One airman died at sea: Zamperini and the other airman were rescued when their craft ran into a Japanese war ship.
Additional hardship followed. Zamperini was taken to a Japanese prison camp, where he spent two years being abused, tortured and tested.
Author Laura Hillenbrand told Zamperini's story in a 2010 book she called Unbroken, A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.
Now, Angelina Jolie has adapted Hillenbrand's book for the big screen, and the resultant movie works best in bits and pieces. Zamperini's story becomes the basis for an inspirational tale, complete with an epilogue about the importance of forgiveness.
That epilogue was inspired by the fact that Zamperini eventually returned to Japan where he met with some of the soldiers who had tortured him, something we're told with end-of-picture title cards and footage of the real Zamperini, who died earlier this year at the age of 97.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
It has taken a quartet of screenwriters (Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson) to whip this sprawling, but slightly one-dimensional material into shape.
The movie proceeds in chunks built around the major experiences in Zamperini's life -- from a mildly wayward boyhood to the end of the war.
Jack O'Connell, an actor of great avidity, gives vibrant life to the adult Zamperini, who came from a tight-knit Italian-American family.
O'Connell, who gave one of the year's most astonishing performances in the British prison drama Starred Up, again uses his physicality and spirit to create a character of near-preternatural focus.
As a young man, Zamperini (played by C.J. Valleroy) didn't begin to find himself until his older brother (John D'Leo) pushed him into track and field competitions. Zamperini subsequently became a high-school track star in his hometown, Torrance, Ca.
We learn about this after an exciting and scary opening combat sequence in Zamperini's B-24, a plane that came to be know as "the flying coffin.''
Jolie and cinematographer Roger Deakins give us a feeling for what it must have been like to fly in one those planes, how terribly exposed crews must have felt when they encountered enemy aircraft.
After his plane is shot down, Zamperini and two surviving comrades (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock) drift at sea in a life raft, battling the elements, sharks, hunger and thirst.
The movie's prison-camp section revolves around Zamperini's on-going confrontation with brutal Japanese camp commander played by singer/songwriter Miyavi.
Throughout the torture segment, Jolie underlines Zamperini's heroic status as a man of indomitable will. Half story and half salute, the movie completes Zamperini's conversion from a character into an icon. We start to lose the man behind the symbol.
Unbroken is well-made, but it leaves one wondering precisely why Jolie wanted to tell a story that -- for all of Zamperini's trials -- doesn't really bring a new perspective to material that many other movies already have covered.
Jolie's intermittently powerful World War II drama never quite breaks the mold from which one expects it to be cast. Zamperini lived an amazing life: Jolie's rendering of that life gives us exactly what we expect.