In this episode, we’ll learn about historical events that happened this week in history as they were depicted in these movies and TV series: Patty Hearst, Chaplin, Tolkien, and Turn: Washington’s Spies.
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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
September 18, 1975. San Francisco, California.
The camera pans up from the sidewalk to reveal a stereotypical San Francisco house. There are houses on both sides of it, and there are red brick stairs leading up to the front door. After showing us the house exterior, we hear a voice and the movie cuts to the occupants inside.
The two women inside sit down at the table, each with their own cup of coffee. They’re talking about some of their friends, who they apparently haven’t heard from in a while. But that’s not their fault. Nothing in life is simple. The women continue to talk until—all of a sudden, the door bursts in.
“Freeze! FBI, don’t move!”
Both women do move, though, and the movie focuses on the woman rushing out of the room and down the stairs. She opens the door only to see a gun pointed at her. “Freeze it!” There’s an agent on the other side of the door.
Another agent rushes down the stairs, a gun pointed at her the whole time. “Are you Patty Hearst?” he asks. The movie cuts to black and some sparks. Then back to the scene with Patty, hands behind her back and guns trained on her.
The true story behind that scene in the movie Patty Hearst
That sequence comes from the 1988 movie called Patty Hearst and it’s showing something that happened this week in history when Patty Hearst was arrested by the FBI on September 18th, 1975.
And right away, it’s important to remember this is one of those events that we have to take the word of the people who were there. After all, this not the kind of thing that gets a lot of different perspectives officially documenting it. The movie is based on Patty Hearst’s personal account that she told in her book called Every Secret Thing, so it’s probably pretty close to what happened according to her.
With that said, to set up some historical context to this event, we’d have to go back over a year earlier to February 4th, 1974. That’s when Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, or the SLA.
If Patty’s last name sounds familiar it’s because she’s the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst. He’s the guy who the movie Citizen Kane was based on…quick side note, we dug into how historically accurate Citizen Kane was to William Randolph Hearst’s life back on episode #51 of Based on a True Story.
For today’s story, though, the SLA kidnapped Patty because she was an heiress to part of the Hearst family fortune, who they called a “superfascist ruling class family.”
Things took a turn when, on April 3rd, a taped announcement arrived from Patty. Everyone expected her to be released—in fact, the SLA had sent their own communication the day before saying she would be released soon.
But, when people saw the announcement from Patty it wasn’t what they expected. She said she decided not to leave. She’s joining the SLA’s fight of her own free will. Oh, and also, she’s changing her name to Tania in honor of Che Guevara’s lover.
Much later, in her 1981 autobiography that the movie is based on, she said she was given two options: Join the SLA or be executed.
Of course, no one knew this in 1974. So, as you can probably guess, that Patty would go from being kidnapped to joining her kidnapper’s cause was quite a shock to everyone and only served to make the story all the more intriguing for the media and public.
Things got even more bizarre a couple weeks later when, on April 15th, 1974, the SLA robbed a bank in San Francisco. The Hibernia Bank was held up at gunpoint and who was on the security footage? Patty Hearst. They escaped with about $10,000. That’s about the same as $61,000 today.
Initially, law enforcement thought what a lot of people did at the time, that perhaps Patty had been forced to participate in the bank robbery. Not everyone thought that, though, and one of the key people who didn’t think the evidence showed her to be under duress was a man named William Saxbe. He was the U.S. Attorney General, so his opinion mattered a lot.
That led to the event we heard described a moment ago when, on September 18th, 1975, Patty Hearst was arrested at 625 Morse Street in San Francisco, California. According to the police officer’s report, it may not have been as dramatic as we saw in the movie. Tim Casey was the arresting officer, and he told the papers later that when they found her they said “Don’t move,” to which she said, “All right.” Casey asked if she was glad it was over and she didn’t say anything. So, maybe the movie was a little wrong to show her moving as soon as they found her. Or, maybe that’s just what happens when you’re basing something off people’s recollections of what happened.
Patty Hearst would go on to be sentenced to seven years in prison before President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence on February 1st, 1979, and on January 20th, 2001, President Bill Clinton gave Patty Hearst a pardon.
If you want to see the event that happened this week in history, check out the 1988 movie simply called Patty Hearst. The arrest takes place at about an hour and 19 minutes into the movie.
September 19, 1952. Washington, D.C.
We’re in an office with elegant wood furnishings. A United States flag stands in the corner. Behind the desk in the middle of the room is a black, leather chair. It’s empty. There’s a man in a suit carrying a manilla folder who has just entered the office. He notices the chair is empty, so he turns his head to look off camera.
He carefully sets the folder down on the desk before sneaking over to the other side of the office. As he does, we can see the U.S. Capitol building through the windows.
The camera pans over as the man quietly makes his way to the fireplace. Now we can tell why he was sneaking. He’s trying not to wake the man sleeping in his chair by the fireplace. He touches the sleeping man’s hand trying to wake him.
“Sir”, he whispers quietly.
It didn’t work.
The camera cuts to the man’s face now and we can see this is Kevin Dunn’s character, J. Edgar Hoover. The man shakes Hoover’s shoulder now in a slightly more firm attempt to wake him.
“Sir,” he says a little louder than the whisper before.
Hoover’s eyes open slightly.
“Sir,” the man continues, “we just got word. Chaplin’s off to London on vacation.”
Hoover doesn’t move as he ponders this for a moment. Then, slowly, his mouth curls into a smile.
The next scene in the movie is the one that happens this week in history as we can see text on the screen saying it’s New York Harbor, September 1952.
A massive ocean liner is in the harbor. If you imagine what the Titanic looked like with its iconic four funnels, or smokestacks, well this ship looks a lot like that but with three. So, a similar style ocean liner, albeit not as large as Titanic—but still a good-sized ship. Imagine that in front of the New York skyline in 1952, and that’s what this scene looks like.
After a moment, the movie cuts to aboard the ship, though, as Moira Kelly’s version of Oona O’Neill Chaplin rushes down the stairs to find her husband, Charlie Chaplin. She finds him as he’s at the stern of the ship, overlooking the New York skyline, the Statue of Liberty. On the ship a blue flag with the British Union Jack in the corner is flying.
Oona rushes to Charlie. When she gets there, she has a concerned look on her face. He recognizes this immediately and asks what’s wrong. Then, she tells him the news: They’ve thrown you out.
Charlie is confused at first, as she hands him a piece of paper with the news. She explains it to him: They’ve thrown you out of the United States.
The true story behind that scene in the movie Chaplin
That sequence comes from the 1992 movie Chaplin and as you can probably guess, the first part that happened in Washington D.C. probably didn’t happen this week in history. But it’s an important part to set up what did happen this week in history when Charlie Chaplin was refused his entry into the United States.
Granted, the way it happened in the movie was dramatized, but the gist is there.
In the movie, the agent telling Hoover that Chaplin has gone to London mentions it as being a vacation. In the true story, Charlie Chaplin went to London to hold the world premiere of his latest movie called Limelight, which was an autobiographical movie in which the character in the movie is an ex-star dealing with the loss of his popularity. Since Charlie was originally from London, that’s where the story in Limelight was set, so that’s where he decided to hold the world premiere for the film.
And, I guess, it is true that Chaplin took his family to London with him so I could definitely see how it could’ve been considered a vacation, so maybe we can give the movie a break on that.
He boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth on September 18th, 1952. On September 19th, the U.S. Attorney General James P. McGranery revoked Charlie’s permit for re-entry into the U.S.
This is my own speculation, but the speed which that happened the day after tells me there were people in the government just waiting for him to leave so they could revoke the permit.
In the years since, it’s been suggested the U.S. government didn’t have much of a case against Chaplin and he probably could’ve been allowed back into the U.S. had he applied. But, when Charlie Chaplin got the news, he decided not to return to the U.S. He himself wrote about the event in his autobiography, and while I can’t offer a direct quote here, you can read exactly what he said on page 455 of his autobiography if you’d like. To paraphrase, basically, Chaplin was fed up with the insults and hatred he’d received in America.
The catch was that most of Charlie’s wealth—his film studio, his home, etc. was in the United States. So, it was Oona who returned to the U.S. to settle his affairs. They moved to Switzerland and she renounced her own U.S. citizenship in 1953.
If you want to watch the event that happened this week in history, check out the 1992 film called Chaplin and the scenes we talked about today start about two hours into the movie.
And while we haven’t covered that movie on the podcast yet—I say “yet” because we’ll be doing a deep dive into that movie in about a month from now. We’ll be chatting with Pulitzer Prize finalist author Scott Eyeman, who has written a number of excellent biographies on film history. He’s got a new book about Chaplin coming out at the end of October, so we’ll be talking to him about the life of Charlie Chaplin soon!
Follow Based on a True Story now to get notifications when that comes out, or hop into the show notes for this episode to pre-order your copy of Scott’s book!
September 21, 1937.
We’re outside for our next movie, with trees in the background and dead leaves covering the ground. A man and woman are walking together with some kids. The man asks the kids if they’ll do something for him. He asks them to listen to a story.
“Is it a good story?” One of the kids asks in a blunt way that kids do so well.
“I hope so,” he says.
“Is it long?”
They go on to ask more questions about his story. Has it been started? What’s it about?
He says it’s been started in his mind. It’s about journeys, adventures, magic, treasure, and love. All things, really. All the kids are looking at him now.
He says the story is about the journeys we take to prove ourselves. It’s about fellowship. He points to one of the little boys and says it’s about little people just like you. The child retorts that he’s not little, and the man quickly corrects himself. No. Little in stature, not little in spirit.
The movie cuts away from the outdoors and we’re not in the woods anymore. We’re inside in a room. The same man from before is sitting, reading some papers. He’s deep in thought.
Then, he turns the paper to a fresh page. Pen in hand, he pauses to think for one more moment before he starts to write. The camera angle doesn’t let us see what he’s writing at first, but after a few seconds, it cuts to a more overhead view of the page. Now, we can see the words he’s written to start the story: “In a hole in the ground, there lived” … he stops writing for a bit and the camera cuts away from the paper to the man’s face. He speaks the word: “Hobbit.”
The true story behind that scene in the movie Tolkien
Okay, so right away I’ll admit that the scene I just described did not really happen this week in history. The movie doesn’t show the real event that did happen this week, but that scene is talking about the start of it—and the movie just doesn’t show the end that happened this week in history.
I’m sure you already know by now the man with the story is J.R.R. Tolkien and the story itself is The Hobbit. That scene comes from the 2019 biopic that is simply called Tolkien.
And it shows Tolkien starting to write The Hobbit. What happened this week in history was that The Hobbit was published.
What we don’t see in that sequence in the movie is that J.R.R. Tolkien had been writing stories about the world he created—Middle Earth—for many years at this point, but The Hobbit was his first published work.
There was a BBC documentary in 1968 where Tolkien himself described writing that opening line. I’ll include a link to it in the show notes for this episode if you want to watch it, but basically Tolkien recounts that he was grading his student’s papers in his house at 20 Northmoor Road. He had a pile of exam papers to go through, something he admitted was a boring task.
He picked up one of the papers to review and the student had left one page blank. So, he just grabbed the blank page and wrote down: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
That was then published this week in history on September 21st, 1937, as The Hobbit. Of course, he’d go on to write The Lord of the Rings and other books, making Tolkien one of the most popular authors of all time.
If you want to watch an on-screen depiction of Tolkien writing that opening line of his first published book, that happens at about an hour and 43 minutes into the 2019 biopic about his life simply called Tolkien.
And if you want to learn more about the real J.R.R. Tolkien, we did a deep dive into that movie with Tolkien scholar John Garth back on episode #141 of Based on a True Story.
And we’ve already done our three stories for this week, but it was a busy week in history so let’s do one more!
September 23, 1780. Haverstraw, New York.
It’s dark, but the room we’re in is lit by a few candles scattered around. There’s also a fireplace where most of the light is coming from. By the fireplace we can see a man standing there. He’s in a uniform of some sort, standing with his hands behind his back.
The camera cuts to the door of the building, and although it’s dark the little bit of light available from the candles, fireplace, and a lantern near the door lets us see another man entering through the door. Underneath his cloak is a uniform. Except his uniform is different than the man by the fireplace.
The door closes. The two men don’t say anything for a moment. They just look at each other; something that’s a little easier to do now that the man who entered through the door is by the fireplace next to the other man now.
The light from the fire brightens both their faces so we can see the man who was standing by the fireplace when we started our segment is Owain Yeoman’s version of Benedict Arnold. The man who entered through the door and is now standing next to Arnold in the room is JJ Field’s version of John André.
André hands Arnold a ring. After examining it, Arnold holds up his hand to show a ring on one of his fingers, too.
Now Arnold knows this is John André, too, and addresses him as such. Major André, actually, as John André is a Major in the British Army.
André speaks for the first time, telling Arnold that General Clinton is honored that he’s decided to aid the cause of peace, and the two men shake hands.
The true story behind that scene in the TV series Turn: Washington’s Spies
That segment comes from the AMC series called Turn: Washington’s Spies, and it’s depicting something that happened this week in history when British Major John André met with American Benedict Arnold to discuss Arnold’s turning over the fortress under his command at West Point, New York to the British.
Arnold had grown tired of the Continental Army and what he considered to be an unjust smear campaign against him, so he offered up the West Point fortress for 10,000 pounds and a commission in the British military. Of course, that’s a summary of it all.
In the true story, the meeting on September 23rd, 1780 was the result of over a year of communication back and forth via secret messages. Arnold reached out to the British commander in chief in America, Sir Henry Clinton, in May of 1779, and over time Clinton and his head of intelligence operations, Major John André, began to believe this could be a real thing.
Arnold had told André that he was going to be placed in command at West Point and offered to surrender it to the British. He also had been trusted by General George Washington with his travel plans in mid-September, and Arnold had planned to tell the British how they could capture Washington without his army around him. But, that message from Arnold didn’t reach Clinton in time for action to be taken.
Arnold also required a face-to-face meeting with André to hand over the details on surrendering West Point. So, Clinton allowed André to meet with Arnold under the condition he didn’t go behind American lines, he didn’t disguise himself and his British uniform, and he shouldn’t carry any papers that would compromise him as a spy.
Well, if you saw the AMC series then you’ll see André entering the meeting with a cloak over his uniform. He really did that, disguising his military uniform. He also met with Arnold well behind American lines. And he also carried a fake ID that Arnold had given him as an American citizen named John Anderson.
The next day, André was on his way back to the closest British outpost when he was jumped on the road by three men. He thought they were British Loyalists, so he announced he was a member of the British military and showed his papers—the papers that showed him to be an American citizen.
In fact, these three men were not British Loyalists. One of them just happened to be wearing a uniform he’d stolen from a Hessian, or the German soldiers who served with the British Army during the Revolution; that’s why André thought they were loyalists.
Instead, these three guys were just trying to rob him and once they heard André was a British military soldier who was carrying an American identification they figured they could turn him in for a reward.
After a trial, John André was hanged as a spy on October 2nd, 1780 at the age of 29. Benedict Arnold did join the British Army, but after what he did many in the British military didn’t trust him, either. His name was forever smeared and has become synonymous with betrayal and being a traitor.
If you want to watch the event that happened this week in history, check out AMC’s TV series called Turn: Washington’s Spies. The meeting between André and Arnold happens at about 17 and a half minutes into season three, episode nine.
And if you want to learn more about the true story, we covered that TV series back on episode #139 of Based on a True Story.