The children of Louis Zamperini share why their father's story is one of faith and redemption.
- Posted on Dec 11, 2014
The story of Louis Zamperini is either well known or not known at all. If you’ve read Laura Hillenbrand’s beautifully crafted biography of the Olympic athlete and World War II hero, you’ll understand why someone like Angelina Jolie was anxious to get his story on the big screen. If you haven’t read the book, the Jolie-directed film, Unbroken, which was released almost two years ago, might have been your first introduction to the man whose life is a testament to the strength of the human spirit.
Perhaps the best way to describe Louis Zamperini is to say he was a rebel. As a young boy, he got into his fair share of trouble, but his brother Pete pushed him to better himself. If he could run from the law, Pete reckoned, Louis could run on a track, and through hard work and a determination to prove his naysayers wrong, Louis became an Olympic athlete, competing for his home country in the 1936 games.
If Louis’s story ended there, it would still be enough to be admired, but it doesn’t.
In 1943, Louis, who was a bombardier during WWII, was stranded at sea for seven weeks, fighting dehydration, starvation and shark attacks in a tiny raft with two fellow officers who survived when their plane crashed into the Pacific. Two of the officers, Louis and Russell Allen Phillips, were rescued by a Japanese ship and promptly taken to a POW camp where Louis spent the next two years enduring beatings, torture and humiliation at the hands of a man called “The Bird” – a commanding officer for the Japanese military famous for his brutality.
Louis’s story is one of self-sacrifice, survival and indomitable will, and it took 57 years for it to finally have its Hollywood moment. Before the film was released, Luke Zamperini and Cynthia Garris, spoke with Guideposts.org about their dad and about the movie they say they’ve been waiting for, well, all their lives.
The fact that a superstar like Angelina Jolie spent months vying for the opportunity to helm the movie assured Luke that this was the right time for his father’s story to be told. “I’ve been praying for years that it wouldn’t just be some director that was handed the job from the studio, but it would be a director that had a passion to tell the story,” he said.
Passion is something everyone involved with the project had ample amounts of. The siblings don’t mind rattling off stories of Jolie, who spent two hours on the phone with producer Matt Baer at 2 in the morning, sharing her vision for the film, or of star Jack O’Connell -- who was given the heavy task of bringing their father to life onscreen – and his first meeting with their dad, who warmed to the young Brit from Derby immediately:
“It was a very, very sweet meeting and Louis of course took to him right away,” Cynthia said. “Jack was so nervous because he was meeting this man and it was being filmed. He brought him a lovely bottle of wine, our dad loved his wine.”
To this day, both Luke and Cynthia refer to O'Connell as “dad” and joke that he’s now an honorary Zamperini for life, and while O’Connell’s performance in the film is awe-inspiring and award-worthy, watching some of the worst moments of their father’s life play out on screen wasn’t easy for his children.
“Reading about our father being tortured is horrible and heartbreaking, but for us, seeing the actual acts of hitting him in the face with a kendo stick and the beatings and the kickings, it was just very difficult,” Cynthia said.
Violence is featured heavily in the film, but so is faith. The story of Louis Zamperini couldn’t be told without faith. After surviving as a POW, Zamperini came home only to battle more demons. Struggling with PTSD, Louis, who’d made a promise while still a prisoner to dedicate his life to God, reverted back to drinking and fighting as a way to deal with the lingering effects of war.
It wasn’t until one night, when the young hero attended a sermon delivered by a man named Billy Graham, that Louis finally found his way:
“My mother was taken to see a young evangelist in Los Angeles called Billy Graham and she became a Christian and came home and convinced my dad to go down and see him speak,” Luke recalled.
“After much resistance he finally decided to go. He walked out [on the sermon, but], came back the next night and it got to the point in the sermon where he was going to storm out of the place again and it just suddenly all hit him that he had made all of these promises to God that he would seek to serve Him if He got him home alive. He said ‘God kept his part of the bargain, I didn’t keep mine. I felt like a heel. So instead of getting up and leaving I went down behind the stage, met with the young man there, got on my knees and prayed and said at that very moment I knew I was done getting drunk, I knew that I was done fighting, and I knew I’d forgiven all of my prison guards,’ including the Bird who he’d had this recurring nightmare of for five years up to this point. So he went home that night and it was the first night that he hadn’t had that nightmare and he never had it again for the rest of his life.”
It was Louis’s faith that shaped the rest of his extraordinary life.
In 1952, Louis started a camp for young boys hoping to lead them on a straighter path, much like his brother Pete had done for him. He gave motivational speeches at conferences and schools. Luke explains that he can’t go to a church without someone sharing a story of how his dad had once visited and gave a talk that changed their life and Cynthia shares that working with children was her father’s greatest passion. When Hillenbrand’s book came out, the author, who suffers from a severe case of chronic fatigue was unable to tour and promote her story, so Louis, then 94, did it for her, proving that age was just another thing that couldn’t conquer the Southern California native.
Sadly, in April of 2014, Louis was stricken with a case of pneumonia. Family, friends and crew from the film were at his bedside while he spent three months in the hospital. It was there that Jolie shared a rough cut of the film, watching in twenty minute increments as Louis saw his story come to life for the very first time. In July, at the age of 97, Louis passed away, surrounded by those who loved him, including Jolie and her husband Brad Pitt.
“She was absolutely devastated and heartbroken when she found out that Louis wasn’t going to make it,” Cynthia explained. “I don’t know the content of her email to Laura Hillenbrand but part of it was ‘I can’t lose him now. I just can’t lose him.’ She had just found him and in him she found a father figure, and a great hero and someone that she fell in love with.”
It’s hard for anyone not to fall in love with Louis, his spirit and his heartbreakingly beautiful story of survival and redemption which is why this film is one his children hope will leave a mark on everyone who sees it.
“We hope it affects people profoundly,” Cynthia said. “We hope they’re entertained and they think about it for days afterward because this is our father’s legacy, it’s his life and we want it for him.”
For Luke, the end of his father’s incredible story is the thing he’s most proud of. “He was the most joyful, happy person I’ve ever known and boy did he go out in style. 97 years old, the world beating down his door and arguably the world’s most fabulous woman throwing her arms around his neck and confessing her love to him.”
Unbroken is now available on DVD.