August 30, 2023
WRITTEN BY: QUENTIN
When it comes to film (and television, for that matter), it’s hard to find a genre more agreed upon than “based on a true story.” Almost everyone, from the Academy to the casual filmgoer, loves a true story, be it a historical epic, a biopic, or a true crime docuseries. Even ignoring television, which saw upwards of ten different series that were based on true stories gain Emmy nominations this year, we’ve seen countless true movies also released, ranging from comedies like The Beanie Bubble to adrenaline-fueled underdog stories like Gran Turismo to prestige dramas like Oppenheimer, with Napoleon, Dumb Money, Killers of the Flower Moon, Ferrari and several more still to come.
Given the genre’s popularity, let’s look at some historical events and people that deserve their big-budget Hollywood treatment. These are fascinating stories that, for whatever reason, keep getting glossed over for the next formulaic musical biopic. Now, inclusion here isn’t to say there has never been a movie made about the given subject, only that the examples below have mostly been relegated to supporting roles in movies about other people or miniseries and made-for-tv movies that, at this point, feel dated. So, let’s fix that, Hollywood.
Like Dutch historian Johan Huizinga said, “no other discipline has its portals so wide open to the general public as history.” Step through that portal with me, won’t you?
GRIGORI YEFIMOVICH RASPUTIN
Rasputin was known as a faith healer, a mystic, a prophet, and a religious charlatan, but most importantly, he was a peasant who became an advisor and family friend to Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia. However, when it comes to specific details about Rasputin’s life and death, most of what we know is rooted in hearsay and rumor. Those rumors are as wild as they come, though. There are rumors that he was a member of Khlysty, a religious sect whose rituals supposedly included self-flagellation and sexual orgies. He was rumored to have had affairs with Alexandra (Nicholas II’s wife and the Empress of Russia), as well as Nicholas and Alexandra’s four daughters (the Grand Duchesses). He was accused of multiple rapes and blatant religious heresy while maintaining a cult following and purportedly performing miracles. As the Emperor’s advisor, he used his position and access to accept bribes and sexual favors while expanding his influence, an influence that ultimately led to the end of the Romanov’s 304-year long dynasty in 1917. Lastly, the rumors surrounding his assassination, some of which have been disproven, have been the stuff of legend for over 100 years. He is an enigmatic and mysterious character, and his dark story is full of political intrigue, scandal, violence, and murder.
The Pitch: The dark, gothic atmosphere of From Hell meets the period piece political thrills and production design of Mary Queen of Scots
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix as Rasputin
MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
The MLB in the 80s and 90s was a lawless land, full of colorful stories worthy of the big screen treatment. How colorful, you ask? First and foremost, you have the World Series-winning 1986 Mets, a team that was known for its heavy-drinking, cocaine-snorting, plane-destroying, hard-partying ways. I mean, there are tales of team fights (plural) where raw steaks and cake were used as weapons, and cocktails of amphetamines and beer being consumed between innings in the dugout. Not enough? How about the Pittsburgh Drug Trials, from which several crazy stories were uncovered, including John Milner taking himself out of a game to buy cocaine in the stadium bathroom, and Tim Raines admitting he always slid headfirst because he didn’t want to break the vials of cocaine in his back pocket. On top of that, you’ve got the start of the steroid era in Oakland with The Bash Brothers, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. You’ve got the collusion scandal of 1985. You’ve got Wade Boggs reportedly drinking 107 beers on a cross-country flight. You’ve got the chain-smoking owner of the Cincinnati Reds, Marge Schott, making almost daily racist comments to the media, including sympathetic remarks about Adolf Hitler. You’ve got Pete Rose, the manager of those same Reds, betting tens of thousands of dollars on games that he was managing. And that doesn’t even touch on other iconic things from the era, like Kirk Gibson’s homerun, Bill Buckner, “Fernandomania,” the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, and so on. Some liberties would need to be taken with the timeline, and there is no way MLB signs off so it will have to be a stand-in league, but a movie from the Commissioner’s perspective, showing how one deals with all these shenanigans while trying to run a major sports league, could be…dare I say….a homerun. (sorry, not sorry)
The Pitch: The no-holds-barred, behind-the-scenes examination and ensemble cast of Any Given Sunday meets the irreverent tone of The Wolf of Wall Street meets the day-in-the-life story structure of Hail Caesar!
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Matt Damon as The Commissioner
THE HARLEM HELLFIGHTERS
Recent award-winning movies like All Quiet on the Western Front and 1917 notwithstanding, there really aren’t a ton of movies about World War I, and there are even fewer that look at the contributions of African Americans during The Great War (or any war if we’re being honest). I think a good place to start giving credit is the 369th Infantry Harlem Hellfighters. The Hellfighters, an all-black regiment under the command of white officers, was among the first U.S. regiments to arrive in France during WWI. They spent 191 days in combat, which was longer than any other American unit in the war. I’m telling you, this unit was feared. In one example, Private Henry Johnson, armed with nothing more than a bolo knife and an unloaded rifle, single-handedly fought off more than 20 Germans to save the life of a fellow soldier, incurring 21 wounds in the process. As a result, the German army began referring to him as “Black Death,” and President Theodore Roosevelt described him as one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in the war. Johnson was awarded the Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Cross, and the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor, not to mention he was the first American to be awarded the French Croix du Guerre (France’s highest military honor). And he is just one example of the many badasses that made up this unit. Overall, 171 of the Hellfighters went on to win individual medals, and the entire unit was eventually awarded the Croix du Guerre as well. If anyone’s war story needs to be told, it’s the Hellfighters, who were no doubt fighting an enemy on two fronts.
The Pitch: The grounded realism of Saving Private Ryan meets the immersive nature of Dunkirk meets the racism-in-the-military commentary of Glory
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: LaKeith Stanfield as Private Henry Johnson
THE GREAT MOLASSES FLOOD
If you’ve never heard of The Great Molasses Flood, it’s one of those “so crazy it must be true” stories. On January 15, 1919, a storage tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses burst, causing waves of molasses measuring 25-feet high to flood the streets of Boston, MA. Before you process that information, I’d like you to take a second to picture just how thick and slow molasses is. Okay, got it? Now, picture a massive, almost three-story-high surge of molasses traveling 35 miles per hour down an old cobblestone street. With all due respect to the 21 people who died and the more than 150 people who were injured, it’s a comically absurd vision. Various newspapers of the era reported that people "were picked up by a rush of air and hurled many feet," and that the unlucky “died like…flies on sticky fly-paper.” Furthermore, as the molasses cooled (remember, this was winter in Boston), it became even thicker, trapping people and horses like the amber-encased mosquitos from Jurassic Park. Like cartoon quicksand, the more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. I’m telling you... this is a wild tale. Yes, it was an undeniably tragic event, but a loose adaptation also is ripe for an over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek action movie satire.
The Pitch: The disaster film action sequences of San Andreas meets the self-aware bonkersness of Cocaine Bear meets the satire of Tropic Thunder
Director: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Starring: Chris Evans in full Boston accent as The Hero
Considering the legacy of Genghis Khan, it’s amazing that the only movie I can think of where he is featured is Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I mean, this a man whose influence led to the creation of the world’s largest empire, covering nearly all of Asia and most of Eastern Europe, more than doubling the size of Alexander the Great’s. Admittedly, very little is known about Khan, so maybe that’s why there aren’t many movies about him. That said, the approach to his story could go in several directions. Do you tell the hero’s story of how he rose from nothing to become the great unifier of the Mongol tribes? Or do you tell the villain’s story by exploring his conquests, during which an estimated 20-40 million people, or 5-10 percent of the world’s population from that time, died because of him. In Mongolia, he is highly revered as a symbol of national identity, but to earn that honor, he was a terrifying warlord that raped so many women that about 1 in 200 people today share his DNA. On the other hand, he also created Mongolia’s first writing and postal system, built the world’s fastest calvary and first artillery unit, expanded global trade, and encouraged meritocracy and religious tolerance. So, hero or villain? Why not both? …And to avoid the accuracy issue, use a fantastical action epic with multiple viewpoints to explore the dichotomy of societal progress and what it took to achieve it.
The Pitch: The spellbinding fantasy visuals of The Green Knight meets the epic battle scenes of Game of Thrones meets the storytelling structure of Rashomon
Director: George Miller
Starring: Simu Liu as Genghis Khan
(DISCLAIMER: Look, I know that Liu is not of Mongolian descent, but since I don’t know of any Mongolian actors, Chinese descent (Liu) is as close as I can get. So, instead of leaving this blank, I’m working with what I know. Sue me.)
Photo Credits: Photo 1 - DeAgostini/Getty; Photo 2 - MLB; Photo 3 - What's Up Productions; Photo 4 - Boston Public Library; Photo 5 - Unknown