New Film Shows How a U.S. Rowing Team Beat Hitler at the Berlin Olympics (Exclusive Clip)

8-2-16 Rowing
The 1936 University of Washington’s varsity crew team, which later competed at the Olympics in Berlin. Standing from left: Don Hume, Joe Rantz, George Hunt, Jim McMillin, John White, Gordon Adams, Charles Day and Roger Morris. Kneeling: Bob Moch and Coxwain. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections/PBS

The African-American track star Jesse Owens captured hearts and headlines when he won four gold medals at the Olympics in Berlin 80 years ago. But he wasn’t the only American to upset Adolf Hitler’s plans to sweep the 1936 games as part of an elaborate propaganda display for the nascent Nazi Germany.

As a new documentary titled The Boys of ‘36 shows, a motley crew of students from the University of Washington also prevailed to win the gold medal in the prestigious eights rowing race, leaving Italy to claim silver and Germany with the bronze. Daniel James Brown’s 2013 book about the underdog team from the Pacific Northwest, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, has been on The New York Times best-seller list for 113 weeks.

“When you read the first couple of chapters, you realize this is a screenplay, it’s very visual,” says Margaret Rossi, a producer of the film, which will air Tuesday night on PBS stations as part of the American Experience series. The hour-long Boys of ‘36, inspired by Brown’s book and featuring interviews with the author, capitalizes on the vivid images conjured on paper and builds on their visual promise with a slew of archival clips.

“It’s one thing to see ‘50,000 people’ in print in Dan’s book; it’s another thing to actually see these people hanging off piers and yachts and ferries watching these races,” Grossi says, mentioning in particular the observation trains that would carry spectators along the water to watch what was then an extremely popular sport. “It’s kind of unimaginable today.”

There’s a lot covered in The Boys of ‘36. It begins by tracing the marred childhood of one team member, Joe Rantz, whose mother died when he was just 4 and who ended up living alone by the time he was a teenager. Rantz and his teammates, mostly sons of laborers, lived in the frontier that was the Pacific Northwest during the trying years of the Great Depression. They worked side jobs to pay for school and sometimes trained six days a week while navigating the internal politics of University of Washington rowing under coach Al Ulbrickson.

“I would have been satisfied to spend each of those days looking around to get fed, to get food in my belly and to get through school and survive,” Grossi tells Newsweek, “but on top of it they learned this elite sport, this very precise sport and went to the highest level.”

“This is story about subsuming individuality for good of the team,” Grossi adds. “Outside of the boat, I think that’s what people had to do in the depression as well. They had to all pull together, they had to come together and work as one to kind of get themselves to prevail, to get themselves out of despair or failure.”

The Boys of ‘36 airs just three days before the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics and a week and a half ahead of the men’s coxed eight finals on August 13, the equivalent event 80 years after Berlin.

The U.S. had won gold in the event in six of the eight prior Olympics, from Paris in 1900 to Los Angeles in 1932, and went on to win gold again at the next games in London (1948) as well as in Helsinki (1952), Melbourne (1956), Tokyo (1964) and Athens (2004). But the story behind the medal was perhaps never quite as dramatic as when nine young men, weary from one of the most difficult periods in American history, beat Hitler’s team in the last Olympics before the world erupted in war.

Watch an exclusive clip from the documentary:

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