History is Hollywood’s best friend of late. It represents a reliable, endless supply of stories that can add innate credibility to marketing materials, and can be transformed into soaring, emotional blockbusters. Better yet, if you are making a true story, you’ll likely feature in the Best Picture list at the Oscars, with 39% of all films nominated this decade based on a true story. So while the market is hot, and to tie in with the release of the excellent Hidden Figures, we’re going to list ten further figures who deserve their own biopics.
“Mad” Jack Churchill
The British soldier who killed Nazis with a longbow and a sword
Considered one of the greatest adventurers of all time, Lieutenant Colonel John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill was a man whose exploits were known throughout Europe during World War II. Armed with bagpipes, a longbow and a sword, Churchill would charge into the enemy with no fear. As Vice summarise, “he survived multiple explosions, escaped a couple of POW camps, captured more than 40 Germans at sword point in just one raid, and in 1940 scored the last recorded longbow kill in history.” It reached the point that the Nazis reportedly ignored orders to kill him out of respect. And let’s not forget the impact of having that surname in the midst of WWII…
Yet if you think this would be a merry romp of a flick, flooded with military romanticism, you’ve got to step back and wonder what kind of a man enters a war zone with bagpipes, and kills with a longbow? Moreover, a man who seems to enjoy doing so? After the war, Churchill is quoted as saying “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another 10 years.” This is not the clean-cut old boy’s adventure that it first appears to be. There was something far more macabre under Churchill’s heroic grin.
17th-century bisexual French opera singer and fencing master
D’Aubigny, better known as Mademoiselle Maupin, packed in more life in her 33 years than others could dream of. This extraordinary fencing master, master seductress (of both men and women), and opera singer led a captivating if far too short existence. To begin, you’ve got her early years – dressing as a male, marrying at 16, being trained to become a fencing master by a fleeing murderer. Then the intrigue grows. While fleeing in Marseille, she became so good at dueling any and every male each night in front of sizable crowds, they literally couldn’t believe she was a woman. D’Aubigny’s reaction? She ripped open her blouse and told the audience to “judge for themselves”.
Also being the bisexual badass that she was, here’s how she reached one of her loves. Now bored of her fencing tutor-murderer fling, she became involved with a female nun. So when that girl’s parents put her away in the Visitandines convent in Avignon, Maupin followed, entering the convent as a postulant. In order to run away with her new love, she stole the body of a dead nun, placed it in the bed of her lover, and set the room on fire to cover their escape. This is all genuine. To think, these are just two grapes from a vineyard of great stories. We all need this. There has already been one attempt to capture her life, in the 1961 Italian film Madamigella di Maupin, but if Spider-Man can be remade twice in a decade, the time is more than right to receive a new version of this.
Before Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin
Nine months before Rosa Parks, in the same city, in the same bus system, Claudette Colvin refused to move. Why have you never heard of her? Well, now that’s where we get our movie. Colvin believes that the NAACP and all the other black organizations felt Parks would be a good icon because “she was an adult. They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.” She also says in a 2009 interview that Parks had the right hair and the right look. There’s plenty there to dissect, moving the topic of segregation into the topic of age and the wider mission to earn equality. You’ve got the ensuing aftermath of her actions too.
After Colvin’s arrest, she found herself shunned by parts of her community. She experienced various difficulties, and was far from a model citizen, meaning civil rights leaders felt she was an inappropriate symbol for a test case. Yet Colvin is important because she challenged the law in court, and won. She was one of four women plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the court case that successfully overturned bus segregation laws in Montgomery and Alabama.
Sir Nicholas Winton
The “British Schindler” – the humanitarian who rescued 669 children from Czechoslovakia
Before you read on, please do watch the video above. If it doesn’t produce one droplet of emotion from you, you may – in fact – be dead. Following his passing in 2015, aged 106, Sir Nicholas Winton’s heroics are receiving more of an audience yet there are still many unaware of the “British Schindler”. While he always opposed that title, he deserved recognition for being such a noble and wondrous gentleman.
Nicholas Winton organised a rescue operation that brought approximately 669 children, mostly Jewish, from Czechoslovakia to safety in Great Britain before the outbreak of World War II. Following a trip to Czechoslovakia to see firsthand the rise of the Nazis, he took immediate action. So much so that he set up the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, without authorisation, and began taking parents’ applications from his hotel in Prague that month.
Winton not only raised the money to transfer the children to Great Britain, he arranged for every single child to have a family to go to when they arrived. His only regret was that he didn’t rescue more. To top it all, as soon as war began and ended the operation, he never mentioned it again. It was not until 1988, when his wife Grete found a scrapbook from 1939 with all the children’s photos and a complete list of names of those rescued that Winton’s extraordinary efforts became known. Historians say he might’ve saved even more than the 669 cited – as some children may not have been aware they were ever saved. Now that’s a man who deserves a biopic.
The uncredited woman who helped crack our genetic code
In 1962, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins for their discovery of the structure of DNA. Watson and Crick did crack the structure, but there’s one name missing from that Nobel Prize victors’ list. It’s Rosalind Franklin. Sadly this tale of deception, conniving and sexism begins with a simple misunderstanding. In 1951, Wilkins missed the meeting in which Franklin was introduced as a colleague, and it all descends from there.
As Mental Floss note, Franklin was under the impression that the X-ray diffraction was her project. Wilkins assumed, depending on the source, that either Franklin was working as his partner or as his assistant. Because of this difference of views, the two did not get along well. Then came Photo 51, an X-ray diffraction image that confirmed the double-helix structure that Watson and Crick had hypothesised. Wilkins, without permission from Franklin, showed Watson, and they ran with it. The three of them moved forward without crediting Franklin, who never received her deserved Nobel Prize – awarded four years after her death, so she couldn’t even protest. Their treatment of her was so poor that all three eventually apologised in eventual publications, realising the strength of their actions. Sexism, science, and pioneers – it’s built for the big screen.
One of the first spies in America during the American Revolution
For graphic novel fans, the name may ring true. Agent 355 is one of the lead characters in Y: The Last Man, but far from being fictional, this truly mysterious figure was real. She was one of the first-ever spies in the United States, whose real identity remains unknown even to this day. While her identity remains a secret, there are some known facts about this espionage pioneer. She likely lived in New York City, with some degree of social prominence, yet after that the guessing game begins.
A litany of potential candidates have emerged throughout history, but the intrigue here surrounds her role in bringing down Major John Andre, chief of British intelligence, and General Benedict Arnold, the American commander of West Point. In the summer of 1780, Arnold was willing to surrender his post to the British for money with Andre acting as the main go-between. Yet it was Agent 355 who passed along the critical information that exposed the treason of Benedict Arnold and led to the arrest of Major John Andre. In other words, Agent 355 led one of the greatest American intelligence coups of all time.
Charles Calvin Rogers
The highest ranking African-American to ever receive the Medal of Honor
In contrast to “Mad Jack” above, this is the story of a man not gunning for glory but for survival. On November 1, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attacked Rogers’ base. From above, they rained down a barrage of heavy mortar, rocket and rocket-propelled grenade fire. On the ground, the hardened NVA soldiers breached the defensive barriers to encroach onto the US’s artillery bases.
As the NVA charged, Lieutenant Colonel Rogers grabbed his helmet and rifle and raced right up towards the front-line artillery positions. He placed his shell-shocked men in position, and organised his entire battalion to return fire despite being heavily injured.
Having held them off, he led a midnight assault to regain the positions – even when shot with an AK-47 bullet from his own side. The NVA retreated, but then began their second wave of attacks. Again, Rogers led a counter-attack and defended his base and men. As dawn began to break, the NVA attempted one last attack. Despite his heavy bleeding, Rogers resupplied, re-stocked and repaired his men for the final battle. This time, a mortar blew up his position, making him unable to stand – but he kept going, encouraging his men, and running the operation even as medics tended to him. The line held.
This moment of heroism doesn’t even discuss the racism he faced in the armed forces as he rose through the ranks, but it does depict one brave and selfless individual. He remains the highest ranking black American to ever receive the Medal of Honor.
The Nigerian chef who survived 62 hours trapped underwater
Ryan Reynolds got buried underground, and it kickstarted his career once more. That’s all well and good, but what about the story of a man who was trapped, alone, underwater for 62 hours, for real? The chances of you having heard of Nigerian chef Harrison Okene is slim. Okene, a then 29-year-old cook, was the sole survivor of the Jacson-4, which overturned after being battered by heavy swells in 2013. As the ship was overturned, the cook found himself somehow caught in a pitch-dark, four-foot bubble of breathable air. Trapped 100 feet below, in the frozen depth of the Atlantic, he was slowly being killed by his own carbon dioxide filling his atmosphere.
In just his boxers and with only his wits to keep him going, Okene had to suffer the disturbing sounds of his crew members being eaten by marine life. Not to ruin the ending of our future feature, but this story has a dramatic ending custom made for Hollywood. While it’s obvious that he did survive, there’s more than enough here to champion the spirit and determination of this humble, ordinary individual. There’s also a great marketing point in the fact that 62 hours is the longest any human being has ever survived after being trapped underwater.
“Big” Bertha Heyman
“One of the smartest confidence women in America”
Hollywood loves a good con. The Sting, Catch Me If You Can, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Ocean’s Eleven and so on. There’s an obvious pattern here – they all star con-men. Just to balance up the books, why not tell the story of one of the best in the business? We present “Big” Bertha Heyman, once considered by the NYPD “the boldest and most expert of the many female adventuresses who infest the country.” Arriving in New York in 1878, she began her life of crime with a trick often pulled today by Nigerian “princes” over email. I kid you not. Her standard con involved rinsing money out of men by pretending to be a wealthy woman who was unable to access her fortune.
She stayed in the best hotels, had a constant manservant, and even bragged to the New York Times about her work. Here’s a line from a woman who clearly reveled in it: “The moment I discover a man’s a fool, I let him drop, but I delight in getting into the confidence and pockets of men who think they can’t be ‘skinned’”, Bertha once said. “It ministers to my intellectual pride.” Even when in prison, she continued to commit crimes and run schemes. It really would be great to see someone other than a greasy, slick-talking fella getting away with their cons, so who better than “The Confidence Queen”?
Not only the first American woman in space, but the youngest ever American astronaut
As Hidden Figures explores one untold story of NASA, it’s about right we finish with another. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space and, as you can imagine, faced a tough road getting there. She became an instant media frenzy, with internal NASA staff doubting her abilities and the wider press asking questions you’d expect from a five-year-old. A selection of these genuine questions are: “Would spaceflight affect a woman’s reproductive organs?,” “Did she plan on wearing a bra while in space?” and “How would menstruation in space work?” It can’t have been easy.
She was also a fiercely private woman. So much so that when she passed away, the world was shocked to find a simple note at the end of her obituary. For 27 years, she’d been in a loving relationship with another woman, Tam O’Shaughnessy. Never before had the words “lesbian” and “astronaut” featured in the same sentence. Worse still, it seems as though NASA had quietly attempted to ban any homosexuality from the workplace. In 1990, seven years after Ride’s flight, NASA management quietly ordered a working group of physicians to declare homosexuality a “psychiatrically disqualifying condition.” It didn’t pass, but can you imagine suffering the spotlight of being a lesbian woman under this type of scrutiny?
We’re waiting by our telephones, Hollywood. Thank us any time you like.