It may be a cliché, but the entire story of the PBS documentary The Boys Of ’36 feels like a Hollywood movie. Blue collar Americans who came of age in an impoverished economy, a sport that is built on remarkable perseverance, and the daunting backdrop of Hitler’s Third Reich are present in the documentary that follows the University of Washington crew team on their journey to win the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
The story of The Boys of ’36 is rooted firmly in the Great Depression. While the country was still immersed in economic struggle, members of the university’s rowing team were partially lured to the sport with the promise of meals and a part-time job at Washington. The college itself was an unlikely producer of Olympic talent. The area around the Seattle campus was still relatively unsettled and the University of Washington was not as renowned for rowing talents as their Ivy League counterparts.
The teamwork required for crew is unlike most sports. It requires exhaustive effort and precision timing as a collective. You are racing against the other sculls, but the biggest competition is within athletes who are striving to improve their own time. In Berlin the Washington squad had to race against an all-star British crew comprised of Oxford and Cambridge rowers, Italian longshoremen who had spent more than ten years together as a team, and Germans who were familiar with their own racing course.
The Boys of ’36 also includes ominous film of the 1936 Olympics. Hitler, pristine German stadiums, and scenes of burgeoning Nazism are all present in the documentary. These Olympics occurred at a time where the world was unaware aware of the horrors going on in Germany. When greeted by Germans with “Heil Hitler,” the naïve American college students replied “Heil Roosevelt.” Such a thing would cause controversy today, but at the time the young Olympians were also oblivious to the truth surrounding the games.
The race itself included an additional set of challenges. The Americans drew a poor starting position, they did not hear the starting gun, and crew member Donald Hume was battling a chest cold that had caused him to lose 14 pounds prior to the race. Their reputation as a team who held back until the closing portion of the race was hampered by their inability to hear their coxswain above the noise of the German crowd. Stunning adversity for anyone to overcome, let alone for a group of young University of Washington rowers.
Like many stories about the Greatest Generation, the fortitude presented in The Boys Of ’36 is tough to envision in our contemporary athletic environment. During the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeonchang, the American Olympic team will be comprised of many athletes who are professionals. Their training is funded by athletic associations and some have signed lucrative endorsement contracts.
While it is important to not disparage the path that current Olympians take to compete on such a grand stage, it is difficult not to admire their 1936 predecessors even more when considering that they rowed to earn a living and education amidst the waning years of the Great Depression.
The Boys of ’36 was created as a part of the American Experience Series in 2016. Currently available on Netflix and PBS.org, the 53-minute documentary includes interviews with historians, family members of the 1936 Olympic rowers, and Daniel James Brown, the author of the book The Boys In The Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest For Olympic Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It is narrated by Oliver Platt and includes footage of team practices and races. Rowing scenes were reconstructed with members of recent University of Washington crew teams.
The film rights to Daniel James Brown’s The Boys In The Boat were purchased by the now-troubled Weinstein Company in 2011. Kenneth Branagh and Peter Berg have both been associated with directing the movie, although the future of the film seems a little murky. For now, the documentary stands as custodian of an incredible story.