UNBROKEN Path to Redemption Meet The Zamperini Family
Many are familiar with the incredible life story of Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini thanks to his book and the 2014 film Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie. After his bomber was shot down in World War II, he survived forty-seven days at sea on a raft boat before being sent to the Japanese POW camps where he was brutally tortured, but the most life-changing aspect of Zamperini’s story, his conversion to Christianity, wasn’t showcased in the first film. Subsequently, a spiritual second chapter is coming to theaters titled, Unbroken: Path to Redemption.
Zamperini passed away just before Unbroken hit theaters. Jolie was able to show him the film in the hospital and the 97-year-old was pleased with the film. Today, his children are giving their blessing for this current film that delves into Zamperini’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), his marriage to Cynthia, and that fateful fall day in 1949 when he attended Billy Graham’s tent revival in Los Angeles.
Risen sat down on the Unbroken: Path to Redemption set with Zamperini’s kids: Cynthia Zamperini-Garris and Luke Zamperini with his wife, Lisa, to learn more about bringing his faith legacy to the big screen.
Interviewed for Risen Magazine on the film set in Pomona, California
Risen Magazine: Many are familiar with the story of Louis Zamperini from either his book or the Angelina Jolie-directed movie, Unbroken, that showcased aspects of his life. Share a little bit about the relationship you had with getting the story told on-screen, how decisions were made on where to end the movie, and why a sequel is needed.
Luke Zamperini: He actually sold the rights to his story to Universal in 1957. It wasn’t until 57 years later that Unbroken got made and we didn’t really have much say in it. Although, the production was very concerned that the family would be approving of what they were doing.
In the very beginning when we first met with director, Angelina, I expressed the concern that they would tell the entire story and not just leave it off where they did leave it off, which was with him coming home from war. Of course, there was some realities in filmmaking that I’m not aware of. They were not able to tell the whole story and do this [faith] portion of it justice with the amount of time they were allotted to tell the whole story. Angelina did guarantee me that we will get the faith and forgiveness message in there. She said it just wasn’t going to be dramatized. Indeed, there was the prayer on the raft where he made his promise to God and then the title at the end of the film where it spoke of him fulfilling his promise to God.
Dad didn’t want the movie to be a “Christian” film. He wanted it to be a film that would appeal to a broad audience of people and maybe pique their interest to then look further and read his book, Unbroken, or one of the other books he wrote.
When Unbroken ran its course and we were contacted that a sequel was in the works, we were just overjoyed.
Cynthia Zamperini-Garris: And I just want to add, Louis completely understood, once it was explained to him, the reasons why the film had to end. They decided that because there’s a certain arc – three acts usually in a film – and the whole story of his troubled youth and his track career and everything he went through during the war, surviving that horror, and finally coming home, it was hard to ramp up again and then go into the PTSD. It really should have been a mini-series. So, he fully understood and approved of the way the film was being made, and when he was in the hospital for the very last time, Angelina came early in the morning and showed the whole movie to him on her laptop and he was quite pleased with it. I just wanted to dispel any ideas that he was not happy with the film. But I know that if he’s watching, looking down today, he’s overjoyed that the second film is being made because that is a huge part of his story and, in many ways, the most important part to him.
Luke: Lisa, you had an encounter with him when you complained that the whole story was not going to be told. Share what he said.
Lisa Zamperini: I remember sitting in my living room on the phone with him and having a discussion about what was definitely being left out. I called him Daddo, so I said, “Daddo, isn’t there anything that can be done to make [sure faith is included] this happen? This is your life story and this is the most important part of your story.” And it’s the only time I can ever recall him getting upset with me. He said, “Golly Lisa, what part of all things working together for good are you not understanding? All things work together for good. There’s a purpose in the way this is being told. Let’s pray, let’s pray, let’s pray.” And here we are today. And so now it’s being told in its own right and I think it’s just incredible. I think it’s going the way it was meant to go, obviously.
But I know that if he’s watching, looking down today, he’s overjoyed that the second film is being made because that is a huge part of his story and, in many ways, the most important part to him.
RM: Growing up as Zamperini, Louis was just your dad. When did you understand who he was and what he had faced? What did that mean to you as you two were forming your identities and faith?
Cynthia: We were fully aware of his story from our first memories because that’s how he put food on the table for us, and clothes on our backs, and a roof over our head. He told his remarkable story all the time. He went from church to church, traveling across the country, mostly for honorariums. We were aware our father was this fantastic hero and also, he was in our private, personal lives too. He was quite heroic around the house and out in the street. If we fell and skinned our knees, he was our hero out there taking care of us. We grew up with that story. But as a child, the story doesn’t have all the gruesome details in it, so it wasn’t really until we became adults that we really started thinking about what he actually went through.
Luke: We grew up telling his story to other people that we’d meet. Obviously, we loved talking about our dad. But even as an adult, I’ve probably read his autobiography half a dozen times, and Unbroken I’ve read three times, and the films and just all the hundreds of time we have heard him tell the story, but it still is fantastic to fathom what he went through. We never get used to it.
The books and the films don’t quite get all the details. For instance, when his life raft was being strafed by the Japanese on Day 27 of his odyssey, he dove overboard to avoid the bullets and ran into two sharks. They were coming to have lunch. And he had to fend off the sharks, go up and get air, here comes the airplane back again, go back down, play with the sharks. Bullets were coming through the water. For forty-minutes he was doing a ballet with these sharks. Just reaching out and straight-arming them on the nose to keep them from biting him and going to get air, going back down. Just remarkable stuff.
Cynthia: I just love this because when Angelina did her first rough cut of the film, her father had passed away a month or two before and she [invited] us to Universal to screen it for us and it was really traumatic because we had just lost our father. In the film, it just shows a shark coming near Louis and he kicks it with his foot. And I asked her afterwards, “Angelina, why didn’t you show him hitting the sharks in the nose, pushing them away, dodging the bullets, all that stuff.” She said, “Because, even though it really happened, nobody would believe it. They’d go to a movie and they go, ‘Oh, come on.’” So, she toned a lot of things down.
Luke: Expect for the torture scenes, those were all real. We were all brutalized by that.
Cynthia: That was rough on us. We were zombies after that. Angelina apologized realizing it was a little premature.
RM: In this sequel, Unbroken: Path to Redemption, we see how Louis came to know Jesus and Billy Graham was a big part of that. What were your thoughts on having William Graham play his grandfather in the film? Had you met him before the project.
Luke: Genius. We’d met Franklin Graham in 2004, the last time the Graham Crusade came to Los Angeles. But we hadn’t met Will. So, Lisa and I went up to Forest Home to meet Will a few months before production. We knew he was going to be there and we wanted to meet him. He confided to us, “I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this or not, but I just read for the part of my granddaddy yesterday.” If you look at Will, he looks like the youthful version of his grandpa. He was asked to give the prayer over lunch and he gets on the microphone and this voice comes across the PA system and we thought, “Oh my goodness, this is going to be something. [He sounds exactly like his grandfather.]” So, we asked, “Will, you’re going to do it, aren’t you?” He said, “I’d sure like to.” We were thrilled and think it was a stroke of genius by casting.
RM: It’s really cool that the children and grandchildren of these two men, Billy Graham and Louis Zamperini, are together now and friends.
Luke: Yes, and to start our own friendship with Will; knowing the relationship between the Grahams and Zamperinis will be continuing.
Lisa: And our son, Louis’ only grandchild, Clay, spent about 45 minutes yesterday with Will in his trailer and they had just a wonderful time together.
RM: Is Clay involved with the family legacy?
Lisa: When Louis passed away, Clay took over his work with youth and the Victory Boys Camps that he started in 1952. Clay came to us and said that he didn’t think the Victory Boys Camps should end. He took on the mantle of starting up the Louis Zampernini Foundation for work with at-risk youth and he brought it into the 21st century. He started partnering with inner city churches and wilderness programs. He actually did a wonderful job running it for about a year-and-a-half and then last March, he asked us if we would take over and he’s going back into his chosen field. So now Luke and I are running it and Luke does a wonderful job going out and telling Louis’ story to kids that are in youth correctional facilities, just like Louis did.
Luke: It’s interesting, I went with my dad to Germany a couple decades ago. He was speaking to the Department of Defense high schools and junior high schools for the kids of the GIs over there and he was telling a story and we go to the Q&A portion and a hand shoots up and asks, “How could you forgive them for what they did to you?” Well, he got to tell them all about his conversion experience. And these army chaplains were sitting there with their chins dropped because they are forbidden to speak the name of Jesus Christ in the schools and my dad is getting away with it because the kids are asking. That was his style always. He wanted to pique your curiosity and get you asking questions and then he could tell the whole story. We continue that in that fashion.
And these army chaplains were sitting there with their chins dropped because they are forbidden to speak the name of Jesus Christ in the schools and my dad is getting away with it because the kids are asking.
RM: And in turn with this film, Unbroken: Path to Redemption, what impact do you hope it makes with audiences?
Luke: We hope it shows that it is a life-changing experience when you come to faith in Jesus Christ. My dad’s story was miracle, upon miracle, upon miracle. Are there miracles today? Absolutely. People demonstrate the power of God in their lives and that’s what happened to my dad. Of course, there was the miracle of surviving the crash, the miracle of surviving forty-seven days on a life raft, but the greatest miracle of all was coming to faith on that day of October 16, 1949. That’s what I hope people walk away with; the astonishment of knowing that placing your faith in Jesus Christ can save your life forever for the better.