A friendship 'Unbroken'
By Lou Fancher
Louis Zamperini's life, told in Laura Hillenbrand's New York Times best-seller "Unbroken," reads like a Hollywood movie.
And now, of course, it is.
Opening on Christmas Day, the Universal film "Unbroken," tells the story of a self-described "bum kid" who began running from law enforcement officers and wound up a 1936 United States Olympic athlete, World War II bombardier, survivor of 47 days adrift in a life raft, victim of unimaginable torture in Japanese POW camps and subsequently inflicting harm to himself and his family by attempting to numb the pain, and his post-traumatic stress disorder, with alcohol.
Attending a Billy Graham crusade in 1949, Zamperini -- who died in July at age 97 -- became a man unbroken and went on to establish Victory Boys Camp Inc., a nonprofit organization aimed at benefiting wayward kids. Well into his 90s, Zamperini continued to speak about his traumatic experiences and remarkable, healing forgiveness at military veterans' and other humanitarian events, in the humble, humorous fashion that endeared him to everyone he met.
Such appearances is how many in the East Bay came to know him, after Lafayette resident Karen Mulvaney invited him to speak at the Lafayette Library and Learning Center in 2011.
The two had a bond. As was Zamperini, Mulvaney's father was a World War II prisoner of war. Her father, a man troubled with lifelong physical and mental scars from the war he carried inside of himself long after the battles ended, had died in 2010, shortly before Mulvaney read Hillenbrand's "Unbroken."
"The pulse of the book is personal and universal," Mulvaney said shortly before the movie's opening. "It resonated and fascinated me. I just wanted to hear Louis' voice. It was a lens of grief: I didn't know what would happen. I just called him."
Zamperini and Mulvaney developed a relationship -- she was the adoring daughter seeking a connection to her biological father, and he was a father figure. They spoke regularly on the phone and frequently in person when one or the other would travel between his home near Los Angeles and Mulvaney's home in Lafayette.
"It was like having my dad back, but not having the bad history," Mulvaney said. "It was also unusual, because Louis loved women and was a flirt. He called me his daughter, but then he'd hold my hand extra long or light up and sparkle when he had my attention."
On one visit, driving together through his neighborhood, Zamperini pointed out the home of actor Angelina Jolie, who would eventually come to direct the film.
"He'd run into her husband (actor Brad Pitt), in the neighborhood even before the movie was under her direction," Mulvaney said. "He chuckled that Brad was jealous of him and they might have to 'duke it out' at some time."
Instead, Mulvaney said Zamperini described a relationship with Jolie that was similar to the one he and Mulvaney treasured -- a blend of respect, flirtation and a shared faith in the goodness of everyday people who achieve extraordinary things in difficult circumstances.
"So many people have told me how hearing him speak in Lafayette was life-changing. For me, it allowed a peacefulness," Mulvaney said.
Zamperini worked closely on the film with Jolie and saw a final cut shortly before he died. Through his family, Mulvaney learned that he was thrilled with the results.
Spiritual without believing God resides only inside the four walls of a church, she said his faith's foundation was outdoors, in nature, and also something he carried internally.
"He told me he was in church in the morning, and all day, and when he went to bed. He knew the movie wouldn't take on his conversion of faith.
He was at peace with the film not tackling that subject matter. He thought it would be more compelling to see his story unfold and let that speak for itself."