Stories from History that ought to be Movies
Creativity is hard work. Fortunately, like all difficult things, there is shortcut. Why spend the time and energy making up new stories, when history provides a nearly inexhaustible supply of interesting and exiting events?
Historical fiction is as popular now as it ever has been. Every TV network is rushing to produce its own gritty period series. From gritty pre-Christian Scandinavia, to gritty pirate shows, to gritty tales about the American Revolution.
The big screen is no exception to this trend. In 2014 there will be at least seven period movies released. This includes an action movie set in ancient Rome, and three movies set in ancient Greece. And two of those Greek movies are about the exact same person.
With the wealth of historical stories to choose from, the lack of variety in historical films is disappointing, to say the least. Below are two historical stories that could be easily adapted into exciting films, and they don’t even need “creative license” to be more interesting.
I. Endurance Expedition:
“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”
These words were the call to adventure for the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, the goal of the expedition was to attempt the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. The aptly-named ship Endurance departed Grytvikin Whaling station on December 5, 1914. Just two days later the ship encountered her first pack ice. Not loosely packed ice as Shackleton had expected, but dense ice that effectively impeded any amount of progress. Sort of like a Dairy Queen Blizzard.
Endurance proved true to her name. For several weeks she trudged through the ice. In January 17, 1915 they were just north of their destination when Endurance was trapped completely in the surrounding ice.
Heroic attempts were made to break the ship free. Saws, axes, and chisels were employed, but all attempts proved futile. By February 24th hope of breaking free had been abandoned. Endurance was effectively transformed from an expedition vessel to a winter camping retreat.
Endurance could only endure so much. Eventually, the squeeze of the ice crushed her hull, and on October 27, 1915 Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. Supplies and lifeboats were moved onto the ice. It took another month before Endurance finally succumbed and sank on November 21.
The crew spent more than half a year camping on the ice. They survived on seal meat and packaged rations. They used blubber as fuel to keep warm and melt ice into drinking water. And they waited for something to happen. But this could not last forever.
The chunk of ice they had been camping on was slowly chipped away. By April 8, 1916 the Endurance crew was stranded on a small, triangular patch of ice.
The crew loaded up into the three lifeboats and spent the next week hopping between suitable chunks of floating ice. It sort of sounds like fun, until you realize the lack of food, the physical toil, and the constant soaking in sub-zero seawater. Not fun.
On April 14th the three lifeboats made a dash for nearby Elephant Island, a nice place where the land is covered in glaciers and there are no pesky flora or fauna to bother anyone. The boats were separated while looking for a suitable landing site, but were reunited on a narrow beach beneath ice-shelves and mountains.
While it was the first time they had been on land in nearly two years, the crew had no reason to celebrate. Rescue was impossible, as their location was as remote as it gets. Help would not arrive unless the someone from the Endurance crew went out to get it.
Shackleton hand-picked five men to join him on an open-ocean journey in the lifeboat James Caird. The life-boat was launched on April 24th. The voyage was a perilous one, with gigantic ocean waves that soaked the boat and its contents, covering everything in salty ice. After two weeks the little boat made it to South Georgia Island.
Unfortunately it was the wrong side of South Georgia Island.
The lifeboat crew was forced to march across the island to reach the whaling stations on the other side. Shackleton would have his land crossing after all, just not the one he expected. On May 21st, 1916 they arrived in Husvik Harbour.
It would take another three months before a suitable rescue expedition could be mounted to Elephant Island. The crew of Endurance passed the time in that bleak location by contemplating their own lifeboat voyages, and half-joking about the merits of cannibalism. Shackleton finally arrived on the ship Yelcho in August, finding the rest of his crew safe and sound and no worse for wear. Except for a few lost toes and a solidly quenched thirst for adventure.
Amazingly, Shackleton’s got his crew home with no fatalities. It’s too bad they couldn’t save the ship, which is probably still at the bottom of the cold, Weddell sea.
II. Conquest of Mexico:
Hernan Cortes was a minor Spanish noble who found a sweet gig in the colony of Cuba. But mingling with governors and charming the ladies wasn’t good enough for him. Diego Velazquez, the governor of Cuba, appointed Cortes the leader of an expedition to establish a new colony on the American mainland.
However, Cortes had become romantically involved with the governor’s sister, and a series of soap-opera-esque events led to a falling out between the two men. Just before Cortes was to leave, Velazquez revoked his charter. In response, Cortes left for the American mainland anyway.
In 1519 Cortes, now a fugitive in the eyes of Spanish law, landed at the sight of modern day Veracruz, Mexico. He would not turn back to face imprisonment and possibly death, so he sank his own ships in an act that would set the stage for conquest.
At the time, the region was controlled by the powerful Triple Alliance, more commonly known as the Aztec Empire. They were also known as the Mexica (Me-Shee-Ka). The different names from the same group come from the fact that the Spaniards, while great conquerors, were terrible listeners.
Through diplomacy and ritual brutality, the Aztecs had grown from a poor, nomadic tribe into the overlords of Central Mexico. On the way, they had made many enemies.
Cortes was able to ally with the enemies of the Aztecs. With a force of Spaniards and Native warriors he began the long march to the Aztec capitol, the island city of Tenochtitlan.
Meanwhile, the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II was aware of the force that was advancing through his territory. He sent constant ambassadors to Cortes, offering praise and gifts to the would-be conquerors in an attempt to dissuade them of their ambition. The opposite proved true. After all, people only give away treasure when they can afford it, and the Spaniards knew the gifts they received were mere trinkets compared to the stockpiles of wealth in Tenochtitlan.
In November, Cortes and his men glimpsed what may have been one of the most populous, advanced cities in the world. The island-city was a veritable metropolis, with a population rivaling that of Constantinople. Its streets were free of the filth that plagued European cities, and the step pyramids rose like shining white beacons on the surface of the lake.
Cortes was greeted with great fanfare. A casual observer might think it was the dawn of a great alliance, but tension was thick. In this way, the first meeting of the Aztecs and the Spaniards was likely a lot like modern day political summits. World leaders might shake hands and share drinks, but they are by no means friends.
While the big-wigs were participating in pomp and circumstance, the common people of Tenochtitlan were more wary of the foreigners. Minor skirmishes between Aztecs and Cortes’ forces sprang up throughout the city. In order to ensure the cooperation of the populace, Cortes casually took Emperor Moctezuma hostage in his own palace. Moctezuma, in the powerful naivety only nobility can possess, began to identify with his captors. Before long, it appeared to all that the Speaker for the Aztec people was little more than a Spanish puppet.
But the rest of the people were not stupid. Civil war loomed on the horizon, but old traditions die hard. A measure so drastic as open rebellion against the Emperor was unthinkable.
Things went on like this for several months. In April of 1520 there were reports of another Spanish expedition landing on the coast. These men, under the command of Panfilo de Narvaez were not there to support their countrymen. In fact, they had been sent to retrieve Cortes. In chains, if they had to.
Cortes split his forces, and with less than a thousand men marched to meet Navarez. He executed a surprise attack at night, defeated the much larger force and even took Navarez captive. Instead of executing these new arrivals or sending them back to Cuba, Cortes told them of the glorious wealth of the land they were in. It wasn’t difficult to convince Navarez and his men to join forces with the fugitive conquistador.
Cortes returned to Tenochtitlan triumphant, but found conditions in the island city had deteriorated. Tensions between the Spanish occupiers and the Aztecs had finally erupted into conflict. Open rebellion against Moctezuma, centered around his brother Cuitláhuac, was sweeping through the streets.
Cortes urged Moctezuma, or forced him depending on whom you ask, to appear before his people and speak to them. The response was an onslaught of insults and thrown stones that pelted Moctezuma on his balcony. The Emperor died a few days later, some say from wounds inflicted by his own people.
With their protector dead, Cortes’ forces were forced to flee the city. Many of the Spaniards and their allies drowned in the lake. Others were captured, and their beating hearts were ripped out of their bodies in sacrifice to the god Huitzilopochtli.
The Spaniards called the night, “La Noche Triste.”
The surviving Spaniards took refuge in the city-state of Tlaxcala to lick their wounds and mourn their losses. Over the next year, Cortes embarked in campaigns to separate the Aztecs from their allies in the region. Before long, only the island capitol remained solidly in the hands of the once-mighty empire.
Cortes built new ships, with tall walls to protect from arrow fire. The carried the ships over land to lake Texcoco, and surrounded the city. The siege was long and brutal, with cannon fire destroying most of the beautiful buildings of the city. But the Aztecs held firm, rejecting any offers of surrender.
Finally, Cortes’ patience ran out. The final battle swept through the rubble of the city with heavy losses on both sides. The Spanish soldiers fought to the death, for they knew if they were captured their fate would be even worse. The Aztecs, already suffering attrition from the siege, were eventually defeated.
The idols were removed from the grand temples, and replaced with crosses and statues of Mary. The blood of centuries of ritual sacrifice was washed away, as Cortes declared that never again would human sacrifice be practiced in the city. In his city.
It was the end of a very long era. Mexico had exchanged one group of overlords for another. Tenochtitlan became Mexico City. One religion was supplanted by another. But the legacy of the Aztecs lived on in one form or another.
III. These two stories, one of survival against all odds, and the other of a fugitive bringing down a powerful empire, have the potential to pack theatres. Just imagine the hull of the Endurance cracking like fireworks in surround sound, or thousands of spears and arrows of desperate defenders coming at you in 3D. But we’ll probably have to suffer through more reboots and copy-cat films before either of these stories makes it to the big screen.