New in theaters: 'Unbroken: Path to Redemption'

The Sept. 14 film “Unbroken: Path to Redemption,” a sequel of the 2014 “Unbroken,” continues the story of Olympic runner Louie Zamperini (1917-2014). As shown in the 2014 movie, Zamperini was part of a bomber crew in World War II who crashed into the Pacific and was confined under harsh conditions for over two years in a Japanese POW camp. The continuing story shares the struggles Zamperini experienced as a veteran as well as the hope he found after attending a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles.

The new Lou

The film stars Samuel Hunt (“Chicago P.D.”) as Louie, Merritt Patterson (“The Royals”) as wife Cynthia, and David Sakurai (“Iron Fist”) as Louie’s sadistic prison guard “The Bird” Watanabe. Making a special appearance in the film is Will Graham, who portrays his own grandfather, evangelist Billy Graham. Harold Cronk (“God’s Not Dead” and “God’s Not Dead2”) directs. Both “Unbroken” movies are based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2014 book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.”

Louie Zamperini in 2009 Peter Weber/Shutterstock

Matt Baer, producer of both “Unbroken” movies, noted that Zamperini’s story required two separate films to share, although it is not necessary to see the first to understand Louie’s story. The movie opens with a two-minute prologue that sums up the basics of the first story.

Actor Jack O’Connell, who portrayed Louie in the first film, was unavailable to reprise his role; Samuel Hunt was cast in his place. Baer noted, “The part of Lou is very different in the second film, as World War II has ended and he’s gone home. Also, Sam on a physical level looks exactly like Lou, and inhabits Lou’s persona in an effective way.”

Part two

“Unbroken: Path to Redemption” opens with Louie returning home to his warm Italian family in Torrance, California after being liberated from a Japanese POW camp.

Although his war experiences are behind him, Louie suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a growing dependence on alcohol and has little faith in God or the Catholic religion with which he was raised.

Louie’s struggle with PTSD is a central aspect of the film, Baer noted. Returning World War II veterans often experienced vivid nightmares, confusion, ruined marriages and an inability to cope with life. Baer said, “It was tragic. They returned home with a definitive mental illness, but the medical community at the time did not understand. They thought the veterans should move on and get over it.”

As Louie is an Olympic and wartime celebrity, he agrees to go on tour to sell war bonds. After showing up drunk at an event, he’s ordered to take some R&R on the beaches of Miami. It is there he meets Cynthia, and the pair marry and move to Los Angeles.

But, by the time their first child arrives, Louis is spiraling downward due to his drinking, difficulties finding work and nightmares about his wartime experiences. Cynthia wants a divorce. It is at this low point that Louie turns to Christ through a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles, in search of the peace and forgiveness, and the capacity to forgive those who had injured him.

The Rev. Billy Graham is portrayed by his grandson Will Graham in a scene from the movie “Unbroken: Path to Redemption.” CNS photo via Universal

An unlikely actor

Will Graham, one of 19 of Billy Graham’s grandchildren, who, like his grandfather Billy is an evangelist, noted that he was not an actor, and never intended to play a role in the movie.

He said, “I planned on only being an executive producer, but they asked me to portray my grandfather. It was a great opportunity, and a privilege to be a part of it.”

While the crusade tent was a smaller version of the one his grandfather once used, the sermon Will Graham delivers, “Why Does God Allow Communism?”, was the same one his grandfather gave the night Louie converted.

Will Graham explained, “It was about why God allows bad ideologies, and why bad things happen to good people. It was also one of the things with which Louie was struggling.”

Graham had never acted, and worried about playing the part of his legendary grandfather, but was greatly aided by an acting coach and a patient director Cronk. Graham said, “They told me where to stand, reminded me not to look at the camera and that I had to enunciate and speak slower.”

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Graham spent two exhausting days on the set, filming on through the night. He was pleased with the result, and noted, “I’d recommend this film to anyone. It’s not a Christian movie, but a Hollywood movie about a Christian experience. I know Louie’s story better than anyone, and I absolutely loved the movie.”

He added that Zamperini and his wife would become close friends with Graham; the movie concludes with real-life clips of Louie speaking with Billy Graham at a 1958 crusade.

Baer agrees that “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” is an inspirational story for audiences of all kinds. He said, “After viewing this movie, I think you’ll realize that if Louie Zamperini can get through his ordeals, you can work through your problems as well.”

Jim Graves writes from California.