The Boys in the Boat: Incredible true story behind George Clooney’s new film

George Clooney’s new film The Boys in the Boat hits screens in US cinemas on Christmas Day and will arrive in Britain early in January.

Based on Daniel James Brown’s New York Times-bestselling nonfiction novel of the same name, the movie tells the true story of the University of Washington rowing crew who represented the United States in the men’s eight at the 1936 Summer Olympic games in Berlin.

Callum Turner, known for his work in the Fantastic Beasts series, plays Joe Rantz, a working-class rower from Washington state who spent much of his young life fending for himself after being effectively abandoned by his family. The real Rantz was born in 1914 and died in 2007.

Speaking to Consequence about the challenge of playing Rantz, Turner said he focused on “the pain that Joe had to go through as a young boy.” Rantz’s childhood was a traumatic one, from “being put into the workhouse to earn his keep at eight years old” to being abandoned by his father and stepmother at the age of 13.

“The idea of that happening to anyone is unbelievably distressing,” said Turner. “And I think it was that moment in his life where he decided, ‘I’m not going to let this define me. I’m stepping up and I’m going to be responsible for what I do in my life.’ And that’s just inspiring, at 13 years old. I’m so inspired by his story.”

The film also stars Joel Edgerton, Hadley Robinson and Jack Mulhern.

Callum Turner as Joe Rantz in a scene from ‘The Boys in the Boat’

(Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc)

The true story behind The Boys in the Boat

Joe Rantz was born on 31 March 1914 in Spokane, Washington. His mother, Nellie, died from throat cancer when he was just four and he went on to have a troubled childhood in Boulder City, Idaho and Sequim, Washington. His father, Harry, remarried after his mother’s death but Rantz did not enjoy life with his stepmother Thula. Instead, he lived alone, putting himself through high school and eventually winning a place at the University of Washington.

At university, Rantz joined the senior varsity eights rowing team after being spotted by coach Al Ulbrickson (played by Edgerton in the film). His fellow rowers were Herbert Morris, Charles Day, Gordon Adam, John White, James McMillin, George Hunt and Donald Hume. Their coxswain was Robert Moch. All nine members of the University of Washington team came from lower or middle-class families and each had struggled to work their way through school during the depths of the Great Depression.

After winning the 1936 Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta, the University of Washington team was chosen to represent the United States at that year’s Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. The games were overseen personally by Adolf Hitler, who saw the event – the first Olympics to ever be televised – as an opportunity to promote his government and his antisemitic ideas about racial supremacy.

Director George Clooney on the set of ‘The Boys in the Boat’

(Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

At the time rowing races were very popular with spectators. At the games, many were dominated by the German hosts who medaled in every event and took five of the seven gold medals.

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However, the final of the men’s eights was won by the University of Washington team. Using a tactic that became their trademark, they purposefully started slow and then outsprinted their competition. In an incredibly close finish, only one second separating the American team from their Italian and German rivals at the end of the six-and-a-half minute race.

After winning gold in Berlin, Rantz returned home and married his lifelong sweetheart Joyce Simdars. He went on to earn a chemical engineering degree from the University of Washington and worked for Boeing until his retirement. He died of congestive heart failure in Redmond, Washington in 2007, at the age of 93.

The Boys in the Boat is in US cinemas from 25 December and UK cinemas from 12 January.