They say truth is stranger than fiction, and in most cases it’s also more interesting. With this in mind, it seems a shame that Hollywood producers don’t pull from the great lives and stories of history more often. There are plenty of fascinating and absolutely true tales out there that are just waiting to be portrayed on screen.
5. The Niihau Incident
We all know the story of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but few people know the story of the Niihau incident, when a nearby island became the unlikely site of one of the strangest and most forgotten events of the beginning of the war.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a now-infamous surprise attack on the Naval base at Pearl Harbor. During the fight Japanese fighter pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi’s plane crash-landed on Niihau, a small island inhabited by native Hawaiians, where he was unofficially taken prisoner by the suspicious locals. A few Japanese people lived on Niihau, and after communicating with Nishikaichi and learning of the invasion, they helped him make a daring escape. He then managed to get a hold of weapons and wreak havoc on the islanders for the better part of a week. The siege ended in bloodshed after Nishikaichi and one of his conspirators were attacked and killed by one of the native men and his wife. The man threw Nishikaichi against a stone wall and fractured his skull, but only after being shot three times by the desperate Japanese pilot.
Filmmakers love telling small stories that unfold against the backdrop of much bigger, more significant historical events, and the tale of the Niihau Incident is a perfect example. With some tweaking it would easily work as a pure action film, but even in its original format it is a truly fascinating story of revenge and betrayal. The setting on a beautiful tropical island certainly doesn’t hurt, either.
4. Death in the Dyatlov Pass
Dyatlov Pass is located in the Northern Ural Mountains. It’s in a remote region of Russia that gets few visitors, thanks in part to the extremely harsh conditions it experiences in the winter months, when temperatures can drop as low as forty degrees below zero. It’s a veritable wasteland, but it’s also the sight of one of the strangest unsolved mysteries of the last fifty years.
In 1959, a group of nine experienced hikers and skiers—mostly students from a nearby university—arrived at the pass during an overland trek through the Urals. They were set to telegraph a message back to town midway through their trip, but after days with no word a rescue party was sent. What they found in the Dyatlov Pass was a scene of unexplainable terror. Five of the hikers were found dead near their tents, dressed in nothing but their underwear and frozen from the icy cold. Another four bodies were found months later, buried beneath the snow. One was missing a tongue, and all showed signs of strange skull and chest fractures that could only have been caused by a force of great magnitude. Even stranger, all the bodies were found to have unusually high levels of radioactive contamination.
The still unsolved case of the incident at Dyatlov pass might as well be a readymade premise for a horror movie, as all it would take is an enterprising filmmaker and writer to fill in the details of just what really happened in the mountains that night. Whether it’s a story of alien invasion or some killer mountain creature is irrelevant; what’s important is that the backdrop is absolutely true, and reality is usually much creepier than fiction can ever hope to be.
3. Prince of Poyais
There have been plenty of movies that followed the exploits of low-level con men and swindlers, but none on the level of Gregor MacGregor, a Scottish impostor who actually managed to convince the upper crust of England that he was the Prince of a fictional country.
Gregor MacGregor started out as a soldier of fortune in Latin America, at turns fighting both for and against the armies of Portugal and Spain in Central America and Florida. When he returned to Europe in 1820, MacGregor launched an audacious moneymaking scheme by announcing that while in the tropics he had been put in control of a small (and absolutely fictional) country he referred to as Poyais. He claimed the nation to be quite modern and friendly to Europeans and even produced hand-drawn maps and a copy of their constitution to back up his story. Soon, the charming and flamboyant MacGregor was the toast of London. Lavish parties were frequently held in his honor and he managed to ingratiate himself to many nobles, including the Mayor, by promising them bogus positions in the government of Poyais. MacGregor shifted his con into high gear when he started selling plots of land in Poyais to unsuspecting settlers and raising money for a colony from investors. When the dust cleared, MacGregor had made off with thousands and two ships worth of settlers had arrived in Central America to find that Poyais was nothing but a tall tale.
It’s hard to resist a good con story, and MacGregor’s is by far one of the most ambitious and brilliant of all time. He was also known to be an absorbing and gregarious personality, traits that in the hands of the right actor could become the building blocks for a truly electric performance. Played straight, his story is easily capable of sustaining its own film, but with a few adjustments it could also be turned into a comedy.
2. The Hunt For Blackbeard
Famed pirate Blackbeard has appeared as a peripheral character in a number of movies and TV shows, but always as an embellished and cartoonish figure. This would be a chance to try and tell a historically accurate, realistic version of the life and death of history’s most famous buccaneer.
By 1718, Edward Teach, also known as “Blackbeard,” had gained fame as the boldest and most successful pirate in the world thanks to his battles with the British vessel HMS Scarborough and his notorious blockade of Charleston, South Carolina. But after receiving a pardon for his illegal deeds, Blackbeard had unofficially retired from piracy, and was living in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He still had his enemies, though, and the Governor of Virginia eventually sanctioned a handful of ships to hunt him down. What followed was a true game of cat and mouse, as Blackbeard’s small ship and meager crew were systematically tracked and hunted down by a small fleet commanded by Lieutenant Robert Maynard. The hunt finally ended with a spectacular battle between the pirates and the soldiers, where Blackbeard was killed after single-handedly trying to take on several soldiers, including Maynard, in combat.
Think of it as Pirates of the Caribbean for adults. Blackbeard was definitely not a nice guy, and the life of an 18th century marauder was in no way G-rated. Blackbeard was also a fairly complex figure—one any actor would surely jump at playing—and his true story is equally if not even more fascinating and action-packed than the legends that are always used in its place.
1. Hemingway’s Early Days
Few writers are as renowned and beloved as Ernest Hemingway, so it’s amazing that there still hasn’t been a major film made about his life. His early days especially, which saw him travel to Italy to work as an ambulance driver during WWI and then settle in France, seem like perfect fodder for a film biography.
After serving as a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Italian front during WWI and being severely wounded, Hemingway briefly returned to America before taking off for a new life abroad in France. His time spent in Paris during the roaring 20s served as inspiration for a number of his best books, most notably A Moveable Feast, as it saw him eke out a living as an expatriate foreign correspondent while hobnobbing with such literary luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. This time in Hemingway’s life also saw the writer travel around the rest of Europe, including Spain, where he developed a now-famous fascination with bullfighting.
Big, sweeping “life story” films rarely come out well, which is why it would be interesting to see a movie that depicted a particular time and place in an iconic person’s life. Hemingway’s time in Paris represented the formative part of his career, and there’s no doubt that it would be a lot of fun to see how a writer of his prowess started out. Because of the huge amount of artists that were living in Paris at the time, the film would also be able to include small depictions of other now-famous figures like Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound.