A man unbroken: the hero of Angelina Jolie’s new film

December 14th, 2014

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.”

Louie Zamperini in the US air force during the Second World War

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 Führer 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.

Louie was known as the Torrance Tornado for his speed

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.

Jack O’Connell as Louis Zamperini in ‘Unbroken’

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.”

Angelina Jolie watches footage of ‘Unbroken’

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 on Boxing Day


World War Two

Bulldozer attack on Nazi concentration camp

December 10th, 2014

Unknown assailants used a stolen bulldozer to smash their way into the memorial at the site of the Langenstein-Zwieberge camp, where more than 2,000 prisoners were worked to death, and caused an estimated €50,000 (£40,000) of damage.

“At this stage of the investigation, we suspect a more likely culprit is someone who started the bulldozer up and drove it a few kilometers as a prank. We don’t have any other leads,” a police spokesman told MDR, a local radio broadcaster.

The bulldozer was stolen from a nearby building site and driven a mile across fields, before being used to tear down the entire perimeter fence at the memorial site, and ram the main gates to the eight miles of underground tunnels built by forced labourers at the site. It was later found torched nearby.

Langenstein-Zwieberge, a subcamp of the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp, was established towards the end of the war in 1944. The Nazis sent more than 7,000 prisoners from 23 countries there as slave labourers, to construct vast underground passages where warplane and weapons manufacturing could be concealed from Allied bombers.

More than 2,000 of the inmates were literally worked to death. Life expectancy at the camp was just six months. Some of the tunnels were big enough to contain train carriages, and were built with Nazi “cost projections” of a death for every metre built.

Despite a €3,000 reward offered for its recovery, the “Arbeit macht frei” sign which was stolen from Dachau last month still has not been found, and police are continuing their enquiries.


World War Two

German court throws out Nazi massacre case

December 10th, 2014

On June 10, 1944, the SS sealed off the village and ordered the people to assemble in the square. The women and children were locked in the church while the men were herded into barns and sheds and machine-gunned. According to a survivor, the SS aimed at their legs so they would die slowly.

The SS then set fire to the church where the women and children were locked in. Those who tried to escape through the windows were shot dead. A total of 247 women and 205 children were killed.

A downed US airman who visited the village shortly afterwards described seeing “one baby who had been crucified”, according to declassified military documents.

Although the massacre was well documented, few perpetrators were held to account. A trial in France in 1953 was torn apart by acrimony because some of the accused were French nationals from Alsace and claimed to have been drafted into the SS by force. Although 20 men were found guilty, and two were sentenced to death, all were later released.

The SS general in charge of the unit that carried out the massacre, Heinz Lammerding, was tried in absentia but France never secured his extradition, and he died in his bed in 1971. In a separate case, one SS officer, Heinz Barth, was tried in East Germany in 1983 and served 14 years in prison for his part in the atrocity.

German prosecutors reopened the case in 2010 in an effort to bring more of those involved to justice, but only pursued charges in the case of the 89-year-old, who has now been cleared.

Werner C, who was 19 years old at the time of the massacre, was accused of shooting 25 men and being an accessory to the murder of the women and children in the church.

But the court ruled there was no evidence to contradict his version of events, that he was in Oradour at the time but did not fire a shot or take part in the massacre.


World War Two

Blood and mud: living on a former battlefield in Singapore

December 9th, 2014

Then the Japanese invaded on February 8, 1942. Families were evacuated, leaving clothes, furniture and toys in their wake.

The estate was the site of an intense three days of fighting in the battle for Singapore. The men of the 1st Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment held off a series of attacks by the troops of the Japanese 41st (Fukuyama) Regiment but the island collapsed to the Japanese.

The Allied soldiers were sent to Changi Prison and the estate was turned into a prisoner of war camp, with Japanese soldiers using the homes as a base (pictured below.) The island was only liberated when America dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima, in Japan, in August 1945.

When peace came, the buildings in Adam Park were patched up and became private homes again as they remain today. With the consent of the homeowners, Jon has dug gas masks, empty bullet cases and regimental insignia from among the shell scraps hidden in their gardens.

“We have a lot of visitors [to the battlefield] from the UK, US and Australia, as well as expats,” Jon said.

“These are countries united by the fact that, although they took part in a world war, they didn’t fight a battle on their own soil. People struggle to understand the battlefield. Without military service most people’s experience is the picture painted by a trip to the cinema.”

Much of Singapore was a battlefield, and living here I have become immersed in the past. Some of the buildings surrounding my home housed soldiers. I can imagine snipers at the windows, and platoons patrolling the undergrowth. I have a real connection to the soil I stand on.

“The aim of the Adam Park project is to show the heritage potential of the battlefields. It is important as it gives people a sense of who they are and why they’re here,” Jon said.

“In the UK we take heritage and history for granted. If people understand the past they can have pride in the future. As Brits we can learn from this kind of nationalism. Singaporeans are proud of who they are.”

Jon, 49, has written books on the military and holds a Master of Literature in conflict and battlefield archaeology from Glasgow University. He was born in Canada where his father had been seconded from the Royal Navy to the Royal Canadian Navy, and brought up in Cannock, Staffordshire.

He’s served in the Merchant Navy himself, and later the RAF. With six years of expat life in Singapore under his belt – he lives there with wife Alison and their two children – he has the academic and practical experience to bring the battlefield to life.

“The British have left a strong legacy here and Singapore has built on that to become one of the greatest cities in the world,” he said.

A Colonial-era house in Adam Park, Singapore today


World War Two

Japan’s nationalists attack Angelina Jolie war film

December 8th, 2014

Watanabe once forced the malnourished and weak Zamperini to hold a heavy length of wood over his head for 37 minutes before punching him in the stomach.

Japan’s naitonalists are particularly incensed at descriptions in the book of POWs being “beaten, burned, stabbed or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism”.

“It’s pure fabrication,” Hiromichi Moteki, secretary general of the Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, a nationalist pressure group, told The Telegraph.

“If there is no verification of the things he said, then anyone can make such claims,” he added. “This movie has no credibility and is immoral.”

In comments on social media, posters have accused director Angelina Jolie of “racial discrimination” and of defaming Japan, while others are calling for her to be denied entry to Japan in the future and for protests at cinemas that decide to show the film.

A petition on Change.org has attracted more than 8,000 signatures and demands that Ms Jolie – whom it describes as a “demon” – halt distribution of the film on the grounds that it is “contradictory to the facts.”

However, activists attempting to encourage Japan to face up to its brutal imperial past say criticising “Unbroken” is taking “denier-history to a new level”.

“It is one thing to question the memories of illiterate women who were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military,” said Mindy Kotler, director of Asia Policy Point. “It is quite another to question the memory of a white male Olympian who was a disciple of Billy Graham.

“Further, there is plenty of documentation on the abuse and tortures inflicted upon POWs,” she told The Telegraph. “There is also plenty of eyewitness and forensic evidence of Japanese cannibalism of prisoners as well of fellow soldiers.

“With the majority of war crimes trials and much of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal focused on atrocities against POWs, discrediting POW testimony is an important step toward discrediting the war crimes trials,” she added. “This is the objective of it all.

“It is outrageous and reprehensible to deny what happened to Louis Zamperini.

“It will not be something that the US government will be able to ignore,” she added. “Both the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which is predicated on acceptance of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, and the honour of American veterans need to be defended.”


World War Two

Cumberbatch Enigma film unlocks code to a family secret

December 8th, 2014

Mr Harrison, who died in 2012, was head-hunted to join the codebreaking team while he was an economics student at Cambridge University.

At the time, in the early 1940s, Britain was losing the Battle of the Atlantic and faced the prospect of a German invasion. Outstanding intellects were needed to crack the cryptic code used by the Germans to communicate with their U-boat submarines.

Mr Harrison was among a team recruited to work with Alan Turing at Bletchley Park HQ in Buckinghamshire. They were bound by the Official Secrets Act and forbidden to utter a word of their mission. After the war he enjoyed a career as an accountant in London before retiring to St Andrews.

True to his word, Mr Harrison kept most of his work secret until his death at the age of 90. He revealed brief details only when Mrs Smith asked if he would speak about his war work to her class.

“I was teaching the children how to gather impartial evidence from people who had lived or witnessed historical events,” she said.

“However, dad told me he wouldn’t have had much to say about the war except he went to work at Bletchley Park in a suit and carried a briefcase every day and he’d been drafted into it after

solving a crossword. The talk to pupils never happened.”

Mrs Smith did not recognise the significance of his words until she went to see the The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

“It was only when I watched the film with my husband, Blair, last week that the final pieces of the jigsaw fell into place and we truly realised dad’s contribution to the war,” she said. “No one would ever have known or guessed his part in the Alan Turing story because dad was never one to boast or push himself forward.

“This was so typical of him and his loyalty to his country.

“Now the story is unfolding, we are prouder than ever of his contribution.”

She added: “His love of puzzles lasted till a few months before his death and dad was as sharp as a tack to the end.”


World War Two

Star Wars: The Force Awakens ‘like Europe in 1944′

December 3rd, 2014

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be the darkest Star Wars film yet, with a LucasFilm insider comparing the galaxy’s situation to “the European theatre of 1944″, with the Empire being Germany and the Republic the Allies in a war of attrition.

The rumours come from a substantial leak of information from a 4Chan user called Spoiler Man, who claims to be a LucasFilm employee. Around 3,000 words of character information, plotlines and even parts of the script emerged online during the weekend and have since been posted on the Star Wars Reddit feed.

Given the source, the information is being treated cautiously by fans, however some of it corroborates with leaked concept art and other already reported spoilers about The Force Awakens.

Although there are potentially big giveaways about the character and plotlines of the characters played by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver and Lupita N’yongo, the leak suggests JJ Abrams’ film will lack the levity and humour of the original trilogy. Instead, the script, which is described as being “too good for Abrams”, is far more dystopian, with people bunkering down and keeping a low profile for safety in the war-torn universe.

Notably, Luke is among those who have exiled themselves for his own safety and “a handful” of future Jedi trainees who must also never appear in the open.

Spoiler Man added that, despite ongoing rumours, Benedict Cumberbatch will not be making an appearance in the film, and that all rumours will be confirmed in February when the contracts of those who worked on the film in the UK will end – allowing them to let on more information.

Read the full post on Reddit at your peril. Here’s our rundown of Star Wars news, rumours and spoilers so far.


World War Two

How Churchill gave us tanks, radar, DNA…and a velvet green air-raid suit

December 3rd, 2014

Churchill was the first Prime Minister to insist on a scientific advisor, and under his leadership, scientists were given unprecedented access to the government and funding.

“Which other Prime Minister had a scientist continually at his elbow?” said Andrew Nahum, lead curator of Churchill’s Scientists.

“During the war the question was never how much will it cost? It was can we do it and how soon can we have it? This left a heritage of extreme ambition and a lot of talented people who were keen to see what it could provide.

“And a lot of people had gained huge skills and competence through radar work and munitions and nuclear projects in the war, which formed a new science which was ambitious and proactive. There was a huge store of practical talent at that time.

“It’s why in post-war Britain we suddenly have the discovery of DNA and proteins, x-ray crystallography and how nerves signal. There is a very obvious trajectory from war time science to major breakthroughs in peacetime.”

Churchill owed much of his vision to science fiction rather than science. He was a close friend of the author HG Wells, and said that The Time Machine was ‘one of the books I would like to take with me to Purgatory.’

He wrote articles entitled “Death Rays” and “Are there Men on the Moon?” while also coming up with elaborate battlefield contraptions which he dubbed ‘funnies.’

Most of his ‘funnies’ never made it, literally, off the ground. A project to design ‘aerial mines’ had to be abandoned as did his rocket propelled wheel dubbed ‘The Great Panjandrum’ which was scrapped after regularly running amok. Likewise Project Habbakuk aimed to build a floating air-craft from an ice-berg and scientists were established at Smithfield meat market in London to test out different combinations of sawdust and ice. The scheme was eventually deemed ‘impractical because of the enormous production resources required and technical difficulties involved.’

Churchill even invented a green velvet ‘siren suit’ – a one-piece outfit devised by him and designed to be put on in a hurry during air raids.

But he was also responsible for many revolutionary ideas. It is likely that Wells showed Churchill the possibility of tanks, which the author described in the title of his 1903 short story ‘The Land IronClads.’ Churchill became the ‘godfather’ of tanks, and as First Lord of the Admiralty saw their benefits long before the Army caught up. It is why the first examples were known as ‘Her Majesty’s land ships.’

He also saw the importance of keeping Britain soldiers and civilians healthy during the war and set in motion projects to determine the best diets and exercise regimes for peak physical performance.

Food scientists Robert McCance and Elsie Widdowson tested the austere war diet on themselves, and journeyed to the Lake District to determine the beneficial effect of fell-walking. They recorded their findings in The Compostition of Foods – a book that remains the standard work on nutrition and exercise.

Churchill had little science education but was fascinated with the subject, particularly how it might be harnessed to benefit society. While serving in India he ordered numerous scientific works, including Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, which he studied in detail.

“His schooling was patchy and when he got to India he began to feel his lack of education so he had huge crates of books shipped over,” added Mr Nahum, “He described himself as having an empty and hungry mind with a fierce set of jaws.”

He was fascinated by radioactivity, believing that the way in which atoms degenerated suggested ‘the breakup of empires and independent states.’

And he was also the first British prime minister to foresee the potential of the nuclear age.

As early as 1914, Wells had spoken of a future reality of “atomic bombs” and writing in The Strand Magazine in 1931, Churchill , expressed confidence that scientists would one day be able to harness nuclear energy and pondered the challenges its “tremendous and awful” powers would present to mankind.

He was instrumental in setting up Britain’s nuclear project alongside his scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann whom Churchill dubbed ‘The Prof’. However the US would eventually win the atomic race with the Manhattan Project.

In later years Churchill went on to found Churchill College at Cambridge to further science and technology in Britain.

Churchill’s Scientists opens at The Science Museum on January 23rd to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.


World War Two

Dunkirk: from Disaster to Deliverance, Testimonies of the Last Survivors by Sinclair McKay, review: ‘a new angle’

December 2nd, 2014

McKay’s narrative suggests that it took a cocktail of events to overcome such conflicting views to bring the nation together. He cites Churchill’s passionate speeches as one of the crucial ingredients, but he also includes in his list the man in the street’s realisation that the Army had been saved thanks to a remarkable victory masterminded by the Navy.

Arguably the knowledge that ordinary citizens in their little ships had participated played its part, as did the fact that most British families had a friend or relation in the Army whose life had been in jeopardy. Whatever the true causes, McKay describes the spontaneous exhibition of public spiritedness, as more or less the whole country turned out to treat men who had left the French beaches in the depths of despair as though they were conquering heroes.

McKay’s novel way of analysing the crisis makes for interesting reading. However, such an approach has its dangers. When writing my own book on Dunkirk, I quickly realised that octogenarian survivors often had unreliable memories and did not necessarily have interesting stories to tell. Readers thirsting for vivid accounts of events on the beaches may be disappointed by the rather undramatic testimony of most of McKay’s survivors.

Neither does he always contextualise what they tell him. No one would begrudge his quotation of accounts containing incorrect statements about the Dunkirk weather if they were juxtaposed with more reliable data. McKay’s failure here might lead some to wonder whether he has been misled by the very myth he sets out to explore.

However, such minor quibbles do nothing to diminish the value of his central thesis. This is a worthy addition to the Dunkirk literature. Indeed, McKay’s approach may well play an influential role in how more conventional history books are written in future.

The 75th anniversary edition of Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man is published next year by Penguin

Dunkirk: from Disaster to Deliverance, Testimonies of the Last Survivors by Sinclair McKay

352pp, Aurum, Telegraph offer price: £15 (PLUS £1.95 p&p) (RRP £20, ebook £10.44). Call 0844 871 1515 or see books.telegraph.co.uk


World War Two

Unbroken, review: ‘saps the spirit’

December 1st, 2014

The book of the same name, by Laura Hillenbrand, was never not going to be adapted. The author wrote Seabiscuit, which became one of 2003’s Best Picture contenders, and her research into Zamperini’s legitimately remarkable life story looks tailor-made for a saga of American pluck and survival. What’s puzzling, though, is how a big-hitting quartet of screenwriters, including Gladiator’s William Nicholson, Behind the Candelabra’s Richard LaGravenese, and even the Coen brothers, have wrestled with the material and collectively produced a take on it this limp.

Jolie’s a fascinating actress, a fascinating star, and now a film director on whom the jury is out, with worried-face. You can detect her interest in the violence men inflict on each other bodily in war – there are next to no female characters, and for much of the film, O’Connell is stripped bare, gaunt and suffering.

When he’s forced to hoist a plank aloft all day by the POW commandant (Takamasa Ishihara, better known by day as the singer-songwriter Miyavi), Jolie’s pushing the imagery of Christian martyrdom close to breaking point. Beat for beat, the interactions between these two men follow the sadomasochistic rubric of something like Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, but in a feeble, faxed-in way – when Ishihara garbles the line “You are like me”, it sounds so cardboardy it’s a wonder he doesn’t topple right over.

Jack O’Connell’s smashing trajectory as a star also hits some bumps here, for reasons not wholly his fault. He’s at his best at sea, in the middle stretches when Louie and two fellow crew-members from his shot-down bomber (Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock) drift 2,000 miles on a leaking life-raft, dodging shark attacks and Japanese strafing runs. The logic of survival here is more practical, the you-can-do-it rhetoric unspoken, and more reliably compelling.

But when Louie’s self-belief is the only subject on screen, which is gormlessly often, Jolie presses her young lead into a lot of face-pulling, anguished grimaces and screams of violent elation. We’re not dragged deeply into either a man’s soul or his character.

Besides, the last part of Hillenbrand’s book – about Louie’s obsession with inflicting a bloody revenge on his tormentor – is wholly beyond the film’s remit. This more troubling layer to his story is sliced off, ruthlessly cauterised. To make a purely consoling myth out of his life, Louie must simply believe, triumph and survive, as inspirationally as possible, and with no inner contradictions to spike the brew. Jolie has made a 137-minute long film that gets us barely further than a poster, and O’Connell is the poster-boy.

Unbroken is released on Christmas Day in the US, and on Boxing Day in the UK


World War Two