Berlin, 1936: a crew of nine Americans arrive in the heart of Nazi Germany to compete in the Olympic Games. All blue-collar boys who learned to survive and thrive at time of economic depression, they have dominated the sport of rowing in their nation, easily beating teams from the most elite schools. Now they are eyeing Olympic glory and gold.


That is the story of The Boys in the Boat, a new film directed by George Clooney, starring Callum Turner as Joe Rantz (one of the eponymous ‘boys’, and also starring in WW2 drama Masters of the Air), and Joel Edgerton as the crew’s taciturn coach Al Ulbrickson. It is based on a bestselling 2013 book by Daniel James Brown with the same title.

Is The Boys in the Boat a true story?

Yes, it is. Daniel James Brown had been inspired to write his 2013 non-fiction novel, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, after a chance meeting with the elderly Joe Rantz.

Rantz had been in the men’s eight rowing crew – made up of eight oars and a coxswain – at the University of Washington, which in the 1930s had quickly risen from junior varsity to Olympic hopefuls.

Who were the real ‘boys in the boat’?

Rowing alongside Joe Rantz were Don Hume, George ‘Shorty’ Hunt, James ‘Stub’ McMillin, Johnny White, Gordy Adam, Chuck Day and Roger Morris. The diminutive Bobby Moch yelled the instructions and motivation as the coxswain. At the University of Washington, they were called the ‘Husky crew’.

They had been chosen among hundreds of young men vying for oars on the various university boats. Despite rowing’s reputation as a pastime of the elite, these men came from the working-class world of the Pacific Northwest, where their fathers worked as loggers, fishermen and dairy farmers.

This was during the Great Depression, and rowing offered poor and struggling students the promise of food and a place to live, but also a chance to earn money. The University of Washington secured part-time jobs for all members of its rowing crews, which enticed many like Rantz to persevere during the gruelling and highly competitive try-outs.

Who was the real Joe Rantz?

Joe Rantz’s story epitomises the adversity faced by members of the Husky crew.

Born in 1914 in Spokane, Washington, he was four years old when he lost his mother to cancer, and when his father remarried, his stepmother reportedly took a quick and vicious disliking to him. At the age of 10, Rantz was forced out of the family home, and for more than a year he slept in the town’s schoolhouse.

Callum Turner as Joe Rantz in sports movie The Boys in the Boat
Callum Turner as Joe Rantz in sports movie The Boys in the Boat (Photo by Alamy)

Though eventually allowed to return home, several years later Rantz was abandoned completely. One evening when he was 15, he arrived home from school to find his father, stepmother and half-brother in the car with their belongings, ready to leave Spokane in search of a better life. They had no intention of taking young Joe, and he had no idea where they were going.

The teenage Rantz was left to fend for himself: hunting or fishing to eat if he could not rely on soup kitchens, and earning scraps of money by selling liquor he had stolen or taking labour jobs where he could.

But still Rantz grew up tall, strong and athletic. And it was while competing in sports at school that he caught the eye of Al Ulbrickson, the University of Washington’s rowing coach.

Who was the real Al Ulbrickson?

A former rower himself, Ulbrickson pushed the University of Washington rowing crews extremely hard in training sessions, which took places as frequently as six days a week. He would chop and change the boat lineups, in search of the perfect team of eight, which caused a lot of consternation and uncertainty among the young students.

Yet he had an enviable pool of talent to pick from, and sage advice from expert boat builder George Pocock. The junior varsity crew, Husky, was soon outstripping the seniors.

They improved so much, in fact, that Ulbrickson made the controversial decision to enter his juniors into Olympic qualifying, to the chagrin of the traditionalists in the rowing world.

Rowing enjoyed immense popularity in the US at the time. Thousands attended each regatta, with many spectators standing on special observation trains that ran along the riverbank to ensure not a stroke would be missed. Newspapers hailed the Husky team who became known as the ‘boys in the boat’ – working-class kids taking on teams from elite East Coast schools – and covered their successes with relish, describing their motion as a “symphony of swinging blades”.

In 1936, they dominated the national collegiate rowing championships in Poughkeepsie, New York, and raced to victory at the Olympic trials in Princeton, New Jersey, becoming the first crew from Washington to represent the US at the games.

What happened at the 1936 Berlin Olympics?

On the journey across the Atlantic, Don Hume – the ‘stroke’, the rower who sets the pace for the rest of the crew – fell severely ill with a chest cold. A childhood working with dangerous fumes in a pulp mill had left him susceptible to respiratory conditions.

Ulbrickson decided to take him off the boat, but the rest of the crew refused to accept it and Hume rowed through the illness.

The boys stormed through the heat of the men’s eight, outpacing the British team made up of veterans of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, to face the favourites – Italy and Germany – in the final.

Despite being given the worst lane, where they would be battered by the winds, they stuck to their trademark tactic of sitting back for much of the race before powering to a sprint finish. In a close finish, the US crew won the gold medal by half a second.

Did Adolf Hitler watch their victory?

The Berlin Olympics was to be a propaganda showcase for Adolf Hitler’s regime, carefully curated to hide the truth of the Third Reich from the rest of the world.

The German athletes delivered, too – especially in rowing. Hitler watched from a balcony over the boathouse at the finish line as German crew won five of their seven events, but he had to endure the humiliation of the US victory in the most prestigious race, the men’s eight.

The Fuhrer neglected to congratulate the winning American crew.

What was the reaction to the boys’ gold medal, and what happened next?

The US had a legacy to protect in the men’s eight, having won the gold every time they competed in the event since 1900. This victory had a special meaning, though, as the Husky crew were hailed as heroes for not only beating the Nazis, but the hardships of the Great Depression.

When the brouhaha calmed down, life returned to normal for the boys. They all survived the Second World War, with Chuck Day serving as a naval doctor in the Pacific, Stub McMillin carrying out classified research, and Don Hume sailing a merchant marine.

Ulbrickson continued coaching and won another Olympic gold in 1948. The US would not drop the men’s eight title until 1960.

After graduating with a chemical engineering degree, Rantz got a job at Boeing, where he worked for 35 years. He married his college sweetheart, Joyce, and had five children.

Are any of the ‘boys in the boat’ still alive?

Rantz was one of the longest-lived of the boys, passing away aged 93 in 2007. The victorious crew would all be gone just two years later, with the death of Roger Morris.

Over the decades, they remained close friends and met for reunions. These often included getting back into a boat together – even when they had grown so frail that they needed help getting in and out of their seats – and enjoying their symphony of swinging blades once again.



Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.