The Boys In The Boat: On The Start

An encouraging Tweet from Daniel James Brown, author of the bestselling book on the University of Washington crew that won Olympic Eights in 1936, The Boys in the Boat. The completed film of the book is awaiting theatrical release – which will probably be in the fall (autumn) to be best placed for the early 2024 movie awards season.

12 May 2023

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch is hopeful about a particular product of the Hollywood sausage machine.

I think it must be comparatively rare that an author is happy with a film adaptation of one of their books as no creative person likes having their work interfered with. Usually, however, a writer is compensated for seeing their art mangled by receiving a large amount of money from selling the film rights. However, Daniel James Brown seems to have subverted both of these norms.

Reading the above Tweet, Brown appears pleased with George Clooney and Grant Heslov’s film adaptation of his bookHowever, he may not have done as well financially as may be expected. In January 2022, the Seattle Times arts critic, Moira Macdonald, interviewed Brown:

“We sold the movie rights the day after we sold the book rights, and we had no idea really how successful the book would become,” (Brown) said. “If I could go back in time, if I had known all that, I think I would have lobbied for script approval, or at least some formal script review…”

Clooney gave him a call about a year ago… “I was really impressed by how well he knew the book — he had not only read it but he really seemed to sort of get it,” Brown said. “I don’t know what’s going to come out of the sausage machine, but I was heartened by the things that Clooney had to say about it.”

(Brown has) had a few conversations with the current screenwriter, Mark L. Smith… Though Brown hasn’t seen the whole script, he’s hopeful. “I liked the way he was talking about the story.”

Mark L. Smith was the scriptwriter for the 2020 film, The Midnight Sky, starring and directed by George Clooney. Previously, Clooney has allegedly said, “It’s possible for me to make a bad movie out of a good script, but I can’t make a good movie from a bad script.”

Brown at Henley’s River and Rowing Museum in 2017 in front of a victor’s wreath such as was given to the “The Boys” after their win in Berlin. This particular example was given to the only other non-German crew to win at the 1936 Olympic Regatta, Britain’s double scullers, Beresford and Southwood.

The Boys is frequently and incorrectly described as “a novel” rather than a work of nonfiction. Arguably, nonfiction is often easier to adapt as a film because decent fiction can have many subtleties and nuances that are often not present in more factual work. However, as rowing historian Tom Weil has noted:

The Boys in the Boat” is the most popular and widely read book ever written about the sport of rowing. The rowing world owes a great debt to its author, Daniel James Brown, for his role in increasing widespread understanding of and appreciation for a sport that still remains imperfectly understood and inadequately appreciated.

To attempt to transfer Brown’s “widespread understanding of and appreciation for a sport that still remains imperfectly understood and inadequately appreciated” to film would be no easy task. Further, the real story of The Boys actually invites filmmakers less intelligent than Clooney and Heslov to churn out lazy and standard Hollywood fare involving heroic Yanks kicking Nazi butt that would play well to teenagers in Midwestern multiplexes. I have previously noted that:

The amazing thing about the 1936 University of Washington Huskies and the story of their performance in Berlin is that, if it were not true, it would be dismissed as a ridiculous collection of film clichés which would insult all but the most undemanding viewer.

Cliché 1: The young coach, the old master and the former colleague turned rival.

In 1927, Al Ulbrickson had taken over as University of Washington crew coach at the age of only 24. In the early years he constantly lost to the California crews of Ky Ebright, a former coach at UW. While Cal was to remain UW’s greatest rival, the Washington crews slowly got better and better.

Cliché 2: Selection for the Big Race and beating the Old Rivals.

At the Olympic Trials in Princeton in July 1936, the Huskies were competing for the US Olympic place against three other crews including Ky Ebright’s Cal. Going off at 34 strokes per minute, UW were last and a length down on the leading crew until the rate went up to forty. They took the lead in the final 400 metres and won by a length.

The Boys.

Cliché 3: The Big Race is organised by Bad People with another agenda.

Berlin 1936 remains the most controversial Games in Olympic history. The Nazis, who had been in power for three years, were not yet internationally recognised for what they really were. They exploited the Games as a propaganda exercise to “sell” the new state to the world and to propagate their ideas about race.

Cliché 4: The Big Final. The Star Player is ill, the organisers cheat, the heroes start badly but win in the last few seconds.

Even before the final, the UW ‘3’ man, Gordon Adam and the brilliant stroke, Don Hume, were ill. By the day of the final, Hume was worse but Ulbrickson decided that he would race.

There was a strong crosswind and the Germans decided to give the most protected lanes to the slowest qualifiers, Germany and Italy. In spite of their protests, the US crew, the fastest qualifiers, were given the worst lane. 

Some say that the Americans did not hear the French instruction to start and were dropped on the first stroke. Certainly they had a bad start and at 1,100 metres were in last place. The cox, Moch, claims that stroke, Hume, was too ill to respond to his calls for a higher rate. However, at 1,200 metres Hume seemed to rally. 

At 1,500 metres the US boat was third, half a length down from Italy and a few feet behind Germany. In practice their highest stroke was 40 but by 1,800 they were up to 44 and in the next 100 metres they took the lead, beating Italy by eight feet and putting the Germans in third place. Back at the dock, Hitler presented the winning crew with a large laurel wreath. “He wasn’t too happy” remembers “5” man, Jim McMillin.

Roll the credits.

Top: Stern four, 1936. Below: Stern four, 2022. Callum Turner who is playing Joe Rantz is at “7”. Colour picture via Twitter/@calupdates.

In May 2022, I reported on location filming at Henley for scenes involving the 1936 Olympic selection race. The online Daily Mail has a piece from around the same time on filming at Molesey Boat Club, twelve miles north-east of central London, for scenes around the 1936 Olympic Regatta Course in Berlin. The Sun followed soon after with pictures taken at the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, south-east London, standing in for some sort of official Nazi building.

The two wooden UW boats, Husky Clipper and Husky Challenger, were specially built for the production, apparently to a high standard of accuracy.

Returning to Brown’s lament that he did not have script approval, I would suggest that this is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly when the production is in the hands of an atypical Hollywood film maker such as George Clooney. John Grisham, the phenomenally popular author of legal thrillers, has had many of his novels turned into films. He has said that he does not get involved in the filmmaking process: “I know nothing about making movies and I stay away from it and hope for the best.”  We are all “hoping for the best” as regards the feature film of Boys in the Boat and, amazingly considering how few good rowing movies there have been, the evidence so far suggests that we will not be disappointed

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