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Louis Zamperini’s Conversion Story Takes Center Stage in New Movie

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

Louis Zamperini’s story is one that you just can’t make up.  It seems too rich and epic to be true. But amazingly it is.  Louis was:

  • A punk kid who bettered himself through sports during the Great Depression. 
  • A good athlete who made it to the 1936 Olympics as a long distance runner. 
  • A young man with fresh ideals who went off to fight in World War II as a bombardier. 
  • A military plane crash survivor who floated on the ocean for 47 days in a semi-deflated, bullet-strafed life raft. 
  • A prisoner of war in a brutal Japanese detention camp for more than two years. 
  • A broken PTSD sufferer who lost nearly everything due to his inability to cope with every day life. 
  • And most importantly, he experienced a dramatic conversion to Christ at a Billy Graham tent revival that charted the course for the rest of his life. 

Put simply, Louis Zamperini’s story was an unbelievable odyssey.  So unbelievable that a second major motion picture has been made about his life, a continuation of Angelina Jolie’s 2014 adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s seminal book, Unbroken. Starring Samuel Hunt and Merritt Patterson, Unbroken: Path to Redemption, releasing in theaters this weekend, begins where the first movie concludes, with Zamperini’s search for forgiveness, redemption, and ultimately God’s amazing grace taking center stage. 

Interestingly enough, both movies nearly did not get made.  Veteran Hollywood producer Matthew Baer, who had both projects in development for nearly 20 years, believes that the films would have been made much sooner but the sheer magnitude of Louis’ story made it virtually impossible.

“One of the amazing aspects of Unbroken as a property is that it is the same story that it was in 1949,” explains Baer.  “The problem was from the beginning of the story that on a cinematic level no one is going to make a three hour version of Unbroken because major studios don’t make three hour versions of a movie these days.”

Even though this left Baer with a dilemma, in the end it was actually a blessing in disguise.  While the 2014 adaptation was able to focus on Zamperini’s athlete and war years, Unbroken: Path to Redemption spotlights the years after he came home from war, a period of time that included his dramatic journey to faith.

“I wanted to try to do the story with the justice it deserved,” Baer points out.  “And most specifically, (I wanted) to get his conversion onscreen in a way that has meaning.”

“To see someone go through that sort of torment and torture and then at the end of the day finds his redemption at a Billy Graham tent revival was just miraculous (and highly important),” adds director Harold Cronk, who also piloted the first two God’s Not Dead movies.  “I think it’s just proof that God has a plan for our lives and sometimes those plans are going to be rough.  There will definitely be challenges but as long as you can keep your hope alive … there is always hope. 

That conversion experience is perhaps the greatest hallmark of the new movie.  Featuring first-time actor Will Graham in the role of his grandfather Billy, the conflicted and confused Zamperini turns his life over to Christ in a dramatic tent revival scene set in 1949.

“They (Baer and Cronk) didn’t want me to imitate my granddaddy,” says Graham, who normally serves the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association as a vice president.  “They said just be natural, be yourself.  And so I preached like myself.  A lot of people say I sound just like my granddaddy and that’s because we are both from North Carolina.”

Interestingly enough, the sermon Rev. Graham preached that night really didn’t have anything to do with revival.  Instead, it covered a topic that was very newsworthy in post World War II America.  Nonetheless, it spoke to Zamperini in a tender, life-changing way.

“It was a sermon that my granddaddy probably never preached again because the title was “Why Does God Allow Communism?”” Graham explains.  “So, when is the last time you heard a sermon on that topic?  But it is the sermon that we believed Louie came to know Christ on.”

In addition to providing a venue to feature Zamperini’s conversion experience, Unbroken: Path to Redemption also opened up the opportunity to introduce a central figure in Louis’ life who was highly instrumental in his personal transformation … his wife Cynthia.

“She was a remarkable woman,” says Luke Zamperini, Louis and Cynthia’s son, who is also an executive producer of the new movie.  “My mom and dad were both headstrong people so there was some friction but there was always the healing.  What my parents learned and taught my sister and I was that whenever you are focused on yourself and your needs in a relationship, your relationship is in peril.  When you are looking at your partner and you are putting their needs ahead of your own then your relationship is flourishing, especially if both parties are doing it.  That was a great life lesson for me.”

Following his conversion, Louis Zamperini dedicated his life to spreading the Gospel message and working with delinquent boys to foster a better way of life for them.  It is the younger Zamperini’s hope that Unbroken: Path to Redemption will further the legacy of his father’s story.  One such way that is happening is a new academic program being offered at a Texas high school.

“We discovered Heather Fuller, a teacher who has developed a Louie Zamperini study curriculum,” says Zamperini excitedly.  “And we are going to get that curriculum out there.  We have this huge vision and if God is in it, it will succeed.  My dad’s story is just perfect for that age group.  The school administrators were telling us that since she (Heather) has been teaching this unit that they have seen the level of tolerance and community go up in the school.  They have seen violence in the school diminish.  And it’s actually affecting the community.”

Ultimately, Louis Zamperini’s story is a transcendent one, highly worthy of being shared with millions on the big screen. He was a man that believed everything happens for a reason. All situations good or bad serve a purpose. And even though he was a tortured soul early in his life, Zamperini learned to find deeper meaning in the miracles that sustained him. This hand of God led him to a life of service. Louis Zamperini lived life well.

Unbroken: Path to Redemption opens in theaters nationwide this weekend.

Watch a trailer for Unbroken: Path to Redemption:

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