In 1936, Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany hosted the Summer Olympics in Berlin to promote their world supremacy propaganda. Nine working class boys from the University of Washington traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to battle Hitler’s men, armed only with a wooden boat and eight oars. Their story is chronicled in the documentary, The Boys of ’36, available on Netflix.
The sport of rowing is one of the oldest events at the modern Olympics, included in the original 1896 games, although racing was cancelled that year due to bad weather. The sport has changed very little since then, with the Eights (8 rowers and coxswain) continuously regarded as the premier event. Although boat technology has improved, and the coxswains now use electronic devices, the sport is still rooted in 9 team members working together to propel a boat as efficiently as possible. The Boys of ’36 describes how 9 college kids from the Pacific Northwest were able to come together to defeat a group of elite German athletes who were assembled and funded by Hitler’s regime.
The documentary is not just about the sport of rowing. It chronicles the economic, social, and political climate during the 1930’s, when the U.S. was suffering from the Great Depression, and Germany was preparing for war. It follows the struggles of college students trying to escape poverty, and compete in a sport dominated by wealthy Ivy League athletes and experience European men. The sport of rowing was much more popular during those years, and the documentary details how the major regattas were an important part of the American culture. Through interviews with historians and surviving children, grainy black and white footage is brought to life, as the boys travel to Europe in search for Olympic gold.
The documentary is well produced, introducing the background story of the major figures, and building up the drama to its momentous conclusion. Although the outcome is clearly forecast from the start, the filmmakers were still able to generate suspense. The only possible weakness of the documentary is its length. At only 53 minutes, many of the elements of the narrative are only briefly covered. However, for those who want to know more about the story, they can read the book that inspired the documentary: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.