A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

By Laura Hillenbrand

Character Analysis

Louis Zamperini experienced a traumatic ordeal that broke most prisoners. For months on end, Zamperini was tortured, however, he remained unbroken. “He felt his consciousness slipping, his mind losing adhesion, until all he knew was one single thought: He cannot break me. Across the compound, the Bird stopped laughing” (Hillenbrand, 296). Through this, Zamperini proves to be a brave man. While other prisoners seemed to give up or “break” after some period of time, Zamperini remained resilient. Also, during his time on the raft in the ocean, Zamperini and his friend and Russell Allen Phillips (also known by Zamperini as Phil) survived for days. “The next night, Louie and Phil completed their thirty-fourth day on the raft. Though they didn’t know it, they passed what was almost certainly the record for survival adrift in an inflated raft. If anyone survived longer, they hadn’t lived to tell about it” (Hillenbrand, 165). From the day of the plane crash to his last day in the camp, Louis Zamperini proved to the world he was unbreakable.

After his distressing experience during the war, Zamperini began to unravel. In order to cope with everyday life, Zamperini turned to alcohol. As his only escape, alcohol began to run his life. This became problematic at home. “Her pain became anger, and she and Louie had bitter fights. She slapped him and threw dishes at him; he grabbed her so forcefully that he left her bruised” (Hillenbrand, 365). Even though he faced struggles, Zamperini was able to find God. He proved he still had the ability to remain unbroken, even when the going got rough. Once Zamperini sincerely found God’s help, he gave up alcohol and became a better person. “Louis dug out the Bible that had been issued to him by the air corps and mailed home to his mother when he was believed dead. He walked to Barnsdall Park, where he and Cynthia had gone in better days, and where Cynthia had gone, alone, when he had been on his benders. He found a spot under a tree, sat down, and began reading. Resting in the shade and the stillness, Louie felt profound peace” (Hillenbrand, 374). The peace he felt gave him the ability to change his perspective on life. He proved once and for all he was unbreakable.


Throughout the novel, setting helps advances in the plot. Through descriptive language, the setting gives the reader an idea what Zamperini was experiencing. At one point, he travels to Germany to compete in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. “Every vista suggested coiled might. Nazi banners had been papered over everything. As much as a third of the male population was in uniform, as were many children. Military units drilled openly, and though powered aircraft were forbidden under the Versailles Treaty, the strength of the burgeoning Luftwaffe was on conspicuous display over an airfield, where gliders swooped over impressed tourists and Hitler Youth. The buses had machine gun mounts on the roofs and undercarriages that could be converted into tank style tracks” (Hillenbrand, 31). This was right before the beginning of World War II, and it is seen what power Hitler had over the German people. Also, when Zamperini’s plane crashes in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hillenbrand tells you what he saw as he emerged from the water. “The ocean was a jumble of bomber remains. The lifeblood of the plane-oil, hydraulic fluid, and some one thousand gallons of fuel-slopped about on the surface curling among the bits of planes were threads of blood” (Hillenbrand, 126). This gives a sense of fear and an unthinkable reality, which helps move the story of Zamperini’s will to survive.

The theme, never give up, also helps move the plot forward. The reader begins to see Zamperini’s will to survive as he endures his three year imprisonment. While in the camp, Zamperini continually shows his ability to not give up and remain unbroken. “Of all of the violent and vile abuses that the bird had inflicted upon Louie, none had horrified and demoralized him as did this. If anything is going to shatter me, Louie thought, this is it. Sickened and starving, his will a fraying wire, Louie had only the faint hope of the war’s end, and rescue, to keep him going” (Hillenbrand, 286). The hope he felt, was enough to keep him moving forward. After he survived the torture and his alcoholism, Zamperini was able to live out a long and happy life until he was 97 years old. “His body gave no quarter to age or punishment. In time, even his injured leg healed. When Louie was in his sixties, he was still climbing Cahuenga Peak every week and running a mile in under six minutes. In his seventies, he discovered skateboarding. At eighty-five, he returned to Kwajalein on a project, ultimately unsuccessful, to locate the bodies of the nine marines whose names had been etched in the wall of his cell. ‘When I get old,’ he said as he tossed a football on the Kwajalien beach, ‘I’ll let you know.’ When he was ninety, his neighbors looked up to see him balancing high in a tree in his yard, chain saw in hand. ‘When God wants, he’ll take me,’ he told an incredulous Pete. ‘Why the hell are you trying to help him?’ Pete replied. Well into his tenth decade of life, between the occasional broken bone, he could still be seen perched on skis, merrily cannon balling down mountains” (Hillenbrand, 383-384). Zamperini had spent his entire life never giving up, even through his toughest moments.

Unbroken Movie Trailer Official - Jack O'Connell

Praise or Pan

Laura Hillenbrand’s portrayal of Louis Zamperini’s life story in Unbroken is inspiring. As a child, Zamperini frequently got himself into trouble. With the help of his brother, Pete, he was able to focus his energy on running. Through hard work and dedication, Zamperini excelled to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. This is inspiring because it proves if you are determined you can remain unbroken.

Another reason Unbroken deserves praise is the immense amount of detail Hillenbrand uses. Hillenbrand follows Louis Zamperini’s story as closely as possible. She is able to show you the experiences of World War II veterans through her writing. You begin to feel the pain and heartbreak Louis, his friends, and his family goes through during his imprisonment. With this, the novle becomes more than a story, the reader realizes that this was once someones life, that he went through this terrible ordeal and forgave the people who caused him pain.


Remembering Louis Zamperini by WORLD Radio


Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken. London: Fourth Estate, 2011. Print.