'The Boys in the Boat': George Clooney directs an American sports story
A young rowing team from the University of Washington takes on the world at the 1936 Olympics in George Clooney's real-life drama “The Boys in the Boat.”
Ten years ago, the story of a new book about grit and adventure quickly caught on with critics and readers alike. This story is now George Clooney's latest directorial effort, “The Boys in the Boat” (now in theaters).
Set in the 1930s, the film focuses on Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a poor kid whose attendance at the University of Washington is funded in part by his ability to row for the school's crew team. “The Boys” takes us on this team’s improbable journey toward victory over better-financed college rivals and, ultimately, Hitler’s German team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This true story was also chronicled in the 2016 American Experience documentary “The Boys of '36', which is now streaming on PBS.org And YouTube.
But as with almost every feature film developed from a non-fiction book, cuts and squeezes were created to create a taut two-hour film. Such was the case with the source material, “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.”
Author Daniel James Brown has had some early conversations about adapting his 2013 book with Clooney. “He captured the spirit of the story, but I didn't expect him to copy the book,” Brown says. Brown highlights a few of the biggest differences between the book and the movie.
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Was the schedule for the winning University of Washington crew team accurate?
The events culminating in the University of Washington's junior team winning the Berlin Olympics spanned three years, but in the film “everything is compressed into 1936, the year it all came together,” Brown points out. This strategy “makes sense, unless you're doing a (longer) TV series.”
But the pressure leaves out some important details about Rantz's harsh upbringing. “There was a moment in high school, and it was a rainy day and the car was packed with his father and his stepmother and his kids, and they said, 'We're leaving, we're not taking you,'” Brown says. “It's the touchstone of his story, and it makes it difficult to trust people.”
'The Boys in the Boat' Exclusive Clip: The Underdog Rowers Return
The University of Washington rowing team revisits the 1936 Poughkeepsie Regatta in an exclusive clip from “The Boys in the Boat.”
Did the University of Washington coach really prefer his junior varsity team over the varsity team?
Brown says it was due in part to Rantz's strong rowing ability that the University of Washington's Green junior team was posting faster times than its veteran counterpart. As this trend continued over the next few years, team coach Al Olbrikson (played by Joel Edgerton in the film) “made the dramatic decision to send his JV team to the big league competitions in the East.”
This move angered many of the school's supporters. “It was serious because many of the reinforcements were invested in the university staff, and some of them had children on that team,” Brown says. “So it was too risky for his future job.”
Did people in the 1930s watch crew races while sitting on moving grandstands?
A century ago, sports like rowing and horse racing were national pastimes in the same way that football and baseball are today, Brown says. And yes, the trains were reconfigured so that they could pull the grandstands along the banks of the rivers that hosted such competitions.
“Spectators on these observation trains can closely monitor each race as it happens because a lot of crew racing dynamics happen along the way,” he says. And in a place like Poughkeepsie, New York, the site of the movie's big showdown, the race was four miles long, Brown says.
Did the winning University of Washington crew team really have to raise money to go to the Olympics?
In the film, the University of Washington's celebration after winning the university's highest award in rowing is immediately dashed by the news that the U.S. Olympic Committee cannot afford to send the team to Berlin. So the fundraising campaign was launched overnight. “By the next morning, a steering committee was formed, and by that afternoon, the students were selling paper badges, calling companies for donations, and in about 48 hours they had the $5,000 needed for the trip,” Brown says.
But the feel-good moment in the movie — when the UC Berkeley coach wrote a $300 check to complete the fundraising — never happened. “He said the Washington team had to go, which was bold because they were bitter rivals,” Brown says. But he never wrote a check.
Did an ailing University of Washington crew member really lead the team to an Olympic gold medal?
The film depicts Hume as a socially awkward kid who was the key ingredient in the team's big win in front of a crowd that included angry Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Hume overcomes illness to rally his team to victory. “It's all true,” Brown says. “Don Hume was what is called the oar of the stroke; he is the crucial seat because he sets the tone for the whole team.”
As in the film, Hume fell ill with a respiratory illness on the ship bound for Germany, and his condition worsened as the team prepared for its races. “Don was very sick on finals day, and it wasn't really clear if he was going to make it to the end,” Brown says. “His performance speaks for itself.”
Has the winning moment at the 1936 Olympics already ended?
At the film's climax, a hotly contested gold medal race comes to an end by the end of the picture. Athletes and spectators wait anxiously while the photographer processes the negative to reveal the result.
“It was a very close finish, and no one knew who won,” Brown says. “There were photos taken (by spectators) of this finish, but I have no reason to believe they took a photo to determine who won. But it works great; otherwise they would have been sitting in the boat, waiting.” “.
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