Nearly seven decades since it ended, World War II still continues to be fertile ground for Hollywood. The latest offering is “Unbroken,” the adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s book of the same name and subject matter, namely WWII veteran and Los Angeles County local Louis Zamperini.
Zamperini died July 2 at age 97. Sadly, his passing came before he could serve as the grand marshal for the Jan. 1, 2015 Tournament of Roses Parade, probably timed to be in close proximity with the Dec. 25 release of the movie. (Why he couldn’t have received the same honor years before the movie was made is a mystery to me.)
By all accounts, Zamperini was a remarkable individual and true survivor. As a young man growing up in Torrance, he was also a true hellion, by all accounts a potential candidate for the reformatory. Later, as an athletic young man, the “Torrance Tornado” represented the U.S. on the track team in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, where he met Adolf Hitler.
In WWII, he served in the Army Air Force in the Pacific Theater. Then one day the B-24 in which Zamperini served as a bombardier was shot down by then-enemy Japanese fighter planes. After his plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean, he and two comrades survived more than a month — one died after 33 days — on the open sea until they reached the Marshall Islands, where he and the other survivor were captured by the Japanese.
He went to various prison camps and was subjected to brutal and cruel conditions, which he also survived. His nemesis while imprisoned was a sadistic Japanese guard named Watanabe Mutsuhiro (played by singer/actor Miyavi).
A recent Los Angeles Times article examined how the movie’s distributor, Universal Pictures, is facing challenges in how to market it in Japan, the third-largest market for American-made movies. The problem is how to get Japanese people to see a movie in which one of their own is clearly the bad guy. As for me, I’m fine with it — there are plenty of younger (and in some cases, now elderly) Japanese nationals who either have no clue about the war and or deny that some Japanese soldiers did take part in some awful behaviors, even for a time of war. (The same could be said for some Americans, as well, but in our case, we as a nation have been more willing to question and/or own up to our own misdeeds, real or perceived.)
One funny thing about “Unbroken” is that it is produced and directed by Angelina Jolie, the actress who is famously married to Brad Pitt. The funny part is that he too recently dipped into the WWII well with his own set-in-WWII movie, titled “Fury.” Both movies have received decent reviews, and I’m pretty sure I’ll see both, probably on Blu-Ray in the case of “Fury” and theatrically in the case of “Unbroken.”
That both Jolie and Pitt have used WWII for motion picture subject matter is understandable. (It’s actually the second WWII-set movie for Pitt, who also starred in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorius Basterds.”) After all, the Second World War was such a mighty event in human history. Its outcome and how it altered the geopolitical landscape still reverberates and affects us every single day. That there are still stories to be mined from it, stories that people will spend their time and money on to view, is a testament to its impact upon us.
WWII also is a rich vein to tap because, unlike the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the wars in which we still are involved in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was comparatively less ambiguity, there was less of a sense of “Why are we in this fight?” We were also clearly the good guys in WWII, on the right side of history. In a sense, America’s leadership on the world stage came as a result of WWII. Yes indeed, WWII still looms large for us.
In fact, in the more than 20 years I’ve been writing this column, there have been many movies, miniseries and documentaries in which WWII was either the backdrop or the setting, and many of them were also the subject of this column. Some — and I do mean some — major titles include “Schindler’s List,” “Hiroshima,” “The English Patient,” “Life Is Beautiful,” “Paradise Road,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Thin Red Line,” “U-571,” “Band of Brothers,” “The Pacific,” “The War,” “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” “Enemy at the Gates,” “Pearl Harbor,” “The Pianist,” “Windtalkers,” “Downfall,” “White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” “The Mushroom Club,” “Valkyrie,” “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “Miracle at St. Anna,” “Red Tails,” “The Flowers of War,” “Emperor” and “The Monuments Men.”
There were also four pics not on that list deserving mention: “Visas and Virtue,” “Day of Independence,” “American Pastime” and “Only the Brave.” The first dealt with Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, the second two with U.S. concentration camps and baseball, and the fourth with the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team.
All four are movies that could be described as “community” movies, that is they were made because their filmmakers — Chris Tashima, Lisa Onodera, Desmond Nakano and Lane Nishikawa — went to the time, trouble and expense to make them, lest those stories not be told. All were microbudget movies compared with pics like “Schindler’s List” or “Pearl Harbor.”
So, while “Unbroken” is Hollywood’s latest entrant in the WWII movies, it does leave me a bit sad that Hollywood still has not yet given the big-budget, definitive treatment to America’s concentration camps, Sugihara (especially as an antidote to Japanese wartime brutalities) or the 442nd. Will that day ever come?
Well, with regard to Sugihara, a movie titled “Persona Non Grata” has been shooting in Europe. It’s directed by the Japan-born Cellin Gluck and is set for a 2015 release. Not sure if it qualifies as a Hollywood movie, but Gluck, according to IMDb, has a strong Hollywood pedigree. Hopefully it will do that story justice.
As for the big-screen Hollywood adaptations of America’s concentration camps and the 100th/442nd and Military Intelligence Service, those stories still await. Anyone who knows anything about those stories also knows they are worth sharing beyond our community.
Will it take someone on par with Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt or Quentin Tarantino to get these also-worthy stories out of WWII made? For that, I have no answer. But I know that when those movies eventually get made — and I know they will — I’ll be lining up to see them.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2014 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.