Will Graham: New Zamperini movie shows 'how Christ can change someone’s life'

Billy Graham is played by his grandson William Graham in 'Unbroken: Path to Redemption,' in theaters beginning Sept. 14. Courtesy WTA Group/Universal 1440 Entertainment
Billy Graham is played by his grandson William Graham in 'Unbroken: Path to Redemption,' in theaters beginning Sept. 14. Courtesy WTA Group/Universal 1440 Entertainment
Published September 17
Updated September 18

BROOKSVILLE — The second half of the story of World War II hero and 1936 Olympian Louis Zamperini opened in theaters Friday. Unbroken: Path to Redemption begins where the 2014 Unbroken movie ends.

It centers on the five years after Zamperini came home to California, chronicling his struggles with alcoholism and post-traumatic stress.

He was seemingly unbroken, despite spending 47 days on a raft in the Pacific after a plane crash and years of torture as a Japanese prisoner of war. Even though the war ended, Zamperini found his personal battle had just begun.

Will Graham, who plays the part of his grandfather, evangelist Billy Graham, said the new movie completes Zamperini’s story.

“This is not just entertainment," Will Graham told the Tampa Bay Times in an interview. "This is an awesome, true story that can transform lives, because of what God did in the life of Louie Zamperini, and people need to hear this and see this in real life.”

The scene portraying his grandfather is from Billy Graham’s 1949 Greater Los Angeles Revival. Will Graham, also an evangelist who holds Celebration crusades worldwide, said he didn’t try to act like his grandfather. He just played himself.

But the script was all Billy Graham.

“I was using my granddaddy’s sermon,” Will Graham said. “Those were his actual words that he preached in 1949. There’s no Hollywood on that.”

Zamperini responded to an invitation from Billy Graham to receive Christ as his savior, and the two men became friends. Zamperini sometimes spoke at later crusades.

In 2004, Billy Graham wrote to Zamperini about making a movie.

“This is a story my granddaddy always wanted to be on the big screen,” Will Graham said. “He told Louie, ‘You’ve got to have one of the most interesting stories of how you came to know Christ and what God’s done in your life. This needs to be a major motion picture.’”

Universal Pictures first took an interest in the story in 1957, acquiring the rights to Louie’s book Devil at My Heels. Producer Matthew Baer watched a CBS Sports documentary on Louie’s life in 1998 and felt the story should be told.

In 2010, Zamperini’s life story was told by Laura Hillenbrand in her best-selling book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.

Encouraged by the book's success, Baer brought Unbroken back to Universal for consideration. Unbroken was released as a major motion picture, earning $163 million worldwide at the box office.

While the 2014 Unbroken was dedicated to the memory of Louis Zamperini, who died earlier that year, the new movie is dedicated to the memory of Billy Graham, who died in February.

“In March, the producers contacted us and asked, ‘Can we dedicate this film in honor of your grandfather?’ I was a little bit nervous about it, because it’s not about my granddaddy," Will Graham said. "He had an important role in Louie’s life, but this story’s about Louie.”

Will Graham asked the Zamperini family if they’d mind.

“They told us they weren’t offended. They loved the idea," he said. "So, we as the Graham family said we would be very appreciative.”

While the title of the film speaks to the message of redemption, the film also emphasizes the power of forgiveness. Will Graham said that is “one of the greatest things to come out of the film.

“[Louie] experienced forgiveness from Christ, and he in turn forgave those who had tormented him and harmed him in the prison camp. There’s not a lot of people who’ve been tortured, but they know what marital problems are. They know what PTSD is. They know what alcoholism or substance abuse is. So all this can be tied into how Christ can change someone’s life, and that’s why I wanted to be a part of this story.”

Will Graham said he has no aspirations as an actor, and was “more nervous than anything” during the filming.

“I’m used to preaching in front of cameras, but I wasn’t used to a director stopping me in mid-sermon and saying, 'hey do it with more passion this time,' or 'you missed a line, do it again,'” he said. “... this is my chance to proclaim how God can change one person’s life. Just like he changed Louie’s life, he can change that person.”

To go:

Unbroken: Path to Redemption can be seen at Beacon Theaters 12, 12961 Cortez Blvd., Brooksville; Hollywood 18, 6701 Cinema Drive, Port Richey; Cobb Grove 16 & Cinebistro, 6333 Wesley Grove Blvd., Wesley Chapel; and Zephyrhills 10, 6848 Gall Blvd., Zephyrhills. Find other theaters and view a trailer for the film at unbroken.com.

The movie is produced and released by Universal 1440 Entertainment, the WTA Group and Pure Flix and was directed by Harold Cronk. It runs for 98 minutes and is rated PG-13.

To learn more: Will Graham’s first book, Redeemed: Devotions for the Longing Soul, featuring stories about his grandfather’s life and ministry, is available for pre-order at Amazon.com.

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