With Angelina Jolie’s film Unbroken, about the life of Louis Zamperini, set to release on Christmas Day, it seemed timely to offer you a conversation I had a few days ago with Louis’ 61-year-old son, Luke. Even before seeing the film, I was a huge Louis Z fan. His remarkable story—that of being an Olympic runner, a POW in Japan during WWII—is obviously chronicled in the movie, but I hadn’t actually heard about him until I read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand in 2010. My wife and our two children both read it, and then we bought copies to give away to friends and family. It’s that kind of book. Now that I’ve seen the movie, it’s only served to underscore my admiration for Louis (and, by the way, I’m a new fan of his son, Luke, too).
Bob Waliszewski: Luke, I liked Unbroken a lot, but I can only guess that, having been a movie critic for 20-plus-years, we’ll soon be hearing from people in the faith community that Angelina Jolie short-changed your father’s life story by not showing us his conversion at the Billy Graham crusade. What say you?
Luke Zamperini: Well, I would disagree with that and for the following reasons. A motion picture is designed to tell a story in approximately three acts and somewhere around two hours. The story of Louis Zamperini is a five-act play. There’s just so much to it. The challenge for the filmmakers of course was how are you going to tell the story in a format that is going to keep people interested and yet not leave out critical aspects of it? I think she did a masterful job.
Although the post war, post-traumatic stress disorder, the Billy Graham tent meeting and the returning to Japan to forgive the prison guards was not dramatized, the message is not lost on the audience because the tiles (credit slides) at the end explain what happened after the war. The audiences that I’ve sampled coming out of the screening rooms—and most of which are not people of faith—I’ve asked them, “So what do you walk away with from this film?” Invariably, they say, “I can’t believe this guy can forgive them the way he did.” How powerful is that? It was my father’s intention that the film of his life story would not be limited to a Christian audience, but would be something that would appeal to a broader audience in the hopes that it would get people to think about their own mortality and their own faith or lack thereof and to be witness to the power of forgiveness. I think that comes across.
Waliszewski: I know that your dad and Angelina developed a close relationship. Did that ever involve an opportunity that your father got to share his faith with Angelina one-on-one?
Zamperini: The truth is they had a very special relationship. When she found this film project and she went and read the book, Unbroken, she read it through twice. Then, when she came over to meet [my dad] she came bounding up the walkway with an arm full of Italian delicacies. She was very nervous. She was meeting her hero. It really showed. They hit it off right away. She threw his 96th birthday party for him with us and the family. It was just a very touching evening we spent with them. Angelina and Brad have just been supportive of the family. They were there for us when dad died [on July 2 of this year]. They were the ones who came and comforted us. They took us home with them and helped us get through the evening. It was the most difficult day imaginable. They’re real genuine people.
As far as dad sharing his faith with her, he shared his faith with everyone in one way or another. Did I actually ever hear him try to convince her of the truth of the Gospel? No. That wasn’t his style. His style was to just tell people about his experience, get their interest piqued, let their own curiosity take over and then start asking the critical questions of how do you go about doing this? I know that he’s impacted her, he’s impacted the actors. All the main actors got to come over to the house and meet my dad and hear his stories describing the character traits and nuances of his buddies in the prison camp, on the life raft and on the B-24 bomber. They definitely had a great relationship and it spilled over into the making of the film. It was just an effort of love by everyone that was involved in the film.
Waliszewski: Luke, your dad forgave his captors and he tried to forgive The Bird (Mutsuhiro Watanabe, the head of the Japanese Naoetsu POW camp), but I know that did not transpire—at least not in person. Tell me about that attempt to meet with The Bird and offer an olive branch to him personally.
Zamperini: Well, a year after his conversion, my father returned to Japan in 1950. He already had forgiven all [his Japanese prison guards and tormentors] in his heart, but now he was going back to Japan on a mission to look them straight in the eye and to tell them about how he’s forgiven them through the power of Jesus Christ in his life and to explain to them what that means. He was in particular looking for The Bird, but The Bird wasn’t there. His prison guards had all been classified as war criminals and were themselves in prison now, but they never found The Bird. He hid out for seven years in the mountains of Nagano, Japan. At the time everyone assumed that he had committed suicide.
It wasn’t until 1998 when CBS Sports was doing a special on my father’s life that they discovered The Bird was alive and well and living in Tokyo. So, they interviewed him and he remembered Louis Zamperini all right. The idea was to get him to meet with my dad and amazingly what happened was Watanabe’s son and grandson were present during this interview and they were unaware of his reputation in the prison camp. They stopped the interview and they refused to allow their patriarch to have to grovel to this American, although that was not the intention. So, Dad did not get a chance to meet with The Bird and tell him that he forgave him. He did write a letter to him where he explained his life after the war and how he came to faith and found it in his heart to forgive even Sergeant Watanabe for the things that he did to him. We don’t know if he ever received the letter, but it was sent off.
Waliszewski: Luke, what would you like to see happen as a result of this film?
Zamperini: I would like to see this film impact the maximum amount of people possible and have them contemplating, what is this faith and how does someone go about forgiving people like this? To really contemplate the power of faith and forgiveness and to then explore their own faith and perhaps find a way to reconciliation with their Lord and Savior and Creator.
Waliszewski: Spiritually speaking, do you recall an instance in which someone has come to Christ as a result of the Unbroken book?
Zamperini: We’ve received a ton of letters and phone calls from people that have been impacted by the story and they kind of go along these lines: If he can survive 47 days on a life raft, I can complete my kidney dialysis. If he can forgive The Bird for what he did to him I can forgive my brother that I haven’t spoken to in 25 years and I’m going to call him tonight when I get home. I’ve witnessed this stuff. I haven’t seen any direct conversions, but you know when the seed is planted, it [can] take years and years for the plant to grow into something.
I had the privilege of being with my father on a cruise ship where he was telling his story about six years ago and, [during] the question and answer phase, a gentleman stood up and said, “Mr. Zamperini, you may not remember me, but I was in your Victory Boys Camp program in 1957. I was a juvenile delinquent and although I didn’t turn my life around at that moment, the things that you told me stuck with me and several years later I became a Christian. Now I’m a successful businessman, a happy family man.” This was just music to my dad’s ears to hear that there was this reaping of what he sowed so many years ago. Now no sooner had this guy sat down another man popped up and said, “Well, sir I was in your camp in 1961,” and he had a similar story to tell. Although it didn’t change him in that instant, several years later what he’d heard, what he’d witnessed with Louis Zamperini was instrumental in turning him around. So, the effect of the book Unbroken and the effect of the film, Unbroken, I think is going to net [spiritual] results for years and years to come.