June 19 (Bloomberg) -- Before I read about “The Boys in the Boat” being optioned by Hollywood or compared to “Seabiscuit,” I was already envisioning it on the big screen.
It’s a stirring tale of nine Depression-era athletes beating the odds and their inner demons to compete at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. You can Google the result and spoil the sport, but that won’t dull the many pleasures in Daniel James Brown’s colorful, highly readable celebration of a grueling collegiate challenge.
The “boys” -- eight rowers and a coxswain from the University of Washington -- trained continually in all weathers when they weren’t scrambling to find money to pay for school. “Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment,” Brown writes. From their freshman outings in 1933 they were an exceptional group and soon turned their dour coach’s thoughts to Olympic gold.
Nothing came easy. They faced a perennial rival in the crew at the University of California, Berkeley, already an Olympic winner, as well as East Coast powerhouses Harvard, Penn, Cornell, Syracuse and Columbia. Brown finds in the peaks and vales of school racing much of the narrative tension that propels a reader even when the grand finale is known.
Brown was fortunate to have access to a surviving rower a few months before he died and then to his daughter. With Joe Rantz, the writer draws a fine portrait of a boy who deals with a broken family and empty pockets by turning fiercely self-reliant. That’s a great quality for a decathlon but not for the eight-headed marvel of synchronicity that is crew.
It makes Joe, a gifted rower, his boat’s great question mark and another source of tension. For him, “nothing was more frightening than allowing himself to depend on others.” Joe’s sweet, steady gal, Joyce Simdars, supplies the love angle.
I see at the center of the film, the calm in the storm, a transplanted Briton who is perhaps the best builder of eight-man shells in the world and a true sage on rowing. George Yeoman Pocock, equal parts Yoda and Noah, keeps his workshop at the University of Washington crew dock. He whispers in the coach’s ear. He nurses Joe with homespun homilies. He provides the epigraphs at the top of each chapter. He hand-builds almost every shell in every race in the book.
“His understanding of the details of the sport -- the physics of water, wood, and wind; the biomechanics of muscle and bone -- was unmatched,” Brown writes.
The shells cost $1,150 or “the same market price as a brand-new LaSalle built by General Motors’ Cadillac division,” Brown writes.
Good guys are no good without baddies, and Brown has bagfuls across the ocean. He cuts several times to Berlin to follow the progress of Germany’s new sports complex, the scurryings of Hitler’s henchmen, the rise of anti-Semitism -- poignantly driving all the Jews from the once-well-mixed and relaxed rowing clubs of Gruenau, where the Olympic shells raced.
History percolates through in small ways, too. Max Schmeling beat Joe Louis to give the Germans a lift. Joe Rantz shared a YMCA dorm with a pre-Hollywood Frances Farmer. At the Games, William George Ranald Mundell Laurie rowed for Britain (his son, actor Hugh, rowed for Cambridge).
Brown has written two nonfiction books about humans in extreme situations: the Donner party (“The Indifferent Stars Above”) and the 1894 Hinckley, Minnesota, forest fire (“Under a Flaming Sky”).
His crew saga can’t be as dire, which may be why he sometimes oversells it, stretching his canvas out of proportion. “A pall fell over the campus” from an awful accidental bonfire death. A few lines later we get the “literal” pall of the 1930s’ great dust storms, and before a page has passed, there are “distant but dark rumblings from Germany.”
Never fear, though. As Hitler watches the nine Americans perform at Gruenau, Brown uses his big rich newsreel voice to say the fuhrer “could not have known that one day hundreds of thousands of boys just like them, boys who shared their essential natures ... would return to Germany dressed in olive drab, hunting him down.”
“The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” is published by Viking (404 pages, $28.95). To order this book in North America, click here.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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