With the coming of the fascinating period piece The Monuments Men (World War II soldiers tasked with rescuing works of art and history before a defeated Hitler can destroy them all), it has got me thinking about other events in history that would make extraordinary movies.
The American Airmen & the Natives of Borneo; World War 2
A little known front in World War 2 (indeed, I graduated college with a history degree & never heard of this until I saw it on PBS’ Secrets of the Dead: The Airmen & the Headhunters) happened in the primitive heart of the island of Borneo. The Japanese had taken over Borneo, like the vast majority of islands in the Pacific. The Japanese then proceeded to track down & massacre the American missionaries on the island. The Protestant missionaries had such a good reputation, even amongst those who had not become Christian, that the massacre did not go over very well. Besides, the Japanese Army treated all indigenous peoples poorly. So when American planes got shot down over Borneo, and the American pilots were lost in the jungle, the natives (Kelabit & Dayek peoples) recognized them as Americans and sheltered them from the Japanese patrols. Furthermore, the British sent in Major Tom Harrison – an eccentric polymath and fearless, unconventional soldier – to Borneo to rescue the Americans and to organize a resistance among the natives. The tribal councils had made the traditional practice of headhunting illegal. But in the face of war, the traditional practice was reinstated. Armed with little more than blowdarts & a deep knowledge of the land, the natives proceeded to kick the invaders’ butts, suffering exceedingly few casualties themselves. And most of the American pilot did indeed make it home.
The Night of Panic; 1938
Before Orson Welles was considered one-of-if-not-the greatest director in Hollywood history, he was a brilliant regional success in New York, doing Broadway, off-Broadway, & radio drama. Well, it was that last category that almost got him into legal trouble. He decided that H.G. Wells’ (no known relation) War of the Worlds would make a good radio drama, but the first draft was incredibly dull. But Orson Welles got the bright idea to do the radio drama as a series of news bulletins, which, thanks to a long string of national tragedies (Hindenburg, Lindbergh's baby) and the steadily-increasing drumbeat of war in Europe, America was used to hearing. For those who tuned into the whole radio drama on 30 October 1938, CBS made it clear that this was a Mercury Theatre production. But most people had started off the hour listening to any number of other radio broadcasts. And, like Americans of today, channel-surfing was a thing. So many people just happened to tune in to these news bulletins of rockets launching from Mars, an unknown mechanical assailant in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, that kills the reporter and everyone on the scene, and then the invasion proceeded toward New York City. It is unclear how much panic really happened. Many people claim that it was very little, but probably because they want to protect their reputation. Some claim that the panic was wide-spread, probably from a desire to indulge in the legend. The reality is in the middle. We know that some families in northern New Jersey fled. An ill-timed power outage in Washington state sent a small town into a frenzy. A woman stormed a Methodist church in Indianapolis declaring that the world was coming to an end. We can also deduce that the panic was at least moderately wide-spread, because there was a serious threat of Congressional and legal action against Welles and CBS. In the end, no charges were brought, CBS agreed to avoid using official-sounding news bulletins as entertainment, and Orson Welles' career skyrocketed.
Now, the way I see it, there are three movies here. One: a limited-scope period piece, set in Concrete, Washington, that follows one or two families as they tune in late to the broadcast, draw all the wrong conclusions, then after the power goes out, flee into the mountains to prepare defensive positions against the Martians. Two: A full biopic, focusing on Welles, but including footage of the panic in the streets, juxtaposed against the actors in the studio who have no idea that people are drawing the wrong conclusions. Three: Do a movie based off the broadcast. Basically, War of the Worlds, set in Grover’s Mills, New Jersey, on Halloween Eve 1938, and no Tom Cruise.
In the hands of a great writer, Tesla’s story could be epic. Tesla was a contemporary, protégé, and rival of Thomas Edison. Furthermore, Tesla actually won the war over what type of electricity to use. If Edison had his way, the entire nation would be literally covered with power lines, because DC takes so much more powerline than AC. Tesla also wanted power to be free. Remember that next time you pay your electric bill. Tesla was shafted, ignored, mistreated, and marginalized. Odd, for the person who was right about electricity. The fact is that Edison was a much better businessman, and he made Tesla irrelevant. Tesla likely had a profound case of OCD. He spent his last days trying to build a death ray to modernize warfare. His reputation upon death was that of a mad scientist.
The Biblical book of Esther is one of the least “religious” books in the Bible. God is overarching theme, but Esther is the one book that doesn’t actually mention Him. Instead, you have the arrogant and foolish Artaxerxes, king of Persia, who throws a weeks-long drunken party, culminating in his demand that his wife present herself to his friends wearing only her crown, to show off her beauty. She refuses. So he loses his mind and has her “put away.” (Probably not a metaphor for death, in this case.) So he looks for a new wife. The winner is Esther, secretly a Jewish refugee. She & her uncle Mordecai discover a plot to destroy the Jews from within the government. Haman, the wannabe Hitler, builds a gallows from which to hang Mordecai, once the king approves his request to kill the Jews. Instead, Esther reveals herself as Jewish, and the plot is foiled, and Haman is hung from his own gallows. It is the textbook case of poetic justice.
The life of Tolkien is fascinating. In many respects, he is but a dry academic. But he was a dry academic who lost his parents young, fought in World War I (losing every member of his academic club of buddies in the process), befriended the other great fantasy writer of his time C.S. Lewis (apparently being the first to turn Lewis toward Christianity), and all the while, from childhood until death, making a dozen fully-functional fake languages. His epic masterpiece The Lord of the Rings was created only as an explanation for what these languages are and where they came from. If you don’t believe me, get ahold of the extended cut versions of the 3 The Lord of the Rings movies. Those DVDs have the best special features ever made for a movie. The first 1 or 2 chapters of the special features of each DVD set is about the life of J.R.R. Tolkien. Watch all those, and then try to tell me that Tolkien would not make a good biopic. Indeed, after Peter Jackson is done The Hobbit, perhaps he can channel his love of Tolkien, and his unprecedented access to hundreds of Tolkien scholars, into a great biographical movie.
What great historical event/person do you think would make a great movie?