Clooney’s ‘Boys In The Boat’ misses British Olympic triumph
Exclusive – It’s the Chariots of Fire-style true story of a scrappy working class team of rowers from Washington state who beat posh and privileged Ivy League university rivals to qualify for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where they overcame immense odds to win gold.
It’s a typical all-American feel-good story – but Clooney’s polished drama notably fails to mention the bigger upset of the Games just minutes earlier, which enraged Nazi leader Adolf Hitler: the British rowing pair who beat the Germans in the double scull final.
Jack Beresford and Leslie “Dick” South- wood’s heroic victory in the face of German dirty tricks merits its own film – yet is completely ignored by Clooney’s movie.
“I had hoped the film would include some mention of the British double sculls win,” laments John Beresford, aged 78, son of Olympic hero Jack. “It was an extraordinary victory, and the Germans were expected to win. It was a great British triumph.”
Hitler watched the race as the British duo competed against crews from Germany, France, America, Australia and Poland over 2,000 metres on the Langer See lake at Grünau. Germany had won the Games’ first five rowing gold medals, and Hitler had been promised a clean sweep by his athletes.
“The victory was especially sweet revenge for my father, who had been shot by German machine-gun fire in France during World War One, and was lucky to be alive,” says John. “His injury forced him to give up playing rugby, and as part of his rehab took up rowing. Eighteen years later at the Olympic Games he made the Germans pay the price.”
Beresford was the first of only five Britons to have won medals at five consecutive Olympics, but he called the 1936 victory in Berlin the “sweetest race I ever rowed”.
His rowing record has only been surpassed by Britain’s Sir Steve Redgrave, who won gold medals at five consecutive Games from 1984 to 2000.
Beresford was Britain’s champion sculler for seven seasons from 1920, the same year he competed in his first Olympics, and at the world’s premier annual regatta at Henley he was the four-time Diamond Sculls winner.
But by 1936 furniture salesman’s son Beresford, aged 37, and London jeweller Southwood, aged 30, were both considered too old to have a chance at a medal, and their boat was untested.
In the final the Germans raced to a boat-length’s lead after only 500 metres, and the British duo trailed for most of the race.
- Support fearless journalism
- Read The Daily Express online, advert free
- Get super-fast page loading
“At the halfway mark the British were almost two boat-lengths behind the Germans, with the rest of the field falling away,” says John. “German victory seemed inevitable. But that’s when the British pair got going, pulling back until they drew level with only 200 metres to go.”
Jack Beresford recalled years later: “We raced to the 1,900 metre mark with blades almost clashing… Right in front of Hitler’s box, the Germans cracked up”.
The exhausted Teutonic duo collapsed, shattered by the British attack, barely rowing the final metres. “We went on to win by two-and-a-half lengths,” said Jack. “The air was electric, for until we broke the spell Germany had won five finals off the reel.”
An outraged Hitler, robbed of his promised victory, stormed from his box.
“The gold medal was particularly special for my father, who had almost been killed by the Germans in WWI,” says John. “He signed up in 1917 at the age of 18 and was sent to France in April 1918 as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Liverpool Scottish regiment.
“He was on the Northern Front near Lille in October 1918 when ordered to make a daylight river crossing: complete madness in the face of German machine-guns.”
“He was one of only a few who survived, shot in the leg.” Of 91 men in the attack, only 16 came out alive.”
“Those six months in the trenches shaped him: being bombed and shot at while cold, hungry and tired fed his discipline, determination and refusal to be bowed, surviving against all odds,” says his son.
Luke Littler admits he has “broken rules” with his progress to the quarter-final of the World Darts Championship. The 16-year-old has upset all the odds by reaching the last eight of the competition after beating idol Raymond van Barneveld.
Littler brushed aside five-time champion Van Barneveld 4-1 on Saturday. He continues to show maturity and quality on the oche beyond his years.
The teen has set up a clash against Brendan Dolan on New Year’s Day after the Northern Irishman beat Gary Anderson in a thriller. Littler is not the first child sporting superstar but he knows what he is achieving is very rare.
He said: “Unbelievable, those names you have just mentioned. I know of ‘Iron Mike’ and Pele off playing FIFA but I’m sorry – I don’t know the other one.
“He was lucky not to lose his leg, but his rugby career was over. Sent to Cornwall to recuperate, he rowed a dinghy to rebuild his strength, and became a dedicated oarsman.”
Beresford won a silver medal rowing in the 1920 Olympics, and two more golds and another silver medal in the following three Games, before heading to Berlin as an underdog in 1936.
“The British pair had trained together, but had never competed in a double scull race because those races had yet to be introduced in the UK,” says John.
“They were rowing a heavy old boat, and belatedly realised it couldn’t compete, so they had a new lightweight boat built, finished only a week before they headed to the Olympics.”
The Germans left nothing to chance, refusing to let Hitler be embarrassed by anything less than Germany winning all seven rowing medals.
The Games showcased the Nazis’ fascist Third Reich, and the Führer was horrified when African Americans including sprinter Jesse Owens had the audacity to beat the best Aryan athletes.
“The Germans resorted to all sorts of dirty tricks to make sure they would win at rowing,” says John.
“The new British boat was sent to Berlin by train, and the Germans contrived to ‘lose’ it. My father and Dick had to practise in an old boat.” But their borrowed boat, loaned by the German team’s trainer, English professional Dan Cordery, vanished the next day.
Cordery later confessed to Beresford: “I was told to ‘take it away and make sure you didn’t get a replacement.’”
The Brits’ missing new boat was finally found in a railway siding somewhere between Berlin and Hamburg on the eve of the Olympic regatta.
“The Germans had brown-shirt Stormtroopers march up and down loudly all night outside the hostel where the British athletes were billeted, making it difficult for them to sleep,” continues John.
“The Germans won their first heat against the British pair by jumping the gun at the start. When the race starter pulled the giant megaphone to his mouth he couldn’t see the Germans pull away early.
“They did it again in the final, but the British pair were ready and jumped with them.”
After Beresford and Southwood’s victory, the American eight-man underdogs took to the water opposite the Germans, in the
scene captured in the climax of The Boys in the Boat.
After a slow start the Americans caught up with the German and Italian teams, racing neck-and-neck to a photo-finish.
After a nail-biting wait, the Americans were declared the winners.
It was a huge victory for the working class Yanks who had overcome prejudice and a lack of funding that almost saw them unable to afford their boat fare to Europe.
But when the movie shows Hitler storming away in anger at the US victory it fails to reveal that he had already disappeared in rage minutes earlier after the unexpected British pair’s win.
“It would have been nice for the film to recognise the British double scull victory, but I understand that it would have spoiled the film’s dramatic ending for the American crew,” adds John. “I suppose that’s Hollywood for you.”
John Beresford is author of Jack Beresford: An Olympian at War, published by Cloister House Press