From the early days of silent nickelodeons, Hollywood loves stories ripped from the headlines. Tinseltown is also fond of CGI-driven drivel about exploding robots or franchise sequels ad nauseam — but occasionally they get it right. From Amadeus to Zulu, movies based on actual events or real people have produced some of the greatest films in the history of cinema.
10. Kingsized Wonder
Question: which group burst onto the music scene in 1963 with a hit single that would become one of the most recorded pop songs in history. The Beatles? Nope. The Rolling Stones? Not even close. If you guessed ‘The Monkees,’ you still wouldn’t be right but at least are getting warmer. The correct answer is The Kingsmen, whose garbled rendition of “Louie Louie” catapulted an obscure, teenaged garage band from Portland, Oregon, into rock and roll royalty.
For Jack Ely, like many many kids growing up in the 1950s, watching Elvis Presley on TV changed everything. He and childhood friend Lynn Easton would soon form a band with a few other pimple-faced musicians and called themselves The Kingsmen. While playing local gigs in the Portland area, they heard a cover of Richard Berry’s song, “Louie, Louie,” and decided to record their version. So, on April 6, 1963, the boys from Stumptown collectively pitched in 36 bucks to pay for a quick one-hour studio session at Northwest Recorders and a date with infamy.
The small room had been set up for an instrumental arrangement only, forcing Ely to get up on his toes to be heard on a microphone dangling from the ceiling. Adding to the difficulty, he also wore braces at the time, producing his soon-to-be-legendary mumbled words. The band’s only take didn’t exactly go as planned. Ely sang too early at the beginning of the third verse, and Easton dropped his drumstick (he yells a muffled F-bomb at the 54-second mark).
The botched session left the band feeling deflated. Still, their manager, a local DJ named Ken Chase, saw the raw production as an asset and negotiated regional distribution with independent labels Jerand and Wand records. Meanwhile, a lethal mix of band in-fighting and toxic teen testosterone reached a boiling point. Easton felt the band needed a new direction and inserted himself in the role as frontman. Ely then quit and took the bass player with him. The 15-year-old keyboardist, Don Gallucci, also departed because he wasn’t old enough to tour.
Typically, this is where most bands disappear never to be heard from again. But not this time. By Fall 1963, “Louie Louie” had started to climb up the charts that soon became a runaway freight train. The success also brought a steady flow of lawsuits, fights, and dramatic twists and turns worthy of Shakespeare. As the title implies, Kingsized Wonder, tells the tale of one helluva hit and the fascinating (and bittersweet) backstory.
9. Roy’s War
When President Ronald Reagan presented Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez with the Medal of Honor in 1981, the former actor turned to the press and said, “If the story of his heroism were a movie script, you would not believe it.” Even more remarkably, however, Benavidez’s display of courage and bravery occurred both on and off the battlefield.
Raul Perez “Roy” Benavidez fought his entire life, battling systemic racism and bureaucracy, and eventually, a hostile foe in a faraway land. The son of a Mexican-American sharecropper and Yaqui mother, Benevidez lost both his parents to tuberculosis when he was five; he then lived with relatives and sporadically attended school before dropping out at 15 to help support his extended family. He eventually enlisted in the Army and became a member of the vaunted 5th Special Forces Group (Green Berets) during the Vietnam War.
After stepping on a land mine during a covert mission, Benavidez was told by doctors that he’d never walk again. But the wounded warrior viewed the setback as just another challenge to overcome. He underwent a year of grueling rehab (sometimes crawling only on his elbows and chin) and true to his hardened resolve, returned to active duty. On May 2, 1968, his 9-man Special Forces team were ambushed by over 1,000 North Vietnamese troops. Armed with only a knife and carrying medical supplies, Benavidez hastily jumped aboard an evacuation helicopter and rushed to the location.” When I got on that copter, little did I know we were going to spend six hours in hell,” he later recalled.
By the time the siege ended, the sergeant had saved at least eight men while being shot seven times, stabbed with a bayonet, and hit by 28 pieces of shrapnel. His mangled, bullet-riddled corpse had been placed inside a body bag, but before medics could zip it up, the barely conscious soldier spit blood onto a doctor’s face, letting him know that he wasn’t dead yet. Not this soldier.
Two years after receiving his nation’s highest military decoration, the hardened soldier again went to war — but this time with the Social Security Administration. A cost-cutting scheme planned to cut off disability payments to veterans, including those of one particular MOH recipient named Roy Benavidez. Naturally, the Green Beret strapped on his boots and marched up to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. There, on behalf of thousands of combat vets, he convinced Congress to abandon the ill-conceived motion. Or in military jargon, Sierra Tango Foxtrot Uniform.
8. No No for Jimbo
To date, there have been precisely 303 no-hitters in Major League Baseball history. The list includes Dock Ellis, who tossed his while tripping on acid (yes, really) and Nolan Ryan, who threw a record 7 hitless gems, including one at the ripe age of 44. But on September 4, 1993, the Yankees Jim Abbott etched his name into the record books by shutting down the Cleveland Indians, 4-0 — a performance made even more remarkable because he was born without a right hand.
Abbott displayed tremendous talent as both a pitcher and quarterback while growing up in Flint, Michigan. He received a baseball scholarship at the University of Michigan, where he won the James E. Sullivan Award as the nation’s best amateur athlete in his junior year. The Wolverine dominated conference play as the 1988 Big 10 Athlete of the Year, and later that season won a gold medal for Team USA at the Summer Olympics in Seoul. Upon graduation, the California Angels selected Abbott in the first round of the 1988 MLB draft.
After a solid Spring Training, Abbott earned a spot in the Angels’ starting rotation as a rookie having NEVER played a single minor league game. His performance steadily improved and posted an impressive 18-11 record with a 2.89 ERA in 1991, finishing third in Cy Young Award voting. The winner that year, Roger Clemens, would later be exposed for having gobbled steroids double-fisted throughout his tainted career.
In addition to pitching, Abbott also possessed good wood. Although he spent most of his career in the American League, which uses the Designated Hitter, former teammate and Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera claimed he saw the lefty hit home runs during batting practice. Abbott went on to play 10 full seasons in the Bigs with four different teams before retiring in 1999. He now tours the country, sharing his inspirational life as a motivational speaker. In 2014, Abbott’s improbable tale was humorously depicted during season two of Comedy Central’s Drunk History, but now deserves the full red-carpet treatment.
7. Project Azorian
In the Spring of 1968, a Soviet submarine carrying nuclear-armed ballistic missiles accidentally sank in the Pacific Ocean, killing all 98 crew members on board. The USSR spent the next two months frantically searching for the wreckage of K-129, but ultimately never located its missing sub. The U.S., however, soon found it, and eagerly launched a covert operation to recover the sunken vessel, believed to contain vital information. Naturally, they called Howard Hughes to the rescue.
Codenamed Project Azorian, government officials partnered with the famous industrialist to construct a $350 million drillship capable of extracting a 1,750-ton sub located three miles below the water’s surface. The CIA devised an elaborate cover story, stating Hughes had built the massive contraption as part of his latest commercial venture to mine valuable minerals on the ocean floor.
In a recently declassified memo, an intelligence agent described him as the ideal front to carry out their top-secret scheme: “Mr. Howard Hughes… is recognized as a pioneering entrepreneur with a wide variety of business interests; he has the necessary financial resources; he habitually operates in secrecy; and, his personal eccentricities are such that news media reporting and speculation about his activities frequently range from the truth to utter fiction.”
The Glomar Hughes Explorer officially began operations in the summer of 1974 and was almost immediately plagued with mechanical issues. Leaked media reports linking Hughes to the subterfuge also began surfacing, and eventually, the entire costly project ended to appease the Soviets. Although the surreal ruse provides plenty of material for a full feature, the story did inspire a few plot elements for the James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me.
6. Fast Eddie
The recent success of the WWI movie 1917 should help buoy interest in the life of Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s most decorated ace pilot during the Great War. Prior to his aerial heroics, he had been a champion race car driver, before swapping uniforms and recording 26 kills in the skies over Europe. Although the infamous Manfred (“The Red Baron “) von Richthofen gets credit for more downed aircraft (80), most military historians agree that Rickenbacker’s expert stick and throttle skills, and natural-born killer instincts put him in a class all by himself.
As one of eight children born to Swiss immigrants in Columbus, Ohio, Rickenbacker’s mercurial rise is a remarkable tale of talent and determination. Following the U.S. entrance in WWI, he enlisted in the Army and became a chauffeur on General John Pershing’s staff. Rickenbacker then set his sights on becoming a pilot in the newly formed Army Air Service, but at 26 years old, he exceeded the age limit by two years and also lacked the formal education required to fly. But with perseverance and a display of undeniable skills, he soon earned his wings and became commanding officer of the 94th Aero “Hat-in-the-Ring” Squadron. Once airborne, he wasted little time establishing his reputation as a lethal fighter.
On September 25, 1918, during a voluntary solo patrol behind enemy lines in France, Rickenbacker showed his mettle with the stuff of legend. He attacked a squadron of German planes (including five Fokker D.VIIs) from behind the sun, plunging his Spad biplane into a power dive — a deft maneuver that became his signature move on the unsuspecting enemy. After shooting two of the planes, he returned to base for a well-deserved hero’s welcome. For his actions that day, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Additionally, Rickenbacker received seven Distinguished Service Crosses and the French Croix de Guerre.
Incredibly, his life after the war would prove far more dangerous as he experienced two near-fatal plane crashes and became lost at sea for 24 days. Somehow, he managed to survive and went on to become a successful businessman and the CEO of Eastern Airlines.
5. Breaking Barriers
Shortly after the end of WWII, the 1945 Armed Service Baseball World Series took place on the former Nazi parade grounds in Nuremberg, Germany. The match-up featured the heavily favored 71st Infantry Division “Red Circlers” — a team loaded with top-level Major Leaguers — and part of General George S. Patton’s vaunted Third Army. Their opponent, the clunky-named Overseas Invasion Service Expedition All-Stars (OISE), was led by an ex-Brooklyn Dodger pitcher and part-time lawyer named “Subway” Sam Nahem (pictured above).
The contest also served as a precursor to the sport’s future. OISE fielded an integrated side that included a pair of Negro League standouts, Willard “Home Run” Brown and Leon Day, allowing them to shine on the same turf where Hitler had propagandized his message of Aryan superiority. The thrilling best of five-game series came down to the wire with underdogs taking the title and military bragging rights.
Two years later, Jackie Robinson would break the Major Leagues’ color barrier. The road to the show, however, proved difficult for other black players, making Robinson’s accomplishment that much more remarkable. Hostile teammates, unruly fans, and a constant barrage of racial epithets required steel-plated resolve and unbreakable restraint that few people — of any ethnicity — could endure.
Day never made the jump from the Negro Leagues, and resumed his dominance with the Newark Eagles, where he opened the 1946 season with a no-hitter. Brown played briefly with the hapless St. Louis Browns, becoming the first black player in the American League to hit a round-tripper. But the unspeakable vitriol by so-called fans eventually took its toll, leading to his release after 21 games. The slugger then rejoined the Kansas City Monarchs — a Negro Leagues team vastly superior in talent (including legends Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil) to his previous employer. Although it took decades, Day and Brown were later enshrined at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
After pioneering his integrated Army team, Nahem practiced law, labored on the docks, and pitched part-time for a local semipro team, the Brooklyn Bushwicks. In 1948, he attempted one last fling in the Majors, suiting up briefly with the Phillies as a relief pitcher. He would continue fighting for social justice and became a union organizer — never losing his faith in humanity — or his wry sense of humor. “I’ve been mentioned in the same breath as Koufax. The breath usually is, ‘Sam Nahem is no Sandy Koufax.'”
4. All The Queen’s Men
INT. PALACE — EGYPT — 48 BC
CLEOPATRA, the most powerful woman in the world, sits on her enormous gold and jewel-encrusted throne. She’s flanked by her maidens and several well-muscled guards as a pair of eunuchs fan her with ostrich plumes. The soft glow of candlelight accentuates the opulent surroundings that include exotic animals and highlighted by the queen’s breathtaking beauty. Suddenly, a booming voice cries out: CUT!
We’re not in Egypt anymore — but rather a soundstage in London in 1960. One of the peacocks just bumped into the camera, ruining the previous take during another marathon day of filming. Making matters worse, the film’s leading lady, Elizabeth Taylor, isn’t feeling well and scampers back to her trailer.
The scene just described sets the tone for the massive production and ensuing chaos that occurred during the making of the Cleopatra. By the time of its release in 1963, the epic sandals and swords film became the most expensive film ever made (over 300 million dollar today) and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. But the real action took place off-screen when Taylor (“Cleopatra”) and Richard Burton (“Mark Antony”) began having a scandalous affair despite both stars being married at the time.
After the first director was fired, the studio handed Joseph Mankiewicz the Herculean task of keeping pyramid-sized egos in check while trying to stop the out of control budget from losing more shekels. Juggling chainsaws on a unicycle in the dark would have been easier. Meanwhile, “Liz and Dick” continued their steamy romance fueled by booze and pills, providing endless tabloid fodder. Costly delays, re-casting, and re-shoots further plagued production — and Mankiewicz added to the mayhem by turning in a 6-hour cut of the film.
In the end, however, the movie became a big hit at the box office and eventually turned a profit (barely) after selling TV broadcast rights to ABC in 1966. All The Queen’s Men wouldn’t have much difficulty finding a A-list actress to portray the troubled albeit radiant Taylor. But finding a peacock that can take direction may prove the most challenging task of getting this one greenlit.
Talented, beautiful, and smart provides only a scant description of Broadway legend, Maxine Elliott. Courted by Kings and adored by the plebs, she cast a wide net in her remarkable life that included immeasurable acts of humanity during World War One. Elliott’s story would be a plum role for any leading actress today — and placed in the hands of any number of outstanding female directors. Psst… hey, Oscar… pay attention — we’re talking to you.
Born Jessie C. Dermott on February 5, 1873, in Rockland, Maine, she spent much of her childhood aboard a sailing ship as the daughter of a sea captain. At the tender age of 16, she landed in New York and adopted a more elegant stage name that would become known worldwide. She endured her share of hard knocks along the way, including failed marriages and the usual shark-infested waters of show biz, before getting her big break on the fabled “The Great White Way.”
Elliott soon enjoyed immense popularity on the stage, which she gradually turned into a financial fortune. She played “Portia” in Broadway staging of The Merchant of Venice in 1901 after having negotiated a contract that earned her half of the profits. At the peak of her fame, she achieved another milestone by launching Maxine Elliott’s Theatre on Thirty-Ninth Street in Manhattan that stood until 1960.
The iconic actress also launched a line of beauty products, taking advantage of her good looks and talent — not to mention shrewd business acumen. She frequently appeared on stage in London and became friendly with a wide range of British royalty and aristocrats such as King Edward VII, the Duke of Windsor, and Winston Churchill.
In 1910, Elliott fell in love with tennis superstar, Anthony Wilding, a four-time Wimbledon singles champion and fifteen years her junior. When Wilding was later killed in WWI, Elliott dedicated herself to providing aid to wounded soldiers by transforming a barge into a floating hospital in Belgium. She later dabbled in silent movies before retiring to a quiet life as a wealthy woman.
2. Raised Fists
The track and field competition at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City produced one jaw-dropping feat after another. Al Oerter won his fourth consecutive gold medal in the discus; Bob Beamon obliterated the world record in the long jump by nearly two feet; and a skinny kid from Medford, Oregon, shocked the world with his revolutionary “Fosbury Flop” technique. But without question, the most memorable moment involved two African-American sprinters and had nothing to do with running.
Tommy Smith and John Carlos were both teammates and rivals with contrasting personalities. The boisterous Carlos hailed from the streets of Harlem, whereas the soft-spoken Smith preferred to let his actions on the track do all the talking. They were also two of the fastest men on the planet. Although they routinely set world records while competing at San Jose State (aka “Speed City”), they almost didn’t make the U.S. squad. The men belonged to a large contingent of athletes who considered boycotting the Games in support of the Civil Rights Movement.
But Smith and Carlos did compete, taking gold and bronze respectively in the 200 meter final. What followed next would become equally controversial and iconic. During the awards ceremony, the Americans bowed their heads and raised their fists in protest during the Star-Spangled Banner. Their actions resulted in death threats and being removed from the Olympic Village.
The event recently celebrated its 50th anniversary to widespread media coverage, but the gestures are still polarizing and often misunderstood as a purely militant “Black Power” salute. However, a closer examination reveals a wide range of issues, including social injustice, poverty and spirituality — and all under the umbrella of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). It’s also worth noting that the silver medalist in the race, a white sprinter from Australia named Peter Norman, wore an OPHR badge to lend his support.
So why hasn’t this movie been made yet? Despite some progress regarding equality, racism remains deeply embedded in American culture. There’s also the lingering problem of frenemies Smith and Carlos, who have widely different versions of the incident. Nonetheless, Raised Fists has the potential of packing a far greater punch than Rocky XXIII.
1. G for Guts
On March 24, 1945, American glider pilots stationed in France awakened early to a hearty breakfast of steak and eggs. Many wondered if it would be their last meal. Unusually well-attended religious services followed. They would soon be taking part in the biggest single-day airlift in history and the final drop of the war. In previous airborne missions, glidermen suffered some of the highest casualty rates of the war. Crossing the Rhine into the heart of Nazi Germany would be no different. Operation Varsity presented an especially daunting challenge: deliver heavy equipment, troops, and medical supplies behind well-fortified, enemy lines in slow-moving, plywood “flying coffins.”
The men flying these unarmed, engine-less aircraft were a unique breed of soldier, serving as both pilot and infantry — an unenviable assignment that doubled their odds of being killed. In fact, the men weren’t even given parachutes because they typically flew too low to bail out in time. These inherent dangers instilled a Devil-May-Care attitude in the aviators who also wore a hard-earned, silver winged pin stamped with a capital G. The letter technically stood for glider but would become synonymous for guts.
The mission involved an armada of over 4,000 allied aircraft, including 906 American “Waco” gliders. Enemy snipers held strategic positions in the nearby Diersfordter Forest, and flame-throwers added to the chaos in fields laced with Rommel’s Asparagus — wooden poles planted in areas designed to disrupt landings.
Despite suffering heavy losses, General Eisenhower called Varsity “the most successful airborne operation carried out to date.” Six weeks later, Germany surrendered. By the time the next war rolled around, combat gliders had been replaced by the helicopter, adding to the heap of relegated weapons of war like observation balloons and Hannibal’s battle elephants. But the sacrifices and courage by a small group of pilots will never be forgotten, reminding us all that the G stood for guts.