Unbroken, Path to Redemption, a new film telling the second half of the story of Olympic runner Louie Zamperini (1917-2014), opens in theaters on Friday, September 14. It is a continuation of the 2014 film Unbroken, [read CWR’s review] which tells how Zamperini crashed in the Pacific Ocean as part of a bomber crew during World War II and survived nearly three years of imprisonment in a Japanese POW camp under the most brutal of conditions. The second film begins as Zamperini returns home from the war, marries and starts a family, yet nearly having his life destroyed by the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to his wartime experiences.
Key actors in the movie include Samuel Hunt (Chicago P.D.) as Louie and Merritt Patterson (The Royals) as his wife Cynthia. Hunt takes over the role as Louie from Jack O’Connell who portrayed him in the first Unbroken; Louie was recast, said producer Matt Baer, because O’Connell was unavailable and Hunt was a “dead ringer” for a young Louie. Also new to the film is David Sakurai (Iron Fist) as Louie’s sadistic prison guard “The Bird” Watanabe, who haunts Louie in vivid flashbacks in the first four years after Louie returns from the war. Making a special appearance in the film is Will Graham, who portrays his own grandfather, evangelist Billy Graham, who played a key role in Louie’s adoption of Christianity. Will is an evangelist like his grandfather, and is acting for the first time. 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, a New York Times bestseller.
The film opens with Louie in good spirits after returning home from the war to his close-knit Italian family in Torrance. Among those with whom he reconnects are his older brother, Pete, (Bobby Campo, Legally Blondes, The Final Destination), and mother Louise (Maddalena Ischiale, Unbroken, Sharkskin). We quickly discover, however, that Louie is suffering from PTSD, a condition common among returning World War II veterans, particularly those imprisoned in Japanese POW camps. More than a quarter of allied military personnel imprisoned in Japanese prison camps died—compared to just 1% of those in German POW camps—and those who did survive the Japanese camps were subject to daily beatings, starvation, inhumane living conditions, and the constant threat of execution. Many men returning home experienced such symptoms as vivid flashbacks, confusion, nightmares and an inability to maintain relationships; the medical community at the time did not understand that the former POWs were suffering from a mental illness, said Baer, and were expected to move on with their lives with little or no treatment. “It was devastating for the men,” said Baer.
He also noted that the violence POWs experienced at the hands of the Japanese was worse than what was depicted in the Unbroken films, otherwise it would have been “too intense” for a general audience. As a high profile Olympic athlete, Baer continued, Zamperini was especially targeted by “The Bird” for abuse, because “they felt if they could weaken Lou, they could weaken the American spirit.”
In his first four years from returning from Japan, Zamperini experienced “unrelenting” nightmares and struggled with anger and a desire for revenge on “The Bird.” He had neither religious faith nor medical treatment to help him.
He begins drinking heavily. While on tour to sell war bonds, he shows up drunk at an event and is ordered to take some R&R on the beaches of Miami. His life takes a turn for the better when he meets and quickly marries a beautiful girl, Cynthia, and they move to Los Angeles. Their marriage begins to suffer, however, when Louie cannot find steady work and more intensely struggles with PTSD. Cynthia eventually wants a divorce.
The scenes of marital turmoil were a challenge for Hunt, he said, as “I care for [my co-star] Merritt as a person, and I found it difficult to yell at her. But, you have to manage those emotions as you realize that the conflict makes Louie’s story more compelling.”
Hunt was unfamiliar with Zamperini before being cast, but Patterson had read Hillenbrand’s book and was moved by the story. She recalled, “I gave the book to my father and said, ‘You’ve got to read this!’”
Hunt and Patterson researched their roles by speaking to Zamperini’s surviving children, Luke and Cissy. Patterson recalled, “They showed us footage of Cynthia and Louie on their honeymoon, and you saw how playful they were with one another. Cynthia, my character, was happy and trouble-free and excited for what life had to offer.”
The couple’s struggles, however, “forced her to grow up.”
Baer, too, relied on the Zamperini children for his research into Louie’s story. He said, “While we couldn’t get everything my father did into two films, everything we did put in is true.”
A turning point for Cynthia and Louie occurred in 1949, when they attended a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles. Zamperini would embrace Christianity and become friends with Graham himself. The movie concludes with real-life clips of Louie speaking with Billy Graham at a 1958 crusade.
Will Graham said he was reluctant to act in the film, but after some intensive training with an acting coach and support of the director, he agreed to take on the role. In two days of filming, Graham delivered a portion of the same sermon his famous grandfather did the night Louie first walked into this crusade tent. Graham said, “It’s not a long part, and I’m in the pulpit preaching. But it is an important part, and I’m doing something I know how to do as an evangelist: deliver the Gospel.”
The crusade tent used in the film was a smaller—yet otherwise identical—version of the tent Billy Graham used. Will Graham also selected a suit for the part similar to the ones his grandfather would have used.
He describes the film as a “beautiful love story. I cry when I watch it. I love seeing lives changed.”
Music for the film includes the song You Found Me, written by Jon and Tim Foreman of the band Switchfoot. They noted that their father was a Christian pastor, and Jon noted that he and his brother, in writing the song, wanted to “touch people on their walk with God.”
Zamperini died at age 97 in 2014. While he never had the opportunity to view Unbroken, Path to Redemption, Baer is confident he’d be pleased with the film. He added that he’d known Zamperini for 18 years, and found that his story inspired him “unlike any other story I’ve come across as a film producer. He was extraordinary and battled and overcame never-ending obstacles.”