Millions of people know the story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini. A track star, the “Torrance Tornado” competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the Olympics at which Adolph Hitler wanted to show off German might and the superiority of the Aryan race. During World War II, Zamperini went missing following a plane crash. Because of his athletic success, all of America knew he was missing. But he survived the plane crash and floated for weeks in a raft in the Pacific. The Japanese captured him, and he endured torture at the hands of one of the most notorious prison guards of the war: Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed by prisoners “The Bird.”
Laura Hillenbrand masterfully told Zamperini’s story in Unbroken, a book that became a publishing phenomenon, selling millions of copies and spending four years on the “New York Times” bestseller list, 14 weeks at number one.
The book also became a blockbuster movie, true Hollywood bona fides. The movie was actor Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut. The Coen Brothers wrote the script. Oscar winning cinematographer Roger Deakins was behind the camera. With talent like this, it’s no wonder the movie did nearly $200-million at the box office.
And yet, something was missing. While the first movie focused mostly on the war story, Laura Hillenbrand’s book also told of Zamperini’s post-war struggles with alcohol, a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by his war experiences. Further, it recounted a seminal event in the history of 20th century evangelicalism: Billy Graham’s famous 1949 Los Angeles Crusade. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst told his editors to “puff Graham,” and the crusade became a model for Graham, and for evangelists who followed.
For Louis Zamperini, though, that crusade did not have just cultural significance, it had personal significance. He and his wife Cynthia both dedicated his life to Christ at that crusade. He stopped drinking “cold turkey,” and became an evangelist, often speaking at Billy Graham crusades. He also founded a home for what was then called “juvenile delinquent boys,” an organization that evolved into the Louis Zamperini Foundation.
And that is the story of a new movie, out next week, called “Unbroken: Path to Redemption.”
According to Bill Reeves, one of the producers of the movie, “Angelina Jolie’s movie was excellent, but to tell the whole story would have required a four-hour movie.” He added, “We wanted to make a movie not just for Christians, but for those who loved the book and the first movie. People who want to know the rest of Louie Zamperini’s story.”
Though the movie is rated PG-13 for some jarring scenes of war violence, it also prominently features the events of the 1949 Billy Graham crusade, including a “star turn” as Billy Graham by his grandson Will Graham.
“We had tapes and transcripts of the sermon Granddaddy gave that night,” Graham said at the premiere of the movie in Dallas last night. “I stuck to the script, and the producers stuck to the sermon. There was very little if any ad-libbing. We wanted this to be as historically accurate as possible.”
Bill Reeves said the attention to detail included duplicating what the stage looked like at that crusade, which was recreated from photographs of the event. In the pulpit, Will Graham even held the Bible that Billy Graham held during the Los Angeles rallies.
One of the most powerful parts of the film comes at its conclusion. As the closing credits roll, we see and hear archival footage of Louis Zamperini – clean and sober – speaking at a Billy Graham Crusade about a decade after his own conversion. We also see a montage of Zamperini and his family, including a still shot of him speaking at Sugamo Prison in Japan, in 1950. The prisoners in his audience were war criminals, men who had tortured Zamperini and other American POWs.
Louie Zamperini was there to forgive them, and to tell them that the reason he was able to forgive them was the love of Jesus.
Editor’s Note: Unbroken: Path to Redemption is in theaters Sept. 14. You can read more here.