Just like reading great books whose movie rights just get sat on, history makes me very sad that I don’t get to decide what movies get made. Hollywood loves making movies inspired by history, but doesn’t always seem to grasp the size of the idea pool it gets to work with. Stuck on the same few eras–Romans, Tudors, anything with Nazis–filmmakers neglect a wealth of true stories. Not that those things aren’t great, but I read a lot of history, and I’ve run into several relatively unknown events that demand to be filmed.
Here, for my promised non-political post and in no particular order, are five of the best. Forget stranger than fiction: these stories are absolutely strange enough to make the best fiction.
5. Edwin and Raedwald
The history: The north of England, 604. King Aethelfrith of Bernicia makes clear his intentions to unite his kingdom with neighboring Deira by any means necessary. Edwin, prince of Deira, sees his father and his entire family murdered–all by the work of one man, with a maniacal fixation on his dream of ruling one Northumbria.
Edwin flees first to Gwynedd in modern Wales, where King Cadfan ap Iago marshals an army to hold off Aethelfrith’s pursuit. This army includes a band of monks to protect Cadfan’s Britons with their prayers–whom Aethelfrith slaughters to a man before smashing Cadfan’s army and forcing Edwin to flee once more. He visits Mercia before finally being chased to the court of the man who will become his greatest ally: King Raedwald of East Anglia.
Raedwald doesn’t see the advantage right away in keeping Edwin around, so when Aethelfrith’s agents offer him a bribe to hand the prince over, he plans a betrayal. However, his wife, whose name has been sadly lost to history, excoriates him for his cowardice, and convinces him to change his mind. The two men become allies, and march off with Raedwald’s son Raegenhere to retake Deira. Aethelfrith, whose obsession with killing Edwin now verges on madness, rides to meet them.
Everything is settled at the bloody battle of the River Idle, where Aethelfrith commits his entire army straight for the flank commanded by Edwin. Too late, he realizes his mistake: instead of Edwin, he’s attacked Raegenhere, who gives his life in the fighting. Edwin and a furious Raedwald trap Aethelfrith against the river, and slay the evil king.
The movie: Seriously, just read that story again. It’s already a major studio script. Edwin’s desperate flight. His thirst for revenge. Aethelfrith’s increasingly despicable acts (Massacring monks at prayer? Come on, man, are you trying to be a Dark Lord?). Raedwald’s struggle over whether to embroil his people in a war he didn’t start. The two leads turning from suspicious allies to friends. And the utterly tense final battle.
Make it a gritty vengeance drama with high production values and a couple of great battle scenes (plus maybe one good two-on-two duel with the guys versus Aethelfrith’s ambassadors), get someone who directed an episode of Game of Thrones, and I’d throw money at this.
The cast: To highlight the differences between the characters, I’d cast Kit Harrington as brooding, revenge-obsessed Edwin, with Norman Reedus as the older, more worldly, harder-partying pagan king Raedwald. Round out the cast with Emma Watson as Raedwald’s willful wife who maintains his kingdom’s honor when he cannot, and Taran Edgerton as Raegenhere, the heir to East Anglia tragically determined to impress his father. As for the brutal villain Aethelfrith–gotta be Immortan Joe himself, Hugh Keays-Byrne.
4. Menelik II
The history: Ethiopia, 1889. The powers of Europe–Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, and Italy–have invaded nearly all of Africa and divided it up between them. Only two nations, Liberia in the west and Ethiopia in the east, remain free. Menelik II, who traces his lineage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, has claimed the Ethiopian throne after a long power struggle. Knowing that only a strong and united empire can resist the colonial ambitions of Europe, Menelik establishes the capital of Addis Ababa and sets out to found modern Ethiopia.
The British have already interfered in the Ethiopian succession, and the French and Italians are on their way. While crushing the slave trade, Menelik finds time to play the colonizers off each other, skillfully letting each of them think they’re expanding their influence while they’re actually just building railroads, providing Addis Ababa with electricity, and selling modern weapons to the Ethiopian empire.
Italian envoys attempt to trick Menelik with a treaty in two languages: its Amharic version merely cedes Eritrea, but its Italian version claims all of Ethiopia as a protectorate. When he finds out, an enraged Menelik denounces the Italian treaty and prepares for war–ramping up his arms stockpiling and forging an unlikely friendship with Russia. At the Battle of Adwa, with the help of his third wife Teytu, Menelik decisively defeats the colonial army and forces Italy to recognize the absolute independence of Ethiopia.
The movie: Menelik II is a figure I greatly admire. He fought his enemies with guile, and was wise and open before his subjects, but when you pushed him he pushed you back. The story of an African empire that resisted colonization in the 19th century would be fascinating enough on its own, even without a protagonist who was a crack shot, befriended Russian poets, detested slavery, founded a national bank (it’s 2016, founding banks is sexy now), got caricatured in Vanity Fair, and may have used a non-functioning electric chair as his throne. But this one has all those things, wrapped around the battle against impossible odds. And the good guys win!
The cast: I can easily see Denzel Washington winning his third Oscar for the lead role of Menelik. He’s got the range to pull it off–he can be a wise elder, a trickster, and a force of nature all at once. Teytu, the woman Menelik thought he could never love after losing his first two wives, the woman who served as his minister and commanded 5,000 guns at Adwa, could only be Viola Davis.
3. Isambard Kingdom Brunel
The history: Let’s pivot from war and politics to a feat of engineering. In the 1820s, many Londoners are talking about building a tunnel under the Thames to reduce the intolerable congestion of the city’s commerce. Nobody seriously thinks it can be done, though. The work surface is too soft, and every attempt–including a valiant effort by Cornish wrestler-inventor Richard Trevithick–breaches and floods.
Every attempt, that is, until Marc Brunel, a French engineer fleeing the Reign of Terror, notices the way shipworms line the tunnels they dig as they go. He is inspired to design a Great Shield (The Great Shield, possible title idea), an enormous working frame riding on wooden planks that provides a temporary roof, walls, and floor for a tunnel in progress. There’s only one project ambitious enough to test such an idea: finally building the Thames Tunnel.
The Great Shield can stave off collapse–most of the time–but it can’t protect Brunel from the poor ventilation and wildly fluctuating temperatures that in 1826 leave him too sick to work. His son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, takes over instead, and finds himself embattled on all fronts: dangerous floods are getting more frequent, his enemies in Parliament are trying to shut the project down, and the Shield is approaching the unexpected dip in the riverbed that destroyed Trevithick’s project.
Isambard has ideas. He invites paying tourists to watch the diggers at work. He plunges under the Thames in a diving bell, alone, to hurl bags of clay to fill the depression. In 1827, he barely escapes a disastrous flood that kills six other workers. When financial problems halt the effort for seven years, Marc Brunel steps back into the picture, raising the funds that finally complete the tunnel in 1841.
The movie: An inspirational story of perseverance starring the engineer action hero we need, not the one we deserve. This seemingly boring story about building an underwater tunnel with turn-of-the-19th-century technology features more hairsbreadth escapes and rapidly changing plans than The Martian. Plus, the narrative of the son stepping in to finish what his father started is too perfect to ignore.
The cast: I just found out two things about Aaron Taylor-Johnson–one, he’s English, and two, his father was a civil engineer. That’s good enough for me to put him in the role of Isambard. As for Brunel Sr., let’s have Vincent Cassel as the inspired, ailing French ex-pat.
2. Castner’s Cutthroats
The history: The other two war stories on this list are about commanders determining the fortunes of entire armies–but here in Alaska, 1942, we’ve got a tale of unconventional battles at the literal edge of the conflict. During the war in the Pacific, the Imperial Japanese Army invades the Aleutian Islands. Not only does the Alaskan archipelago offer them control of the North Pacific, it could be a staging ground for further incursions onto American soil, even the often-feared direct attack on the west coast.
Colonel Lawrence V. Castner, who the source link literally describes as “a masterful swordsman with a jagged scar running down his chin,” has an idea to take the Aleutians back. Both the Japanese and the Americans struggled against the harsh weather of Alaska, but the native Aleut had thrived there for thousands of years. Castner creates an irregular platoon of hunters, trappers, fishermen, prospectors, mushers, and mountain men, with one job: recon the Japanese positions without being detected.
Castner’s Cutthroats disdain all the army’s regulations and discipline. They don’t wear uniforms. They bring their own weapons. And they argue vigorously against the brass’s determination to wage war in the Alaskan permafrost the same way they did everywhere else. When the infantry committed to the island of Attu arrived in short-sleeved fatigues with only three days of rations, the Cutthroats advised them on how to stay warm, and fed everybody off the land.
At one point, the unit scored a victory by draining a lagoon on Adak Island to use its bottom as a temporary airstrip. In May 1943, they battled for Attu amid ice and fog, and, largely thanks to the scouting, mountaineering, and survival skills of a bunch of punks who didn’t even wear insignia, managed to take the island back. In fact, during the entire war, Castner’s Cutthroats sustained only a single casualty.
The movie: My major M.O. so far has been simple: tell stories that don’t just need to be made into movies, they’re basically already movies that require little to no cinematic punching-up. That’s what we’ve got here. World War II? Check! Action and adventure in a stunning landscape? Double check! A band of unconventional heroes, many of them from a marginalized background, who survive a harrowing fight by just being that good? You better believe that’s a check!
The cast: I’d really like to have an Aleut character at the center of this story, so let’s go with The Magnificent Seven‘s Martin Sensmeier as George Gray, gold prospector, survival expert, and part-time sketch artist who rises from wilderness roots to capture the high ground on Attu. As for Castner himself, read that quote about him again. Did you see Harrison Ford? Yes, you did. Quit lying.
1. Judith and Baldwin
The history: And at last, we head back to Saxon Age Britain, but it’s a very different place from where we left Edwin and Raedwald 200 years ago. The Heptarchy is over, leaving the House of Wessex ascendant, and the English are looking out toward closer ties with their neighbors in France. Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne, gives his daughter Judith in marriage to King Aethelwulf of Wessex. He is in his fifties, she no more than fourteen.
The couple have no children before Aethelwulf dies, but no sooner is he cold than his son, Aethelbald, forcibly marries his stepmother. When he dies as well, Judith, who has grown up swiftly to survive for years in a strange court without allies, returns to shelter with her father in France–only to have Charles confiscate her property and lock her in a nunnery until he can marry her off a third time.
However, Judith became a queen in Wessex, and she’s tired of letting old men decide her fate. At the convent, she falls in love with Baldwin, a count and famous warrior in Flanders. Baldwin is no Casanova, either–he loves Judith back, and is ready to fight the whole world so they can be together. When the couple elopes, Charles the Bald excommunicates them both, and sends soldiers to kill them. They escape, perhaps with the assistance of a young Alfred the Great, and embark on a harrowing journey to seek intercession from Pope Nicholas himself.
The pope forces Charles to recognize the marriage only after Baldwin threatens to go to war against France if he does not. Judith and Baldwin live the rest of their days together. Their children become kings and queens, their line eventually culminating in a little-known Norman bastard now called William the Conqueror.
The movie: There’s a lot of war in this list, so I wanted to end on a love story. And what a love story! Open on young Judith, a terrified, lonely child bride, who gradually learns to fight for herself. Go through the consequences of her attempt to take a stand, the furtive nighttime meetings at the convent wall with the dashing knight, and finally, a desperate race that tests their true love against the rage not only of the King, but of God. Tell me you wouldn’t rather watch this than another damn Elizabeth I movie.
The only issue, if I had any say in adapting this, was that in learning about this from the British History Podcast I created a headcanon that Alfred was in love with Judith himself and had to give up on his crush so she could be happy. There is no proof that happened and I need to quit pretending it did. (I will not)
The cast: We haven’t used Charles Dance yet, have we? Put him in as Charles the Bald, opposite Natalie Dormer as Judith in the role she was born for. For Baldwin, I need someone like Gerard Butler but less angry, which according the 300 continuum means Sullivan Stapleton. Finally, Asa Butterfield could steal a few scenes as young, not-that-great-yet Alfred.
So there you have it! If studios ever want to go back to making tentpole historical epics with fantastic art direction and the budgets of superhero movies, they could do a lot worse than these five true stories. Also, there’s a lot of history I don’t know–so if you read this far, I’d love to hear your own ideas for real-life dramas overlooked by Hollywood!