Exclusive: Louie Zamperini’s Daughter Doubts Anyone Today Could Survive What Her Dad Survived

Cortney O'Brien
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Posted: Dec 09, 2014 2:00 PM
Exclusive: Louie Zamperini’s Daughter Doubts Anyone Today Could Survive What Her Dad Survived

New York, NY -- You may have heard of World War Two hero Louie Zamperini, whose story is told beautifully in Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 New York Times bestseller, “Unbroken.” But, this Christmas, audiences will be able to watch his miraculous life unfold on screen. Director Angelina Jolie broke what some have called the ‘movie curse.’ After Zamperini’s life story was tossed around in Hollywood for years, Jolie finally committed to the project and what resulted is the two-hour heart wrenching epic, “Unbroken.” Zamperini’s daughter, Cynthia Garris, spoke with Townhall at a press junket in New York on Friday, sharing how her dad’s fortitude and faith pulled him through the toughest trials of his life, and how it took an A-list movie star to finally bring his story to the silver screen.

It’s impossible to relate his whole experience here, but here is just a taste of what Zamperini survived: A plane crash in the Pacific Ocean, floating in a life raft with two fellow airmen for 47 days, and being tortured by "the Bird," a POW guard who was ruthlessly obsessed with him, beating him every chance he had. Considering all her dad went through, Garris finds it hard to believe that anyone today who endured what he endured could come out alive today.

The making of this film was a really long process, it took years. That’s kind of a testament to your dad’s life – that patience and endurance really pay off. How did you feel when you learned the film was finally being made?

“I kept thinking it was finally being made for the last maybe five years, they first had Francis Lawrence slated to direct it. I was managing my father’s career so I was there for those meetings and I thought that was going to happen and it was just taking a long time. It was in development still and he left to do another film that was offered to him and then we waited awhile and then a Norwegian directors’ team were slated to direct it and I was very excited about them. It looked like they were going to do it and all of a sudden I got a call from Matt Baer, the film’s producer, saying, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but I just got off the phone with Angelina Jolie. We talked for two hours, she read the book twice, without stopping.’ And I’m thinking, ‘A movie star? Has she ever directed before?’”

In fact, Jolie had directed one film prior to “Unbroken,” called “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” But, her reservations were justified considering she wanted to get her dad’s story right. That’s when Baer assured her Jolie was the right person for the job.

“Matt said, ‘I haven’t spoken to one other director who had the vision that she has. She is brilliant beyond words and her passion. So, his being convinced, since he had been on the film for so many years, trying so hard to get it done, he convinced me. So I relaxed about it and then I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve got to break this to my brother. Now I’m not going to say, ‘Luke, Angelina Jolie is going to direct the movie because that will throw him off, so I called him up and I said, ‘They found their director and it’s a person with a lot of passion and fantastic vision for the whole thing, better by far than any other director’s vision, and my brother’s thinking, ‘Who is it? Who is it?’ I just wanted to kind of build it up to it to say, ‘Angelina Jolie,’ and he just loved the idea. He got behind it 100 percent.”

As for her dad’s relationship with Jolie, Garris said it was an instant connection.

“After we first met with her, we all met her the same time she met Louie and for the two of them love at first sight. She was more in love with Louie first, because he was still reeling from getting a kiss on the lips from Catherine Zeta-Jones, because they were both on the Tonight Show and so he was reeling from that. And you know, he still had it. He was 96 years old at the time, but he still had an eye for the ladies. But, it was love at first sight between them and I could tell it was going to be a fantastic journey.”

I want to ask a couple of questions about your dad’s ordeal. What role do you think his faith played in his survival? Both when he was going through the camps and after, when he was dealing with alcoholism. It seemed like finding Christ in those times got him through those ordeals.

“It’s interesting, he was raised Catholic. He didn’t become a Christian until he came home. So what he did was he noticed that Phil prayed a lot on the raft and what we’ve been told, is if you’ve ever been brought to your knees by something that happened to you in your life, that everybody will turn to God when they have no place else to turn. So, he was terrified at times during horrific storms at sea and he would pray, ‘If you get me through this, I will seek you and serve you for the rest of my life.’ When he got back from the war, he forgot about that promise. The PTSD hit him very hard. Nightmares every single night, he dreamt he was strangling The Bird and that his goal in life, even though he was newlywed, and I was his first child, I was still an infant – his goal in life was to save enough money to go back to Japan, find the Bird and kill him. He felt medicated by drinking a lot, because they didn’t even have a name for what these wonderful warriors what they were going through. Basically, you were on your own to deal with this.”

“My mother was going to leave him – take me and leave him. Then a few friends of theirs invited them to go to hear Billy Graham speak. At the time, he was an unknown evangelist traveling in a tent. And so my father wouldn’t go. My mother went, became a Christian and told my father, ‘I’m not going to leave you because I’m now with the Lord and but I want you to come with me.’ So he grudgingly went. She brought him there – he got up and walked out. He didn’t want to hear about it. She brought him back again. He was on his way out a second time, when he remembered that promise that he’d made, ‘I’ll seek you and serve you if you get me out of this.’ And, it basically humbled him and he accepted Christ that night. He says all the nightmares stopped – he never had another one for the rest of his life. It just filled his heart with what he needed the most. I never heard him swear. I heard him say, ‘damn’ once when I was an adult and I almost fell over. I was in shock. He must be really mad if he said, ‘damn!’ He never drank, he was a wonderful, dutiful father and husband. It had a powerful impact on him and I just think he needed it so desperately and if you were talking to him right now he’d be able to look back on his whole life and think of all the times he almost died but didn’t. From the time he was a little boy, all the way through. He sees it all as a series of miracles. The hand of God was guiding his life to serve a greater purpose. I often envied him and he could see exactly what it was about and knew exactly what he was here to do. It was the most important thing to him.”

There’s a great picture of Louie skateboarding. He took up skateboarding in his seventies. Are there any other adventures he pursued or risks he took that a lot of people might not know about?

“When he got back from the war, it’s in his new book, which is called, “Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In,” you’d think he’d never want to be on a boat again, or never eat Japanese food again. But, he went right out on an amazing sailing adventure that went from San Pedro, California, all the way down to Acapulco and all of that West Coast of Mexico, it was not developed into the resort type places that it is today. So they were going to little fishing villages, they were caught in white squall and blown out to sea and the headlines said, ‘Zamperini Missing at Sea Again.’ Then, he took up skiing and it became his passion sport because he couldn’t run anymore. He could ski anything – the steepest of mountains. He loved mountain climbing, repelling, whitewater rafting, he started his own boys’ camp because he wanted to give back and he wanted to help other delinquent boys, because he had been one in his youth and he wanted to deliver the gospel to them by taking them out into the wilderness and showing them how to survive, hunt, fish, mountain climb and present his story of salvation and survival. In his last few years, he loved going and speaking on cruise ships and he had a couple of those boys who had grown up and were there.”

Do you think men and women today could have survived what your dad survived?

“No, I don’t. I don’t think during World War Two, they had the kind of training that makes a Navy Seal or a para-rescue person. These are exemplary men and women who put through the most rigorous training and they’re all eliminated until you’ve just got the few who can do anything. But, back in that day, I think my father and a lot of those men were just boys. They grew up really fast, because they grew up in the Depression and then the war came and they had to be men. Whereas these days, our young men sometimes remain boys well into their thirties. They just don’t have the kind of challenges. So, unless you are in an elite part of the military, I don’t think that your average trained military person would survive and have those skills. But, I may be wrong. But, I have a feeling it was just something very special that he had. Because of him, the other two fellows, survived. They both would have drowned. He had the resourcefulness to get the raft, pull them out of the water and keep them alive as long as he could.”

I read the book and each page my jaw dropped open. I think I was on page 300 and it read, ‘After all Louie endured, this was the worst.’

“Once he’s in the prison camp, you think, ‘Oh I wish he were back on the life raft!’ That seemed luxurious, they were free. Listen, I knew him all my life and I thought I knew everything about his story, but I was reading that book was powerfully emotional for me and my brother and we learned, the way she wrote it, it’s just such an intimate and graphic description of what he went through. Louie was not the kind of man who would talk about all his suffering during the war. We knew basically the basics of it. But, he was just too fine a person to belabor the point of all of the excruciating suffering, horrible things that were done to him. So to read that, it was really painful and awakening and enlightening for us. I felt like I was the most privileged person because I could call him up anytime I wanted and say, ‘I love you!’ And ask him more questions about what I just read.”

One of the most powerful quotes in “Unbroken” comes when Hillenbrand writes, ‘The war ended for Louie when he forgave the Bird.’ Is forgiveness something that your dad instilled in you and Luke growing up?

“He loved that saying that, ‘Hating someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.’ It only hurts you, they go on with their lives, and there’s all this hatred inside you and it’s just killing you, like it was killing him. He was losing his whole life, he was losing his young bride and his infant daughter. So he lived it. He was the embodiment of it. He was a wonderful role model for us. He would drop anything to help anyone – a stranger in need. He continued to rescue lots of people throughout our life, including me. He saved me from drowning once. I know it feels horrible to have resentment against people, so I always try to let it go. And my father would actually, he would pray for his enemies, or pray for people who had done wrong to him, and that’s a wonderful way to let it out of you. So he taught us that as well.”

“Unbroken” opens nationwide on Christmas Day.