The Story Behind ‘The Boys in the Boat’

The Boys in the Boat, a film about the University of Washington rowing team’s inspiring journey to winning a gold medal at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, comes to theaters on Dec. 25. Directed by Oscar winner George Clooney, the movie is all about the challenges that the young men faced trying to row and go to school in the middle of the Great Depression.

The film is based on Daniel James Brown’s bestselling book by the same name. To write the book, Brown spent time with the rowers who were still alive, especially Joe Rantz, who is played by Callum Turner and whose love story is depicted in the new film. In the conversation below, Brown talks with TIME about what parts of the movie are based on real history and what the team members went on to do in life after their big win.

How did you first learn about this topic?

I was having a homeowner’s association meeting in my house, and one of my neighbors came up to me after the meeting and said, “Hey, I’m reading one of your earlier books to my dad, and he’s really enjoying it. Would you come down to our house and meet him?” The next day I met this elderly gentleman Joe Rantz, who was, at that point, under hospice care, stretched out in a recliner and on oxygen, but he was very alert mentally. Then he started talking about how he started rowing on his university’s crew team, and how ultimately he and his crew mates had wound up going to Berlin in 1936 and rowing against Italian and German boats in front of Hitler and won a gold medal.

I was just blown away. I said, “Joe, I think I could write a book about you.” And he said, “No, you can’t write a book about me, but you could write a book about the boat.” And I didn’t know what he meant at first, and I realized he meant the guys who had rowed with him. It was very important to him that the book not be about one individual, but what they had all done together.

Let’s talk about the personal hardships Joe faced growing up. His relationship with his father is tense in the movie. What happened between them? 

His birth mother died when he was three or four, and he was abandoned by his father and his stepmother as a teen. His stepmother treated him pretty abusively, and unfortunately, his father didn’t really stand up for him. Joe came home from school one day and found the car was packed up and his stepmother and father and his half brother were in the car. And they said goodbye and drove away and left Joe just standing there, basically. I remember interviewing his half brother and asking him why that had happened, and there were tears in his eyes. He shook his head, “I don’t know why we had to leave Joe behind.”

In the movie, Joe is depicted going to class by day, eating out of a soup kitchen by night, and living in a shelter while going to school. How accurate is that? 

He certainly used soup kitchens. Often on dates, he and Joyce, his girlfriend, would just have soda crackers and a can of tomato soup. Dates were very simple—a picnic or just hanging out in the student cafeteria.

The relationship between Joe and Joyce is so sweet in the movie. Are there any other memorable moments in their courtship you can share?

Yeah, I thought they captured that well in the movie. There are a few things I remember. When Joe proposed to Joyce, they were in a meadow someplace hunting for four-leaf clovers. And Joe said, “I got one!” and walked over to Joyce. She said, “let me see it,” and he opened his hand and in it was an engagement ring instead of a four-leaf clover.

Were the other rowers on Washington’s team in the same financial position as Joe?

These were the sons of loggers, dairy farmers, and fishermen—very Northwest kinds of kids. Virtually all of the guys that wound up in that boat were lower-middle class/working class and oftentimes unemployed. As long as they were in a boat, the university would give them a part time job. For Joe and a lot of the other boys that he rowed with, staying on the team was a way of staying in school.

You’ve talked before about how Don Hume—the rower who fell ill during the Olympics in the movie—was susceptible to respiratory illnesses because he worked in a pulp mill as a kid.

Yes, his lungs were damaged by the fumes in his pulp mill. And he came down with some kind of respiratory illness just before the Olympics and was not in peak condition by any means. Washington’s Coach Ulbrickson put him in the boat at the very last minute, basically only because the other boys went to him and demanded it. They weren’t going to row if Don wasn’t in the boat. 

How did the Depression factor into this story? How did it shape the team?

The reason the rowers were all poor was basically the Depression. Their families were having a hard time making a living and the students had a hard time getting enough money to get through school.

The other reason that the Depression is important is because the whole country was looking for positive things to pull people together. When these kind of rugged farm kids showed up on the rowing scene and were rowing against elite schools on the East Coast, in particular, that was very appealing to a majority of Americans because it became an underdog story, in addition to a class story. And when they went overseas, they had to row against the British boats, kids from Oxford and Cambridge who had pretty much grown up rowing. The Depression amplified the differences between those who had and those who did not have.

In the 2016 PBS documentary you appeared in, The Boys of ‘36, I love the story you told about how there was a national championship in Poughkeepsie, and the boys tried to go to meet President Roosevelt in nearby Hyde Park.

Before a big race in Poughkeepsie, they realized that Hyde Park was just a couple miles up the river, where President Roosevelt lived a good deal of time. So they went up river and got out of the boat and tramped through the woods trying to find the Roosevelt estate. Finally, they did find it and just walked up and knocked on the door to see if the President was in. He was in D.C., but one of his sons invited them in, who was a rower. So they sat down in the President’s sitting room at Hyde Park and had a nice chat about rowing, and then they were off again.

How would you describe the significance of the Washington rowing team’s win at the Olympics?

American prestige was on the line. The other thing is, for these particular guys coming from the rural Northwest, Seattle was hardly on the map in many ways. It was basically thought of as a logging town out there in the woods, in the Northwest someplace. The gold medal win by that team really helped put Seattle on the map in a way that, in some cases, it hadn’t been before.

What was going on in Nazi Germany at the time of the ‘36 Olympics?

Dachau was already under construction. It hadn’t become a death camp yet, but tens of thousands of people were already enslaved at Dachau. Hitler and the Nazi leaders took all of the anti semitic publications off the streets before the athletes and the American and international press arrived. They concealed the places where Stars of David had been written on the sides of businesses to identify them as Jewish. Hitler was using the ‘36 Olympics as this massive propaganda tool to conceal what he was actually doing in Germany. There was this enormous effort to sanitize Berlin and conceal what was happening there. It was very effective. Most Americans came back from the ‘36 games came back [to the U.S.] thinking, “wow, Germany’s a clean, modern nation. Everything’s really efficient.” It was a huge propaganda coup for the Nazis.

Was Hitler really watching the Washington rowers race as the movie shows?

Absolutely. It wasn’t just Hitler; all of the top Nazis were standing on a balcony of a stone boathouse right at the finish line. In fact, when I went to Germany to see the place for myself, the caretaker of the property let me stand up there on that balcony so I could see the vantage point from which Hitler had watched the race. So yes, he was there. He watched all of the races, and he had been congratulating the winning crews up to that point, but he didn’t congratulate the American crew.

To what extent did you interact with George Clooney during the making of the movie?

I had very little to do with the development of the movie. The script was written by a screenwriter, as it should be. Clooney did call me shortly after he signed on to direct, and we had a really good conversation. It was very clear right away that he did not only read the book, but he really got it. He already understood, as I mentioned earlier, the spirit of this story. He talked about how he himself grew up relatively poor in Kentucky and had to scrape for jobs to get through school. So he felt this empathy with Joe Rantz, in particular, but all those boys because he had actually come from a somewhat similar background.

The Story Behind 'The Boys in the Boat'

What happened to the boys after they graduated?

They all survived the war years. Most of them did not actually wind up serving in the military during the war. They were a little older than the usual draftees at that point. The ones with engineering degrees were put to work designing and building aircraft for the war effort. Joe married Joyce and went to work for Boeing as an engineer. They all went on to have good, solid middle-class lives. Aside from one who died early, a smoker, the rest of them all lived into their 80s or 90s. They had reunion rows every few years until they were quite old men and had to be helped into the boats. Every 10 years or so, they’d do a reunion row out of Lake Washington. And then they’d have informal reunions at one another’s backyard picnics and things like that. The families were all in touch with each other. It was very touching. What was remarkable to me, as I met the family members of all of the rowers, was how bonded together they were for the rest of their lives.

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