As the COVID-19 continues to grab most headlines these days, it’s a safe bet we’re going to see a glut of deadly virus-themed flicks in the near future.
10. Escape From Papago
EXT. ARIZONA DESERT — NIGHT
Under cover of darkness, a group of men trudge their way through a vast desert covered in cactus and tumbleweeds. But these aren’t lost campers or overgrown Boy Scouts in search of merit badges. Suddenly, a TALL MAN, 40s, with a commanding presence, brings the march to a halt. We now hear German spoken in a faint but deadly serious whisper. As ordered, the obedient charges form into smaller teams and quickly disappear across the untamed expanse of the American Southwest….
The opening scene above describes an event that occurred on Christmas Eve in 1944. Twenty-five German POWs, including battle-hardened U-boat commanders, escaped from Camp Papago, a barbed-wire facility located just outside of Phoenix during WWII. The men spent months digging an elaborate tunnel as well as manufacturing clothes and identification papers. A few of the ex-sailors even built a collapsible boat to use in case they reached a waterway to the ocean.
Fear of sabotage and malice soon gripped federal and local authorities, triggering the largest manhunt in state history that included the FBI, bounty hunters, cowboys, and Native American scouts. The escaped prisoners would also encounter an unexpected deadly threat not found on most battlefields: rattlesnakes.
Most of the men would either be caught or surrender within days — except for one notable exception: decorated Nazi war hero, Kapitan Jürgen Wattenberg. As the senior officer of the camp and former commander of U-162, Wattenburg managed to stay on the lam for 35 days before finally being nabbed by a city cop.
Epilogue: Several of the POWs would return to the scene of the crime years later for a reunion, including Wattenberg. Not surprisingly, the stoic officer never revealed his ambitious plans while on the run for over a month.
9. No Limits
The story of Alice Coachman is a shining example of how sports can transcend both race and gender and inspire an entire generation. As one of ten children growing up during the Depression in the segregated south, Coachman had limited access to training facilities and athletic coaching. In short, the odds of her becoming an Olympic champion and role model to millions were slim at best.
She improvised, however, by running barefoot on dirt roads and using old wooden fences to practice high jumping. Coachman dominated the competition in high school as a sprinter and jumper, setting a national record in the high jump while still shoeless. In 1939, she accepted a scholarship to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where she continued to excel as one of the nation’s premier female athletes in both track and basketball.
Due to WWII, the Olympic Games were canceled in both 1940 and 1944. The missed opportunities robbed Coachman of likely medals during her prime that included an unprecedented ten consecutive national high jump championships. Her first international competition finally came during the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Competing in front of a capacity crowd at Wembley Stadium, she set an Olympic record to win gold in the high jump. She also became the first African American woman from any country to earn an Olympic title.
After returning home, she retired from athletic competition to raise a family and begin her long career as a school teacher. Coca Cola also selected her as a spokesperson, making her the first African American athlete to secure an endorsement. She later founded the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to support young athletes before passing away in 2014 at the age of 90.
8. A Band Called Love
In 1967, the house band at the infamous Whiskey-a-Go-Go nightclub in LA released their debut album, containing the hit song, “Light My Fire.” The psychedelic troubadours, better known as The Doors, would eventually achieve rock ‘n’ roll immortality — mainly due to the wild antics of their charismatic frontman, Jim Morrison.
That same year, another rock band from LA released their third studio album. The group, Love, infused a unique mix of styles, including folk-rock, blues, jazz, and even mariachi — but never reached anywhere near the commercial success as their contemporaries. However, years later, “Forever Changes” would be heralded as a highly influential masterpiece — and land at #40 in Rolling Stones’ Greatest Albums of All Time — two spots ahead of The Doors.
Sex, drugs, and rock n roll defined the 1960s in L.A. These same elements also destroyed one of the greatest bands from the era. The band’s African-American lead singer, Arthur Lee, had all the makings for superstardom — looks, attitude, and creative talent both as a singer and songwriter.
However, Love would experience their fair share of the ups and downs associated with trying to make a living as a musician. To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
The band saw countless lineup changes, and Lee battled drug addiction as well as doing time in prison. After slaying his demons, he managed to stay active with other bands and solo projects. Before he died of cancer in 2006, he provided candid insight into the making of Love’s seminal third album. “When I did that album,” Lee said, “I thought I was going to die at that particular time, so those were my last words.”
7. Never Say Die
Hollywood loves zombies. Here’s another story about a girl who came back from the dead — but the best part is that it really happened.
Chicago-born Elizabeth “Betty” Robinson could seriously scoot. She first gained the attention of a local high school coach while running after a train (that she caught) and would go on to make the 1928 US Olympic Team as a sprinter. At the Games in Amsterdam, the 16-year-old Robinson won the inaugural gold medal in the women’s 100 meters and then picked up a silver in the 4×100 meter relay.
The teen phenom would later set world records at 50, 60, 70, and 100 yards and earned the title, “World’s Fastest Woman.” But while still only a teenager, a horrific plane crash changed everything.
The second act of most screenplays is where high drama typically occurs in which the protagonist (in this case, “Betty”) encounters seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Another standard blueprint suggests: Act One — Get Character Up a Tree. Act Two — Throw Rocks At Him or Her. Act Three — Get Character Down. In Never Say Die, this is where lots of rocks get tossed around.
After being pulled from the wreckage, Robinson’s limp body was put in the trunk of a car and taken to an undertaker. She would remain in critical condition for weeks while slipping in and out of a coma. The Olympian then underwent several surgeries, requiring silver pins inserted into her thigh. As a result, one leg would remain half an inch shorter than the other for the rest of her life.
As she continued her long, painful recovery, doctors feared she would ever walk again — let alone compete on a world stage. Obviously, these quacks underestimated the heavy mettle determination of Betty Robinson. She eventually returned to the track while enrolled at Northwestern University, where she once again started winning races. In 1936, she made her second US Olympic team and competed in Berlin. Although her injury prevented kneeling in a normal start position, she won her second gold medal in the women’s 4×100 meter relay.
6. Harlem’s Hellfighter
On paper, Henry Johnson didn’t appear all that intimidating. His 5-foot-4, 130 pound physique would have barely qualified him as a lightweight boxer. On the battlefield, however, Johnson proved he could punch far above his weight, becoming the first American soldier to earn the Croix de Guerre (France’s highest military honor) during WWI. Nearly a century later, Johnson’s own country would award him a posthumous Medal of Honor.
As a young black man with no education, Johnson took whatever jobs he could find, working as a chauffeur, laborer, and railway porter. He later enlisted in the US Army and eventually landed in France with the 369th Infantry Regiment. The unit, consisting mostly of African Americans, became one of the earliest arrivals as part of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).
Not unlike conditions at home, Johnson encountered systemic racism in military life. Most non-white U.S. troops in France, including the 369th, performed menial labor such as unloading ships and digging latrines. The men, however, would soon become the first African Americans to see combat after being reassigned to the depleted (and more inclusive) French Fourth Army, who dubbed them the “Harlem Hellfighters.”
On the night of May 14, 1918, near the Argonne Forest, Johnson and fellow private Needham Roberts stood sentry duty when German snipers began firing at them. Johnson countered by lobbing grenades, but the fast-approaching enemy soon surrounded the two Americans and severely wounded the 17-year-old Roberts. After exhausting his ammunition, Johnson continued to fight, using the butt of his rifle, a bolo knife, and finally his fists.
He eventually killed four enemy soldiers and wounded more than a dozen others before reinforcements arrived. More importantly, Johnson prevented the Germans from breaking the French line despite suffering 21 wounds during the furious one-hour battle. For his actions, he earned the moniker “Black Death.”
When the Hellfighters arrived home in February 1919, they weren’t allowed to join the official victory parade in New York City with the other returning US troops. However, a separate parade was held in their honor as thousands of spectators lined the route to watch Johnson lead nearly 3,000 soldiers in an open car towards Harlem. The government also used his image on Victory War stamps (“Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many stamps have you licked?”) along with an assortment of army recruiting materials.
Unfortunately, there would be no Hollywood ending. At least not while he was alive, anyway. Johnson’s discharge papers failed to mention any of his combat-inflicted injuries, leaving him with no disability pay after the war. He gradually drifted into alcoholism and died penniless in 1929 at the age of 32. But then in 2015, President Obama issued the long-overdue decoration, commemorating Johnson’s conspicuous gallantry.
5. Pink Lady
Studios should have no trouble casting an A-list leading lady to portray the real-life spy and super sleuth, Kate Warne.
Warne’s remarkable story began in 1856 in Chicago, where she walked off the street and into the office of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. After introducing herself to head honcho, Alan Pinkerton, she then convinced him to hire her — not as a secretary — but as the world’s first female detective.
Pinkerton later recalled the initial encounter in his memoirs, in which she told him: “Women could be most useful in worming out secrets in many places which would be impossible for a male detective.” And over the next 12 years, that’s exactly what she did while working as an undercover agent under multiple aliases and disguises. She would also spearhead an all-female division within the agency that came to be known as “The Pinks.”
Warne took on the most important case of her career in 1861, involving none other than President-elect Abraham Lincoln. As the country teetered on the brink of hostilities, Maryland had become a hotbed of secessionist activity that also included an early assassination plot. Warne helped smuggle the beloved 16th U.S. president back to Washington, D.C. to attend the inauguration into office.
Additionally, Warne worked tirelessly throughout the Civil War as a spy. She managed to infiltrate high-level Confederate circles and later ran the Union Intelligence Service, a forerunner of the Secret Service. Not surprisingly, Warne inspired the Pinkerton Detective Agency motto, “We Never Sleep.”
4. Uncommon Valor
Billy Fiske lived for excitement — and experienced plenty of it during his brief but blazing 29 years. He became the youngest Winter Olympic gold medalist as a 16-year-old while competing in the bobsled at the 1928 Games in St. Moritz. Four years later, Fiske led Team USA to another victory in Lake Placid while serving as his country’s flag bearer. He also raced cars and enjoyed a long reign as the toboggan king of Switzerland’s infamous Cresta Run. But among all of his adrenaline-fuelled exploits, Fiske is best known for his courage and sacrifice as the first American pilot killed in combat during WWII.
Born into a wealthy family claiming roots dating back to early Colonial America, Fiske attended private schools in Europe, where he developed an affinity for alpine sports. He was expected to win a third Olympic gold medal — but chose not to compete at the 1936 Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. He never publicly gave his reasons, but a Jewish friend and fellow Olympian, Irving Jaffee, insisted Fiske objected to the antisemitism of Hitler’s Nazi regime.
As Germany’s war drums grew louder, Fiske learned to fly, earning an Aviator’s Certificate with the Royal Aero Club of Great Britain. He then circumvented America’s neutrality during the early stages of the war by using forged Canadian papers to gain acceptance into the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. He soon put his natural hand-eye coordination skills to use in the cockpit of a Hawker Hurricane during the Battle of Britain.
In August of 1940, Fiske accompanied his squadron in a series of fierce dog fights in southern England, resulting in the downing of eight Luftwaffe Junkers. But as the American chased an enemy dive-bomber out to sea, a German tail gunner punctured the Hurricane’s reserve fuel tank that caused a fire to erupt in the Hurricane’s cockpit. Driven by stubbornness and a champion’s ego, he refused to bail out and managed to glide the warbird back home with a dead stick landing.
Fiske suffered severe burns to his hands and ankles and had to be carefully extracted from the plane by the ground crew. Shortly after, his fuel tank exploded. He received treatment at nearby Royal West Sussex Hospital in Chichester but soon died from surgical shock. A well-attended funeral service took place a few days later at St Mary and St Blaise Church in the town of Boxgrove. The inscription on his gravestone simply reads: He died for England.
3. Pain Train
The Gurkhas, an elite Nepalese unit world-renowned for their courage and discipline, have produced some of the fiercest warriors ever to set foot on a battlefield. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw famously once said: “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or a Gurkha.”
Each warrior also carries a traditional weapon into battle called the kukri. The iconic 18-inch knife features a distinct curved blade with a handle made from wood, bone, or the horn of a water buffalo. According to apocryphal legend, once a kukri is drawn in battle, it must taste blood before returning to its sheath.
On the night of September 2, 2010, a gang of armed bandits posing as passengers stopped a crowded train in northeast India. The attackers, possibly as many as 40 men, began going down the aisles, looting and terrorizing the travelers. But unbeknownst to the robbers, a 35-year-old retired Gurkha named Bishnu Shrestha just happened to be on board taking a leisurely nap when duty called.
As he calmly assessed the mayhem unfolding all around, the men grabbed a girl sitting next to him and intended to rape her. That’s when the Shrestha sprang into action and pulled out his kukri blade. He quickly killed three of the robbers and injured eight others, causing the remaining men to take off running. During the melee, the Gurkha suffered a deep gash to his hand but still managed to thwart the ambush successfully.
Following the ordeal, the Indian government presented him with three gallantry awards. “Fighting the enemy in battle is my duty as a soldier. Taking on the thugs on the train was my duty as a human being,” said Shrestha.
2. Me, Tarzan
For movie fans in the 1930s and ’40s, Tarzan represented the ultimate hero. Without having to rely on any phony, comic book superpowers, he embodied natural athleticism and fearless confidence, living by his own rules while swinging from vine to vine. Animals worshipped him. Men feared him. Women wanted to be with him. Although many actors would play the role over the years, only one man rightfully deserves to be called “Lord of the Jungle.”
Johnny Weissmuller was born on June 2, 1904, in the village of Freidorf of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now a district of Timisoara, Romania). The Weissmuller family later emigrated to America and settled in Chicago, where young Johnny developed his swimming prowess by working as a lifeguard on the beaches of Lake Michigan. After school, he worked as a bellhop and elevator operator at the Plaza Hotel and trained with the swim team at the Illinois Athletic Club. Weissmuller would eventually become the most dominant swimmer throughout the 1920s, smashing several national and world records and winning five Olympic gold medals. It’s worth noting he went undefeated during this period in all competitions, never losing a single race. Ever. Top that, Michael Phelps.
At 6-foot-3, muscular and good-looking, Weissmuller inevitably found his way to Hollywood. He soon caught the attention of MGM’s sleazeball head honcho, Louis B. Mayer, who wanted to change Weissmuller’s name to something “less ethnic.” But after the mogul learned the newcomer was a famous athlete and the studio could benefit from the Olympian’s name recognition, Weissmuller was offered a seven picture deal and immediately cast in the title role of Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932.
He later appeared in various other incarnations of the same jungle character in both film and TV. Despite being typecast and given threadbare scripts, the former Olympian enjoyed a lengthy career spanning five decades in Hollywood. Off-screen, however, is where the tale takes a dark turn. He endured several stormy relationships that included marriage to his second wife, Mexican actress and screen idol, Lupe Valez. For the purpose of this story ever getting green-lit, the high-octane drama fits in nicely because without it, there’s no second act (see #5).
In 1958, a genuinely remarkable stranger-than-fiction incident occurred that could have only happened to Johnny Weissmuller. While playing golf in Cuba during the Cuban Revolution, he found himself surrounded by a group of angry, rebel soldiers. Unable to speak Spanish and properly identify himself, Weissmuller got out of his golf cart and launched into his trademark Tarzan call. The guerrillas then recognized the world-famous movie star, proclaiming ‘”Es Tarzan! Es Tarzan de la Selva!” and happily escorted him to his hotel.
Weissmuller passed away on January 20, 1984, in Acapulco, Mexico, from pulmonary edema following a series of strokes. Per his final request, a recording of his signature roar played at the funeral as his coffin was lowered into the ground.
1. Duel in Rome
The title of the “world’s greatest athlete” is typically reserved for the winner of the Olympic decathlon, a grueling, 10-event contest over two days requiring speed, strength, and stamina. The competition at the 1960 Games in Rome featured a pair of UCLA teammates and close friends, Rafer Johnson and CK Yang. Their contrasting styles and backgrounds, as well as overcoming political pressure and racial prejudice, provided plenty of drama as the two men battled down to the wire in the most thrilling decathlon in Olympic history.
Johnson’s natural talents might have just as easily led him to a successful career in the NFL or NBA. As a multi-sport star in high school, the only dilemma facing the African-American stand out would be which sport best showcased his athletic abilities.
Under the guidance of legendary UCLA track coach, Elvin C. “Ducky” Drake, Johnson firmly set his sights on becoming the best decathlete in the world. A few years later, he would also benefit from the arrival of Yang Chuan-kwang (“CK” to his friends), a world-class Taiwanese athlete, as the two decathletes pushed each other daily as training partners as members of the powerhouse Bruin team.
Yang and Johnson stood as the top challengers for the decathlon gold medal at the Games of the XVII Olympiad. Nonetheless, both men almost missed the chance to compete at all. A serious car accident had caused Johnson to sit out the entire 1959 season. Additionally, as an outspoken activist in the Civil Rights Movement, he faced pressure by other Black leaders to consider boycotting the Games. Meanwhile, Yang would become embroiled in a Cold War battle between Mao Zedong’s communist regime in China and the anti-communist, island nation of Taiwan.
And so with multiple storylines on display, the decathlon began on September 5, 1960, in Rome. The speedy Yang, as expected, jumped out to an early lead with victories in the 100 meters and long jump. Johnson then re-took the lead after a substantial winning heave in the shot put. This set the tone for the next two days as the friendly rivals maintained their spirited dual heading into the final event: the 1500 meters. Based on scoring tables that award points for each of the ten events, Yang had to defeat Johnson by 10 seconds to win.
With Drake coaching both men from the stands, darkness shrouded the Stadio Olympico as the competitors approached the starting line. Yang jumped out to an early lead in hopes of wearing down his heavier teammate. But in the end, Johnson ran a lifetime best and finished a mere 1.2 seconds behind Yang en route to a new Olympic record. Afterward, the exhausted men embraced, holding each other up in a moment that would forever capture the spirit of Olympic sportsmanship.