Louis Zamperini - unbroken hero of Angelina Jolie's film
He ran in the Olympics, spent 47 days in a life raft and survived two-and-a-half years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps but it's his victory over anger that continues to inspire others
Angelina Jolie spent hours by the bedside of an elderly man this year, showing him clips of Unbroken, her latest film as a director. That man was Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner and prisoner of war-camp survivor, and the subject of her wartime drama.
Jolie and Zamperini are said to have developed such a rapport that he flirted with her in front of Brad Pitt, while Pitt commissioned an oil painting of him for his wife for Christmas. But what was Jolie's hero really like, and could she do his story justice? I went to New York to find out from Louis's children, Cynthia and Luke.
Louis "Louie" Zamperini's story is remarkable. An airman in World War Two, he was presumed dead when his plane plunged into the Pacific Ocean on a rescue mission. He drifted on a life raft for 47 days, surviving on the odd albatross, before being incarcerated by the Japanese in a series of prisoner-of-war camps for two-and-a-half years, where he was whipped regularly across the face with a belt buckle and starved.
On returning to the United States after the war, Louie found religion, forgave his torturers, delivered inspirational talks - and took up skateboarding in his 70s. He died in July, aged 97. "It really is the stuff that myths are made of," says Cynthia.
The Zamperini film has had one of the longest gestations in Hollywood history. The idea was proposed in the Fifties, when Universal bought the rights to Louie's memoir as a vehicle for Tony Curtis. He did Spartacus instead. Matt Baer, a producer, picked it up again in 1998 after seeing a documentary about Louie's life, but ran into difficulties finding a director.
Unbroken's saviour has been Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote the 2010 biography on which the film is based. Hillenbrand had written Seabiscuit, which became a screen success. Her book persuaded the studio that the film was likely to be popular. The search was on again for a director. Jolie scored the job.
Cynthia and Luke knew the outline of their father's life, but it wasn't until Hillenbrand's book that they realised quite what he endured. "We knew what he went through," says Cynthia, "but not the graphic or extreme nature of it. My father did not share every detail of his suffering with us because he wasn't that kind of a man. He lived a positive life. I only discovered the true depths to which he was pushed - the degradation, the dehumanisation - in Laura's book."
Reading about her father changed the way Cynthia saw him. "I fell in love with him. It was a very strange feeling. I saw this beautiful, tragic, heroic, capable young man being tormented and suffering. Had I been at the camp, I would have died for him."
Jolie's film has intensified Cynthia's feelings. "I knew I would cry when I saw it," she says. "I was hoping I would be deeply moved."
As children, Cynthia and Luke found their father's tales fantastical. "They were my bedtime stories," says Luke. "Dad would tell me about wrestling the sharks or his plane going down. He had no problem talking about it; he just didn't obsess over it."
But it took Louie several years to get to this point. After returning from the war, he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. Every night, he dreamt of strangling the most sadistic guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe ("the Bird"), once almost strangling his pregnant wife. He drank excessively and fixated on returning to Japan to kill the prison officer. His wife threatened divorce.
Then, in 1949, she dragged him to a rally led by an evangelist preacher, Billy Graham. Hearing the sermon, Louie, a lapsed Roman Catholic, remembered the prayers he'd said on the raft and in the camp, forgave his captors instantly and never had another nightmare. Over the following years, he returned to Japan to forgive the guards in person, and was fond of telling his children, "Hating someone is like drinking poison and expecting them to die."
Louie's transformation, say Luke and Cynthia, was typical of his character. Until his late teenage years, Louie was always fighting and stealing in Torrance, California, where he grew up. It was Pete, his older brother, who changed his life, by encouraging him to run.
Louie was the fastest high-school runner in the US, and in 1936 competed in the Olympics in Berlin. He finished eighth in the 5,000 metres, but he caught the attention of Hitler by running the final lap in 56 seconds. The Fuhrer commented, "Ah, you're the boy with the fast finish."
Once Louie committed to something, that was it. He just had to get to that point.
It was Louie's rebelliousness and defiance, they say, that got him through the war. He refused to surrender to his torturers; he refused to die. After his religious conversion, it was the same defiance that led him to pursue such an active life, the life his captors would have taken away.
Louie went mountain climbing and white-water rafting, and ran a camp for delinquent boys to improve their ways. In 1998, he carried the Olympic torch in the relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and ran a mile uphill every day in his 80s. He credited and celebrated his faith, but didn't force it upon his children. "It was a religious household, but a very happy and joyous one," says Cynthia. "We were taken to Sunday school, but we were free to believe what we wanted. It was not his style to force it down people's throats."
Luke and Cynthia remember their father as attentive - he once stayed up all night nursing Luke's pet rats back to health - and resourceful. "He had every tool you could imagine in his workshop," says Cynthia. "He fixed everything."
"We've both inherited his mechanical mind," says Luke. "If we see a problem, we find a way to fix it - whether it's a broken car, a watch or a person."
Neither sibling, however, has inherited Louie's passion and talent for running. Cynthia was more into ballet. "I was Dad's little athlete," she says. "Mum would bring me home from class and Dad would have an athlete's dinner waiting on the table for me: steak, potatoes and a glass of milk."
Meanwhile, when Luke's coaches at school asked whether he was going out for track, he'd be devising a way to have a cigarette. Louie would be proud of the defiance.
It was only as adults that Cynthia and Luke glimpsed times when their father's more harrowing memories returned.
Cynthia once visited Louie in hospital, where he was being treated for an irregular heartbeat. "I walked in and he had this haunted look on his face. He was facing his mortality for the first time since the war.
"He told me: 'I was just thinking about being in the prison camp.' It was the first time in my life that my father said: 'How could someone do that to another human being?'
"He had travelled back emotionally. He was thinking: 'This could be the end.'" Louie went on to live for several years.
Luke had a similar experience with his father when Louie was reading Hillenbrand's book. "The descriptions were so detailed that when my father read it, he had a very difficult time. He had to stop and look out of the window to make sure he was still in California. Laura put him right back into prison camp; it was that realistic."
Neither sibling worried too much, however, about the impact on Louie of making a film. The more his story was told, the more it helped him - and his children - process his experiences.
And they are sure that Jolie was right for the job. "She bought all this feminine passion to the film," says Cynthia. "Louie became a father figure to her because she hadn't really had her own father in her life." Unbroken, of course, can't show everything, and the Zamperinis would have liked it to include more of Louie's pranks and his love of music (the Andrews Sisters and Glenn Miller).
But ultimately, it's a record of a Louie they loved. The Louie on screen, says Cynthia, is "someone with flaws who becomes a heroic survivor. We all make mistakes and we all want to be able to conquer our fears and our anger. Louie's an inspiration."
'Unbroken' is out in cinemas tomorrow. See Paul Whitington's review in tomorrow's newspaper.