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The Boys in the Boat: History vs. Hollywood


Joel Edgerton
Born: June 23, 1974
Blacktown, New South Wales, Australia

Coach Al Ulbrickson
Born: February 11, 1903
Birthplace: Seattle, Washington, USA
Death: November 7, 1980, Seattle, Washington, USA

Callum Turner
Born: February 15, 1990
London, England, UK

Joe Rantz
Born: March 31, 1914
Birthplace: Spokane, Washington, USA
Death: September 10, 2007, Redmond, Washington, USA
Boat Position: #7 Seat

Hadley Robinson
Born: December 5, 1995
Montpelier, Vermont, USA

Joyce Simdars
Born: November 7, 1915
Birthplace: Seattle, Washington, USA
Death: September 4, 2002, Seattle, Washington, USA
Bio: Joe Rantz's Girlfriend and Future Wife

Jack Mulhern
Born: May 15, 1994
Rye, New York, USA

Don Hume
Born: July 25, 1915
Birthplace: Olympia, Washington, USA
Death: September 16, 2001, Sultan, Washington, USA
Boat Position: #8 Seat

Luke Slattery
Born: October 14, 1993
California, USA

Bobby Moch
Born: June 20, 1914
Birthplace: Montesano, Washington, USA
Death: January 18, 2005, Sammamish, Washington, USA
Boat Position: Coxswain

Peter Guinness
Born: May 3, 1950
Whitstable, Kent, England, UK

George Pocock
Born: March 23, 1891
Birthplace: Kingston upon Thames, England, UK
Death: March 19, 1976, Seattle, Washington, USA
Bio: University of Washington Boatman

Historical Accuracy (Q&A):

Is The Boys in the Boat based on a book?

Yes. Directed by George Clooney, the movie is based on Daniel James Brown's #1 New York Times bestselling non-fiction book The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which was published in 2013. The book chronicles the true story of the University of Washington rowing team, which competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany.

According to Forbes, author Daniel James Brown met Joe Rantz (portrayed by Callum Turner in the movie) in 2007. Rantz was the only member of the crew who was still alive at the time. He passed away not long after their meeting. Fortunately for Brown, Joe Rantz's daughter, Judy, had previously interviewed her father and recorded his story to tapes that Brown could use for his research. He also contacted family members of the other members of the crew and had access to their journals.

Did the real Joe Rantz have a troubled childhood?

Yes. A Boys in the Boat fact-check confirms that Rantz, portrayed by Callum Turner in the movie, grew up poor. His dire circumstances and struggle in the movie is largely accurate. His mother died from throat cancer when he was just four years old, and he was sent to stay with his aunt. His father remarried three years later in 1921 to a woman named Thula LaFollete.

Joe Rant'z father, Harry Rantz, made him come live with him and Thula, who had four younger children of her own. Despite Joe being well-behaved and a good student, Thula did not take a liking to Joe and wanted him gone. One day, after Joe got in a spat with Thula's child, Harry left his 10-year-old son at the town's one-room schoolhouse. A teacher told Joe he could stay there if he agreed to take on some routine chores, including chopping wood for the stoves. For food, Joe hunted, fished, and worked odd jobs. Several months later, in 1925, his father retrieved him because the family was relocating to the town of Sequim, Washington, 65 miles northwest of Seattle. However, their financial troubles worsened.

The real Joe Rantz (left) is pictured in a 1933 University of Washington student ID photo. Actor Callum Turner (right) portrays him in the movie. Photos: University of Washington / MGM

On his way home from school one day in November 1929, Joe discovered that his father and Thula had packed up the car. They were leaving for an undisclosed location with his half-siblings and they weren't taking him with them. Joe was 15, alone, and had to care for himself during the start of the Great Depression. For two years, he stayed in a half-finished cabin in the woods. He continued to go to school and made money by logging timber, building fences, baling hay, and clearing tree stumps. He had an older brother, Fred, who had recently married and told Joe to come live with him and his wife in Seattle. Fred had been hired as a teacher at Seattle's Roosevelt High School, which Joe would attend for his senior year. No longer having to worry about whether he would eat or not, Joe excelled at school and participated in high school sports.

How did Joe Rantz and Joyce Simdars meet?

The Boys in the Boat true story reveals that Joe Rantz met girlfriend Joyce Simdars when he was going to school in Sequim, Washington. They became close friends. Before starting college, Joe proposed to Joyce, who would also attend the University of Washington.

How did University of Washington rowing coach Al Ulbrickson discover Joe Rantz?

While Al Ulbrickson was visiting Roosevelt High School for another reason, he noticed Joe Rantz performing a maneuver on the high bar during gymnastics practice. It was then that he encouraged Joe to apply to the University of Washington and try out for the crew team. This was before the era when athletic scholarships made it much easier for economically challenged students to attend college.

After graduating high school, Joe worked for more than a year to save money for college. He paved highways and he worked on the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, a job that required him to rappel down cliffs and dangle in the air as he used a jackhammer to clear away rock. He enrolled at the University of Washington in the fall of 1934 and earned a spot on the freshman crew team. The following year he made the varsity-eight boat.

Coach Al Ulbrickson (left) is portrayed by Joel Edgerton (right) in The Boys in the Boat. Photos: Courtesy of University of Washington / MGM

Did the University of Washington rowers come from a lower economic class than many of the other teams?

Yes. Rowing was considered to be a prestigious sport at the time and many of the best teams hailed from elite schools like Harvard, Yale and Oxford. The fact that the nine young men on the University of Washington team were all from working-class families indeed contributed to their underdog status. They were the sons of loggers, farmers, shipyard workers, and manual laborers. They were never expected to beat the elite teams from the East Coast and Britain.

Top (left to right): Shorty Hunt (Bruce Herbelin-Earle), Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), and Don Hume (Jack Mulhern) are depicted in the movie. Bottom (left to right): The real Shorty Hunt, Joe Rantz, and Don Hume row as part of the University of Washington crew team in the 1930s.

Did Don Hume come down with a bad chest cold during the boat trip over to the Olympics in Germany?

Yes. During the ten-day boat trip across the Atlantic to get to the Olympics in Berlin, Germany, rower Don Hume came down with a bad chest cold. He stayed in bed for several days and had a high fever. He lost approximately 12 pounds by the day of the race, and Coach Ulbrickson thought it would be best to replace him with an alternate. However, the team wanted Hume. Ulbrickson trusted their decision and let Hume compete.

The 1936 University of Washington Olympic Rowing Team (standing from left to right): Don Hume, Joe Rantz, "Shorty" George Hunt, "Stub" James McMillin, Johnny White, Gordy Adam, Chuck Day, and Roger Morris. Crouching in front at center is coxswain Bobby Moch. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, [UW2234]

Did the University of Washington rowing team win the Gold medal at the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany?

Yes. An examination of the fact vs. fiction in The Boys in the Boat confirms that the real-life 1936 US Olympic Rowing Team captured the Gold medal in the men's eight at the Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany on August 14, 1936. The men's eight was the most prestigious of all the rowing contests. The race began at 6:15 p.m. German time. It was morning back in the United States, and millions huddled around their radios to listen to the race unfold. Watch footage of the 1936 Olympic rowing men's eight race.

Did the University of Washington team move up from last place to win Olympic Gold?

Yes. At the halfway point in the 2,000-meter race, the University of Washington rowing crew was in sixth place, with an average pace of 32 strokes per minute. They rallied during the second half, increasing their strokes to a mind-boggling 44 per minute. They crossed the finish line in a dead heat with Germany and Italy, capturing first place by three feet and six-tenths of a second. It took approximately five minutes for the judges to make their decision. During that time, the crowd yelled, "Deutschland! Deutschland!" The anticipation was recorded by German propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.

USA (top) crosses the finish line first in the men's eight at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

Did Adolf Hitler watch the US Olympic Rowing Team win the Gold medal?

Yes. With regard to Adolf Hitler, The Boys in the Boat true story is indeed in line with the movie. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, and other high-ranking Nazi officials looked on as the eight-man crew of young men from America crossed the finish line in Berlin, beating the German team and winning gold. German rowers had won Gold in the first five races of the day and the Führer was expecting a win in the most important rowing event, the men's eight.

The 1936 Olympic Games were the first to be televised, as Hitler wanted to promote Nazi propaganda and show off the superiority of the German athletes. People gathered in television rooms in and around Berlin to watch. Others around the world, including Joe Rantz's family and his girlfriend Joyce Simdars, listened on their radios back home.

During the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Hitler was also famously on hand to watch American Jesse Owens win the 100-meter event, and he shook the hand of runner Louis Zamperini after watching Zamperini's impressive final lap in the 5000-meter.

Top: Adolf Hitler watches the rowing competition on a cold and rainy August 14, 1936. Bottom: Hitler (center) watches the races with Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (far left) and Luftwaffe Commander Hermann Göring (far right).

Did Joe Rantz and Joyce Simdars get married?

Yes. Joe Rantz graduated from the University of Washington in 1939 with a degree in chemical engineering. He married high school sweetheart Joyce Simdars on May 27, 1939. Together they had five children and remained married for 63 years until Joyce's death in 2002. To provide for his family, Joe spent 35 years working at the Boeing Corporation in Seattle. He passed away of congestive heart failure in 2007 at the age of 93.

An elderly Joe Rantz (left) is pictured in the years before his death. Actor Ian McElhinney portrays the older Joe in the movie. Photos: Find a Grave / MGM

Overall, how accurate is The Boys in the Boat?

For the most part, the movie sticks closely to Daniel James Brown's bestselling book. Brown even reportedly shed a tear during a screening. Director George Clooney admitted that he had to leave out certain parts of the book due to the fact that he could only fit so much into a two-hour movie. We first meet rower Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) when he's 19, despite the book going much deeper into his childhood. Other parts of the film condense the true story's timeline. Clooney noted that they meticulously recreated the University of Washington Shell House, creating an identical replica to the one that existed in '36. However, the movie was shot in the UK and not at the actual university, mainly because the campus and area around the UW Shell House no longer look the same, as new buildings have been constructed.