Religion

In ‘Unbroken’ movie sequel, Billy Graham will be played by his grandson, Will

Louie Zamperini, here at age 94, first made his mark as a high school track star in California. He later competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He was later a POW during World War II. His life story was told in the bestselling book, “Unbroken.”
Louie Zamperini, here at age 94, first made his mark as a high school track star in California. He later competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He was later a POW during World War II. His life story was told in the bestselling book, “Unbroken.” COURTESY OF LOUIE ZAMPERIN

Charlotte-born evangelist Billy Graham will be portrayed by his own grandson, Will, in an upcoming movie. Its focus: How Louie Zamperini – the Olympian and POW whose life story was told in the best-selling book, “Unbroken” – embraced Christianity after returning from World War II.

Filming on “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” began Tuesday at Universal City in southern California.

Director Angelina Jolie made the first half or so of “Unbroken” into a movie in 2014. But, to the chagrin of many evangelical Christians, her film did not dramatize the post-war religious conversion that helped Zamperini conquer bouts with alcoholism and post-traumatic stress and forgive the Japanese captors who had brutalized him during the war.

In “Unbroken,” Laura Hillenbrand’s enormously popular book, she tells how, at the urging of his wife, Zamperini agreed to attend a 1949 crusade in Los Angeles that featured an up-and-coming preacher named Billy Graham. The encounter proved to be a turning point for Zamperini, who credited the crusade with saving his sanity and his marriage.

Jolie’s film makes no mention of Graham, or even Jesus.

“Audiences have long wanted to see the ‘second part’ of Louie Zamperini’s story brought to life,” the upcoming film’s executive producer, Bill Reeves, said in a news release Tuesday. “How he found redemption, overcame deep personal struggles and ultimately forgave his captors makes for an inspiring, beautiful film.”

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Billy Graham's grandson Will Graham, also an evangelist, recently participated in a salute to his famous grandfather at BB&T Ballpark in uptown Charlotte. Here he watches a video presentation of Billy Graham during an interview before the Charlotte Knights game on “Faith and Family Night” at the ballpark. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Will Graham, who is an evangelist for the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, will be making his film debut in the role of his famous grandfather, who’s now 98 and living in Montreat.

“Like my father and grandfather before me, I’m blessed to have been able to answer a call to evanglism,” said the younger Graham, whose father is evangelist Franklin Graham, in a news release. “But knowing how God used Billy Graham in Louie Zamperini’s life, I couldn’t pass the opportunity to portray him in this inspiring story.”

Unlike Jolie’s film, “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” will be part of a growing genre of faith-based films designed to promote Christianity. Its director, Harold Cronk, helmed two other films in that genre, “God’s Not Dead” and “God’s Not Dead 2.”

Still, the plans to film a sort-of sequel got a thumbs up from author Hillenbrand, whose other giant bestseller was “Seabiscuit: An American Legend.”

“The life of American Olympian, castaway and POW Louie Zamperini is a story so extraordinary it staggers the imagination,” she said in the news release. “It is a life rich in lessons for all of us – lessons in resilience and ingenuity, grace and humanity, forgiveness and the power of faith. I am so pleased to see his story brought back to the screen.”

Zamperini stayed in touch with Graham and even spoke at some Graham crusades over the years. In 2011, the then-94-year-old Zamperini came to the Billy Graham Library to sign copies of Hillenbrand’s bestseller.

Recalling that 1949 crusade, Zamperini told the Observer in 2011 that “Billy Graham’s message hit me between the eyes. Instead of leaving, I went back to the prayer room. And man, when I made a confession of my faith in Christ, I knew my whole life had changed. ... That was the first night in three years that I didn’t have a nightmare. I haven’t had one since.”

Zamperini died in 2014, at age 97.

“Unbroken” Path to Redemption” will star actors Samuel Hunt (”Chicago P.D.”) as Louie Zamperini and Merritt Patterson (”The Royals”) as his wife Cynthia.

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