Under the Radar

Luke Zamperini Remembers His Father


Unbroken, the movie based on the astonishing life of World War II veteran and Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD.  We've got an exclusive clip, a deleted scene that shows Louis' resilience in a Japanese POW camp, and we talked to his son, Luke Zamperini, about the movie and his father's legacy.


The Blu-ray is loaded with extras, highlighted by a half-hour documentary called The Real Louis Zamperini. You also get a trio of Inside Unbroken documentaries, an extended version of the Cinderella performance in the Japanese POW camp, a live performance by "Bird" actor Miyavi's band from a cast and crew party and a handful of deleted scenes.

There's also a short clip that details Louis' journey to faith after the war and how religion helped him manage and overcome his PTSD. Zamperini's family wants to emphasize that faith through their promotion of the movie and it's a big part of our conversation with Luke.

It took a very long time for your family to see this film get made, so what's it like to actually go through this experience and have the film come out and get the feedback on your father's life?

Well, when you couple it with him passing away just a few months ago, it's absolutely bizarre. It has been one strange encounter after another. We're all, of course, very excited the film was being made finally after 57 years, but then, in May of last year, my dad got sick. Life turned into going to the intensive care unit for seven weeks every day and then getting home and having to go out to dinner with Brad and Angie. That was just very surreal with the paparazzi trying to access them. And then we go back to the hospital the next day.

He passed away on July 2nd, and within a couple of weeks Angelina said she really wanted to show us the film as far as it stood so far. We were thrilled to see it. So we watched the story, just a couple of weeks after my father's death, and it was heart-wrenching and beautiful and a strange sensation to be going through.

Now several months later, I've seen it a dozen times and I love this film. At one point, my sister and I became obsessed with it. We wouldn’t pass up a screening. We'd sit there in the front row of people and watch it just to keep taking it all in.

It seems to keep going. The film did well and now the DVD is coming out and I'm still getting a chance to talk about my dad, which is actually one of my favorite pastimes, because he was such a wonderful dad and he was such a great hero to this country. He’s someone that anyone can look up to, especially kids who are struggling with their own identity. So I'm very happy that it's happening after 57 years.


One thing we’ve always here about World War II veterans, guys from your father's generation, is that they came back, reintegrated into life in the United States and never really talked much about their experiences with their families. As you were growing up, at what point did you learn about what your father had been through? How much were those experiences a part of your life?

It was part of my life growing up. When my dad came back from the war, he was a famous athlete that virtually came back from the dead. He was declared dead during the war. He couldn’t go anywhere without a restaurateur or a nightclub owner saying, “Hey, if you'll tell your story, the drinks are on the house.” So he kind of had to tell his story right from the very beginning.

Of course, that took a couple of drinks to do. Eventually, when he came to the States in 1949, he began to make a living off the honorarium of telling his story.

By the time that I came along in 1953, I was aware at a very young age that people were so impressed with him. I was aware of his story because he also, besides having written an autobiography, he published a comic book that told his story. So I had that to refer to all the time.


So I was always aware of what he went through and the kind of person he was, but here being 61 years old now, it still sometimes seems incredible and unfathomable that he could have gone through what he went through and be the happy, joyful person that he was. We attribute a lot of this to being able to talk about it. A lot of guys hold that in and they never come to grips with their post-traumatic stress disorder.

I got a letter from a woman addressed to my dad saying that she'd read Unbroken. Her father never talked about his war experience. He ended up being an alcoholic and he would beat her and her siblings and he was just a very unhappy person. But she finally understood what he went through. She hated his guts and he had passed on, but she said once she read Unbroken, she realized what he went through. She forgave him and that, if he was alive right now, she'd go and tell him how much she loved him.

It's very important for men to be able to verbalize what they went through. And I understand that a lot of guys later in life finally start to talk about their war experiences that they'd been suppressing for all these decades. For Louis, it was cathartic.


Did you understand the depths of what he had to suffer through when you were growing up or does that understanding come later?

I understood the depths of it. I would always share my dad's story with whoever would listen. When you mention that he spent 47 days adrift at sea, everyone would just gasp. I was very much aware that he went through a Homeric Odyssey and that it was pretty debilitating.

Before he crashed at sea, he weighed 155 pounds at 5' 10”. When he was fished out of the ocean several weeks later by the Japanese, he weighed 66 pounds. You just think about how awful that would be to be that hungry for that long and lose that much body mass.

I read his autobiography and he pulled no punches in describing what had happened to him in the prison camps. As a matter of fact, in Unbroken the book, it's not quite as brutal as it was in his autobiography, Devil at My Heels. What Laura Hillenbrand brought was the experience of other men in the camp as well. She told their stories as well so that really made my dad’s story flourish.

Seeing the film for the first time when Angie showed it to us, it was unedited, so there was a lot more of the brutality in the prison camp than was in the final product. It was hard to watch. At one point we were like, “Oh, my goodness, that’s my dad up there being beaten over and over and over again.” Of course, none of it was fictitious, but it was pared down for the film because Angelina really wanted it to get a PG-13 rating because she felt the story was important for kids to see.


Movies have a much longer life now with home video and, eventually, cable TV. Your family runs a foundation in your father’s memory. What are you doing to continue his work?

It's an interesting cultural change. Movies seem to have much more of a life once they get to this phase. There are millions of people who don’t go to the theater anymore. Now we have the chance for this movie not only to reach more people, but for them to watch it over and over again.

On the day my father died, when we knew he was not going to live through the day, I talked to him and you know of course he was unable to talk back, but we had worked out a series of signals.

I said, “Dad, you're going home to be with the Lord today. You're not going to be able to beat this current condition. Do you understand that?” And he nodded his head yes and then I could just see him kind of grimace thinking, all this work for nothing.

He was really at the top of his game. The world was beating a trail to his house, Angelina Jolie threw her arms around his neck and professed her undying love and now he was leaving the party.

But I also said, “Dad, you're going home to be with the Lord, but your work here is not done. Your story is going to continue to affect people through generations to come. Not only is it in print, but it's on the big screen and it's going to be on television sets and it's going to be shown in churches and it's going to be on cable and it's going to be everywhere.”


Finally millions and tens of millions of people are going to know his story. And it's not so much that I'm proud that it's his story they're knowing about, but what's exciting to me is that his story helped people. If he can get through to tens of millions of people with his story of resilience and redemption and forgiveness, I know it's going to affect tens of millions of people. Besides, I've seen it affect people over the years.

I met one guy who said, “Gee, if your dad can forgive those prison guards, what they did to him, I can forgive my brother who I haven't spoken to in 25 years. As a matter of fact, I'm going to call him tonight and bury the hatchet.”

I've read other letters from people who said, “I wanted to end my life, but if your dad can go through 47 days in a life raft, I can finish my kidney dialysis. I have a renewed zeal to live.”


It's interesting that it took so long for this movie to be made, but it’s coming out at a moment when we're winding up wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Men and women are coming home, some of whom had traumatic experiences, who may need some help having a way to communicate with the rest of us.

Although my father's battle with PTSD was over in an instant the day that he put his faith in Jesus Christ, we know that that’s not going to happen for everybody. We do know that the act of forgiving those that had harmed him was key to his being able to overcome his PTSD. That’s the message I hope that our returning men and women are getting from Unbroken. It doesn’t do any good to hate the person that hurts you. It only destroys you and it's better to forgive them and move on with your life.

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