HANNIBAL – Luke Zamperini, son of Olympic hero and World War II prisoner of war Louis Zamperini, and now an executive producer of the recent movie about his father’s path to Christ, held the audience’s attention in the palm of his hand here Nov. 7 at the Hannibal-LaGrange University Booster Banquet.
The younger Zamperini discussed in detail his father’s remarkable and miraculous life. Louis was saved from a life of juvenile delinquency by sports, and made his way on to the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. While in Berlin for those games, Louis met Adolf Hitler, just a few years before he joined the Air Force to fight Hitler and the Axis powers in World War II. While on a search and rescue mission over the Pacific, his plane suffered an engine failure and crashed into the sea. He and the two other surviving crewmen scrambled into a life raft and drifted for 47 days – battling the merciless sun, starvation, and sharks, and drinking only what they could collect from the rain.
On day 47, they were picked up by a Japanese patrol boat and sent to a prison camp. There, he was mercilessly beaten and tortured by the guards, including one in particular he called, “The Bird.”
That part of the tale was told by the 2014 movie, “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie. When it was released, The Pathway’s review noted “the best thing about the movie is that it is good background for the rest of Zamperini’s story. It’s his story after the war, when he was battling alcoholism, PTSD and hatred for his captors that needs to be told. He reluctantly attended a Billy Graham crusade, heard the Gospel, and was set free. You might even say he actually was broken, but was later made whole.”
Telling that missing element of the film – that “capstone miracle” that made him whole – was obviously a passion for the younger Zamperini, and he discussed his role as an executive producer of the film, “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” which was released this September.
“I got to approve the script and help pick out the actors,” he told The Pathway. “I got to pick the actor who would play my dad. Then I got to spend time on set talking with the actors and director helping them know just who they were portraying.”
He along with Will Graham – the grandson of Billy Graham and the actor who portrays the evangelist in the movie – also got to be involved in the promotion of the movie, speaking to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations telling them about the movie and the way that Jesus radically saved his father.
The first “Unbroken” movie had a budget of $65 million, while this second chapter had a $6 million budget. Despite that, The Pathway’s review of the second film said that “the quality of the special effects on display during these flashback scenes are heads and shoulders above what is typically seen in a “Christian” movie. Scenes of Zamperini descending deeper and deeper into alcoholism ring true. The conflict he feels when presented with the gospel is nuanced, and the payoff satisfying.”
“The reason this film could look as good as it did on that small a budget is that the people who worked on it – both behind and in front of the camera – really wanted to be a part of it and took cuts in pay,” Zamperini said. “It was a labor of love for them and it showed. I’ve done screenings with a lot of veterans in the audience and I’ve been told we accurately portrayed the flashbacks and PTSD. I’ve probably seen the movie more than a dozen time and I still like it.”
The Pathway review also praised the climatic scenes at the Billy Graham crusade for its forthrightness: “Most movies depicting a sermon go out of their way to be as generic and nondenominational as possible so Christians of any stripe can relate; Graham’s sermon is recreated here word for word, so it rings much truer to this Southern Baptist’s ear. Kudos to whoever made that decision to stick with reality.” As it turns out, viewers have Zamperini to thank for that.