Universal Pictures is releasing an unconventional sequel to “Unbroken” this weekend, the film about Olympic distance runner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini. “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” picks up where its 2014 predecessor left off. Both are based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand and adapted by screenwriter Richard Friedenberg (“A River Runs Through It”).
The sequel is downsized from the Angelina Jolie-directed epic “Unbroken” that earned $163 million worldwide. Producer Matt Baer says the scale fits the story they want to tell. He and other members of the cast and crew spoke with reporters following a premier of the film last week in Dallas, Texas.
“The scope of the actual story in ‘Unbroken’ was mammoth,” Baer said. “It had major set pieces — the 1936 Olympic Games, bombing missions seen from the air, plane crashes, then people lost at sea for 47 days.” He contrasts that $65 million release with its $6 million sequel: “It’s the first time where a sequel to a very successful film costs 90 percent less than the original. ‘Path to Redemption’ is a much smaller film dealing essentially with two people, Lou and Cynthia.”
Baer and his production team contend that smaller does not mean less compelling. The airman’s journey home — after President Franklin D. Roosevelt had written condolences to his parents — has its surprises. Zamperini (played by Sam Hunt of “Killing Lincoln”) finds love and a place in his hometown, then nearly loses it all.
“He got through survival at sea, wrestling with sharks, dodging bullets, being beaten by prison guards,” said Luke Zamperini, son of the late hero and executive producer on the new film. “All that he was able to deal with. But he couldn’t deal with the effects of hatred in his heart.”
The Cycle of Trauma, Addiction, and Abuse
With the long-fought war over, optimism permeated much of America in the late 1940s. Louis Zamperini (pronounced “Louie”) shares a whirlwind romance with Cynthia Applewhite. Yet darker themes soon prevail, brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“This film explores their struggles with his demons,” said Luke Zamperini of his parents. “His PTSD was manifested by these horrendous nightmares that began while he was still in the prison camp.”
A corporal in the Japanese Army, Mutsuhiro Watanabe figured prominently in these dark visions. Prisoners he tortured dubbed him “the Bird,” a moniker the film uses. “For four years after the war, he continually had these nightmares where the Bird was beating him,” recalls his son. “To try to stop them, in his dreams he would attempt to kill the man.”
Alcoholism led him to neglect and even abuse his wife Cynthia (played by Merritt Patterson of TV’s “The Royals”). The former Olympian had lost his purpose, stresses the younger Zamperini. “He tried to train for the 1948 Olympic Games,” he said. “But the injuries he suffered in prison camp prevented him from getting in world-class shape. His body just couldn’t do it.”
Louis Zamperini still holds the record for the youngest American to qualify for the 5,000-meter Olympic track event. Such exploits generate interest in the story beyond those who recall his name in headlines. Heather Fuller, a teacher in central Texas who has developed a curriculum around the “Unbroken” book, said high schoolers relate to his pain.
“My students have faced their own trauma or know people who face addictions,” said Fuller. “This story allows them to self-reflect and better understand those around them. It builds compassion on all levels — compassion for others, but compassion for themselves as well.”
Zamperini changed course through an epiphany of faith. “Look at what he went through in the camps and the PTSD,” said producer Glenn Ross. “The alcoholism destroyed his relationship with his wife, and he almost lost his child because she was going to divorce him and leave.”
“When he finds his faith, he’s able to turn all of that around.”
Under the Big Top, Gospel Choir Welcomes Lost Souls
A key difference between “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” and its 2014 predecessor is an emphasis on Zamperini’s religious conversion. Two faith-based studios, PureFlix and WTA Group, co-produced this sequel, which culminates at a Billy Graham tent revival meeting.
“It was a sermon that my granddaddy probably never preached again,” recalled evangelist Will Graham, who portrays his grandfather in the film. “The title was ‘Why Does God Allow Communism?’ He preached with such urgency: You better make this decision now!”
Young Graham recreates the fiery sermon word-for-word while preaching from his grandfather’s Bible. “I had spent 17 years looking at the 1949 L.A. revival footage,” said Baer, recalling the film’s casting process. “I had every line in my head. Then to be in the room with Will and hear him — there was no choice.”
A minister since 1996, Will Graham serves as vice president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte, North Carolina which his father Franklin Graham leads. When filming last year, he sought to honor his family’s patriarch. “I was nervous,” said Will Graham. “Not because of preaching, but because I’d never experienced being on a movie set. I was a fish out of water. Matt Baer and [director] Harold Cronk helped calm me down.”
The scene of an altar call backed up by a choir’s hymn-singing reflects the height of mid-20th century American evangelicalism. Yet producer Ross said the story resonates with broad faith themes. “I think it’s a universal message,” he said. “It’s not a Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish message — it’s about finding your faith and how that can turn your life around.”
Actress Gianna Simone, who portrays Zamperini’s sister-in-law, has starred in “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” “I Can Only Imagine,” and “Mother’s Day” alongside Jennifer Aniston. She testifies to how both “Unbroken” films reflect her personal faith journey.
“In my life, I can genuinely say forgiveness is the key to peace,” said Simone. “I’ve had to go on that journey. In a real, honest way, Louis knew how much God loves him. When you do, you can be the change you want to see. It doesn’t make me perfect; I’m actually really flawed and that’s why I need God.”
Remembering American Heroes
Dramas for adult audiences, including biopics, have become rare at the movies today. “If I was trying to get ‘Unbroken’ made right now, it probably would have been impossible,” said Baer. “That’s how much the business has changed in terms of what mainstream studios will make.”
No matter how “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” performs at the box office, producers say the film pays homage to a band of brothers who are gradually passing away. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 362 WWII veterans currently die every day.
“Lou was a shining example of the Greatest Generation,” said executive producer Bill Reeves. “There aren’t many of them left. We wanted to make something that would stand the test of time and uphold those values of honor, patriotism and a strong work ethic.”
His legacy lives on in other ways. Today, the Louis Zamperini Foundation continues what the heroic veteran started in 1952. “The book ‘Unbroken’ is being taught in public schools across the country,” said Luke Zamperini, president of the foundation. “It’s accepted reading even in the state of California. Right now, we’re working on a complete educational program.”
In these varied efforts, the life story of a young Olympic athlete, airman, prisoner of war, former addict, and sports evangelist is always recounted and examined for its relevance.
“What’s so remarkable, and how so many people can relate to my dad’s story, is that it actually happened,” said Zamperini. “They go, ‘Wow, if he can get through that, I can get through what I have to go through.’”