — an Olympic athlete turned airman — who defies the odds of war to return from the dead as an inspiration for his nation. It is, at heart, a moralistic tale of good triumphing over unspeakable evil.

Hillenbrand came across the story while researching Seabiscuit, and the horse even makes an appearance in the pages as the young Zamperini, redeemed from teenage delinquency by his running ability, is preparing for the Olympics. The only runner who could beat him is Seabiscuit, says his coach. As it is, the Berlin games came too early in his career and his hopes of winning gold were dashed by the war, but his fame probably saved his life, since the Japanese saw him as a potential propaganda tool.

In the hands of Hillenbrand, Zamperini’s tale of tragedy, trauma and ultimately a form of triumph is a riveting read. From his early years running wild to his post-war redemption, the pace never lets up and the story is told with taut precision underpinned by intense research — much of it based on interviews with the subject himself, still alive at the age of 93. There is little doubt it will be a huge hit both in print and on the screen.

But for all the undoubted skill of the author, there is ultimately something slightly unsatisfying about Unbroken. Too much seems taken on trust, whether it is hand-fighting sharks flying out of the water or the idea of Hitler taking a special interest in the runner who came eighth in an Olympic final. It is just too perfect and too much like a Hollywood blockbuster, where the speed, editing and special effects overshadow the flaws of the script. So at the end the hero remains an enigmatic figure, with little exploration of what made him find such incredible reserves of resilience to win his marathon race for survival.

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