Louie Zamperini's Son on "Unbroken": "It’s Terrible and Beautiful at the Same Time”

Daniel Doherty
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Posted: Dec 20, 2014 9:00 AM
Louie Zamperini's Son on "Unbroken": "It’s Terrible and Beautiful at the Same Time”

“Unbroken” retells the incredible and deeply moving story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, a former Olympic runner and WWII bomber who survived 47 days adrift at sea after his plane crash-landed in the South Pacific. From there, he drifted all the way to Japan, where he was eventually interned in several POW camps, and singled out for torture by a sadistic madman nicknamed “The Bird." The best-selling book, written by Laura Hillenbrand, has since been turned into a forthcoming major motion picture directed by Angelina Jolie. I recently spoke to Luke Zamperini by phone, Louie’s only and surviving son, about the best-seller, the movie in general, and his extraordinary late father.

Townhall: When did you first learn of your father's survival story? Did he talk about it often when you were younger, or was it something he preferred to keep private?

Zamperini: Well, I think I’ve always known my Dad’s survival story as long as I can remember. He talked about it quite often to a lot of people. [He] had a comic book that would tell his story which he would pass out to kids -- and I had a copy of that. These were the subjects of my bedtime stories. I’d ask him: ‘Dad, tell me about wrestling the sharks again' and he’d go into the detail about diving overboard off the raft [and] so on and so forth. I was just always aware of it.

Townhall: When I read "Unbroken" last February on a family vacation, I couldn't put it down. It was one of the most incredible stories I had ever come across. I have not, however, seen the movie. Do you think the film lives up to the book's expectations? I know you recently wrote an op-ed for us titled: “Unbroken Film Gets My Dad’s Faith Right.” But did the filmmakers get everything else right, so to speak?

Zamperini: Well, yes. These are two different mediums, and one you can go into much more detail than the other. In the film, you’ve only got X amount of time to get a story across and get people interested in the characters. [W]ith the book, I read it in two days. That was 12 hours of reading, and so you can’t make a 12 hour film. Angelina [Jolie] did a marvelous job. She of course had to leave out some scenes one would expect to be in the film. But she needed to be able to bring it in under two and a half hours -- and have it be as complete as possible. I’ve seen the film five times now and I love it.

Townhall: The trailer looks great. I can’t wait to see it.

Zamperini: Oh yeah, this thing is just beautifully shot. Rogers Deakins [the director of photography] has done an excellent job...it’s got a fantastic score that is just mesmerizing. You’re taken on this beautiful journey through this odyssey that quite frankly has some real grim aspects to it. It's terrible and beautiful at the same time.

Townhall: Laura Hillenbrand writes movingly about your father's conversion to Christianity. He was in a bad place when he returned from the war, almost succumbing to alcoholism. How did his faith change him, other than helping him quit drinking?

Zamperini: Prior to his conversion his drinking was always self-medicating. The real problem was his hatred for the Bird and former prison guards. [A]s a juvenile delinquent he was always pretty resourceful and pretty clever and he was really defiant. And that defiance kind of got him through the prison camp. Yet he ends up with what we now know to be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]. It was manifesting itself in a recurring nightmare. He started having this nightmare -- almost the day he met the Bird -- which always involved Louis being attacked by the Bird, and Louis trying to kill the Bird, usually with his bare hands.

(Luke proceeded to explain that his father in November 1949, after hearing a Billy Graham sermon his wife dragged him to against his will, finally remembered a promise he made to God years earlier on the raft in his hour of need: If he beat the odds and survived his ordeal, he told God, he would honor and serve Him for the rest of his life. Of course, he survived. So it was at this moment -- when he finally remembered that binding promise inside Billy Graham's tent -- that he became a devoted Christian).

Zamperini: After his conversion, he was done getting drunk. He was done fighting. He had forgiven his captors, including the Bird. And he went home that night and that was the first night in almost five years that he didn’t have that nightmare -- and he never had it the rest of his life. His PTSD was gone immediately. So instead of harboring all this hatred and this vengeance and this desire to get back and kill the Bird he was able to forgive him. This was the completion of Louis Zamperini. The turnaround started when he discovered sports, but it was completed when he discovered God.

Townhall: That was one of the most amazing parts of the book. The bird, scene after scene, torments Louie and goes after him specifically, and by the end of the narrative, Louie was able to forgive him. It’s really quite an amazing story. 

Zamperini: What was so incredible about the book is that this was not a Christian book. [At] the end, you start feeling sorry for this guy who is destroying his life -- and boom -- the conversion hits you right in the face. I feel like the same thing happens in the film. You witness this terrible treatment and suffering he goes through, and in the end, you find out he forgave these people based on his faith. It’s just super powerful. I think it will be resonating with generations to come.

“Unbroken” opens in theaters everywhere on Christmas day.