Zamperini's victory gets film honours

Incredible story of the US athlete who ran at the Berlin Olympics, met Hitler, then survived being a POW in Japan has made the big screen

Tom Peck
Monday 17 November 2014 20:45 GMT
Louis Zamperini
Louis Zamperini

It is only in retrospect that the unconnected events of a life form themselves into what might look like a story.

When Louis Zamperini, a young New York Italian by birth but who grew up in California, sprinted flat out in the last painful lap of the 5,000m round Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in 1936, his reward was to shake hands with Adolf Hitler.

“Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish,” the Fuhrer told him. He had run the final lap in 56 seconds.

Zamperini was 19, the youngest member of the United States Olympic team. He had finished seventh in the race, but his experience inspired him to do all within his grasp to make it to Tokyo and the 1940 Games.

Those Olympics, of course, never came – the Second World War did. In 1943 Zamperini, who had joined the US Air Force, crash-landed in the South Pacific and spent 47 days clinging to a raft to survive. Eventually he was captured by the Japanese and was tortured and beaten for two years by the same vicious and depraved guard, wondering all the time if he could remain unbroken long enough for the war to end.

He died in July aged 97, a born-again Christian but without having forgiven his torturer, Mutsuhiro Watanabe. He also, in later life, happened to be a neighbour of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Hollywood. Last night his neighbours were in Sydney, at the premiere of Unbroken, the film of his life story which Jolie has directed and which stars rising British actor Jack O’Connell as Zamperini.

“I think as a human being, as a mother, as someone who works internationally, I needed desperately to know a man like Louis Zamperini in my life, to know that there is hope,” Jolie said on the red carpet. “The strength of a strong heart and an indomitable will is valuable and it’s worth something.”

His tale has remarkable similarities to that of Eric Lomax, a Scotsman also tortured by the Japanese during the Second World War, whose life story was turned first into a book – The Railway Man – and then a film starring Colin Firth released earlier this year. Except there is a crucial difference. Lomax met his torturer in later life, and the pair became friends. Zamperini never did.

Watanabe was named as a war criminal immediately at the end of the war, but was believed dead. According to the book of Zamperini’s life, also called Unbroken, Watanabe beat him every day, and also ordered his fellow American prisoners of war to do the same. On one occasion all 220 of his co-prisoners were ordered to punch him in the face, one after the other. Among Watanabe’s preferred punishments was to beat him on the temple with the brass buckle of his belt, help him up – and then do the same again.

In March 1945, along with a few others, Zamperini was transferred to a different camp on Japan’s west coast, but so was Watanabe. When the war came to an end with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the camp was liberated but Watanabe had vanished.

Zamperini returned to America, receiving a hero’s welcome, went back to California and took an unlikely, low-paid job at the Warner Brothers film studios, showing the wannabe cowboy actors how to ride horses.

He might have competed at the London Olympics in 1948 but reaggravated an injury sustained in the war, and never ran competitively again.

Like so many veterans, in the years after the war Zamperini struggled to come to terms with what had happened to him. In 1950 he returned to Japan to look for Watanabe at Sugamo prison, where many former prison guards were held as war criminals. He was told his tormentor, known as “The Bird” was dead.

It was only in 1996 that Peter Hadfield of the Daily Mail tracked Watanabe down. Eventually the American TV network CBS filmed an interview with him. Zamperini then agreed to meet him in a Tokyo hotel, but Watanabe refused. He died in 2003.

The book of Zamperini’s life by Laura Hillenbrand – who also wrote Seabiscuit about the legendary horse – is an international bestseller. Although Zamperini had around 75 extensive telephone interviews with Hillenbrand, the two never actually met, primarily due to Hillenbrand’s own struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome.

Jolie also said she had been able to show the former athlete a rough cut of the film shortly before he died. “What made me know it was right is he had an emotional reaction to it, to seeing his mother again, to seeing his brother, to remembering the races… it was this gentle, beautiful, quiet moment. I felt very privileged to be reflecting on his life,” she said.

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