In this episode, we’ll learn about historical events that happened this week in history as they were depicted in these movie: Robinson Crusoe, Alexander, and 61*.
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September 29, 1659. Off the Venezuelan Coast.
The scene is peaceful on the open ocean. There’s no land in sight, just water everywhere. The sky is cloudy and gray, getting darker by the moment as the sun sets for the day. In the foreground, we can see a couple sailors moving among the ropes and sails of the ship.
The camera cuts to the bridge as we can see someone I’m assuming is the ship’s captain at the ship’s wheel. He continues holding it steady as a couple other sailors near him look into the sky. We can hear thunder now, as the clouds are closing in on each other fast making the sky even darker.
Oh, wait, one of the other sailors barks out an order to batten down the hatches. I guess the guy behind the ship’s wheel isn’t the captain after all, because he’s the one repeating the other man’s order.
The camera fades to black for a brief moment. When it fades back up, it’s much darker. Nighttime now. And, the storm has arrived. There is rain and the ship crashing through huge waves as bolts of lightning strike nearby.
Inside the ship, there’s a man who somehow manages to be sleeping through all this. The noise made by the storm, the creaking as the ship rides the large waves. The sprays of water since the wooden ship is floating, but hardly keeping out all the water.
Another huge wave splashes on the deck. In the ship’s hold, the sleeping man is thrown from the hammock he was sleeping on. More waves crash onto the ship’s deck, tossing sailors to and fro, and for a few people even knocking them down the stairs.
The storm keeps pounding the ship as she tilts heavily on the relentless waves. The man who was sleeping below manages to make his way to the deck of the ship and is trying to help other sailors now. Just as he reaches for one man’s hand, a wave washes him overboard and into the black of night. Flashes of lightning illuminate the sky, showing us just more water being thrown around by the harsh wind.
More and more men are washed overboard, including the man who was sleeping below when this storm started. As the water overpowers everyone, leaving only the sounds of water and men screaming, the camera fades to black.
When it fades up again, it’s daytime. Wreckage from the ship is floating up against the coral. We can see some bodies, too, and they don’t seem to be moving. Except there’s movement on one of them. This is the man who was sleeping down below, we can tell from what he’s wearing.
We can also tell because as he manages to wake up and realize just how along he is on this island, we can see the man’s face as being Pierce Brosnan’s character: Robinson Crusoe.
The true story behind that scene in the movie Robinson Crusoe
That is how the 1997 movie simply called Robinson Crusoe depicts an event from this week in history when the movie’s namesake, the guy named Robinson Crusoe, was shipwrecked.
We started our segment saying it was September 29th, and to be honest that’s my speculation. The movie doesn’t mention dates at all. We only know the date because it’s mentioned in the book that the movie is based on.
That book is also called Robinson Crusoe, and it tells the story of how a man named Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked and marooned on an island. According to the book, that shipwreck happened on September 30th, 1659. That’s why we started our segment the night before, September 29th.
The true story? Well, none of that really happened.
The book called Robinson Crusoe was written by Daniel Defoe as a novel, so it is a fictional story.
With that said, though, if there’s one thing we’ve learned here at Based on a True Story, it’s that even fictional stories are often inspired by the real world. And the same is true for Robinson Crusoe.
You see, one of the inspirations for Robinson Crusoe was the story of a man named Alexander Selkirk. Selkirk was a Scottish privateer and member of the Royal Navy who was marooned for four years and four months from 1704 to 1709.
So, the dates were changed, of course. So, too, was the location. Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked on an uninhabited island off the coast of Venezuela. Alexander Selkirk, on the other hand, was marooned on an island off the coast of Chile.
You’ll notice I said that Selkirk was marooned. That’s also different from Crusoe’s story because Selkirk wasn’t shipwrecked. Instead, he thought the ship he was on needed to be repaired, so he said he’d rather stay on the island than continue on the leaking ship. His captain took him up on that, leaving Selkirk on the island with a musket, a knife, a pot for cooking, a Bible, some bedding, clothes, and a hatchet.
Faced with the captain calling him out on his request to stay on the island, Selkirk regretted that decision and asked to be let back on board. The captain, a man named Thomas Stradling, refused.
So, Selkirk was marooned on the island for four years and four months. That, too, is different than Robinson Crusoe, who was a castaway for 28 years.
Of course, Selkirk’s story wasn’t the only inspiration for Defoe’s novel. There were others who were shipwrecked or marooned. But, since Selkirk was rescued in 1709 just ten years before Defoe first published Robinson Crusoe on April 25th, 1719, most historians believe Selkirk’s story was one of the main inspirations.
After all, the island where Alexander Selkirk was marooned used to be called Más a Tierra in the 1700s when he was there. Today, it’s been renamed to Robinson Crusoe Island.
If you want to watch the shipwreck that we started this segment with, that’s about 12 minutes into the 1997 movie simply called Robinson Crusoe.
September 30, 331 BCE. Persia.
The camera pans across the desert. There are a few clouds in the sky, but it’s hardly a blue sky—more of a hazy mix of gray and an orange that, along with the sand in front of us, makes for a very one-colored landscape.
There’s some text on the screen telling us we’re in Gaugamela, Persia. That’s in modern-day Iraqi Kurdistan.
As we see a man on a horse, another man’s voice is narrating the story. He says it was mad. 40,000 of us against hundreds of thousands of them under Darius. East and West had come together to decide the fate of the known world.
That night, the soldiers camp in the desert. Collin Ferrell’s version of Alexander the Great looks at the moon along with Jared Leto’s character, Hephaistion. He says the moon is a bad omen, to which Alexander says it’s a bad omen for Darius.
They go on, talking a bit more about the battle to come before Alexander goes to his tent while Hephaestion walks off.
The next day, the sun is bright in the sky. We see scores of soldiers marching. The camera cuts between Alexander offering up a cow as a sacrifice and the feet of scores of marching soldiers. Dust gets kicked up as they’re marching. Immediately above the soldiers, the sky is darkened with the lines of long spears carried by the soldiers.
After the sacrifice is made, Alexander jumps on his horse and the camera flies into the sky for an overhead view. Among the sand in the desert, the soldiers are too many to count. The lines of soldiers we can see quickly fade into the dust and sand being kicked up as the men are marching. The battle is about to begin.
The true story behind that scene in the movie Alexander
That’s another segment where I backed up a day, September 30th, because the 2004 Alexander shows the events leading up to the main event we’re talking about today.
That happened on October 1st, 331 BC when Alexander the Great defeated Darius III of Persia in what we now know as the Battle of Gaugamela.
The movie’s mention of 40,000 men against hundreds of thousands is a generalization, but it’s close enough. In the true story, Alexander had 47,000 soldiers under his command while Darius had anywhere from 50,000 to over a million soldiers.
As you can imagine, that’s a huge discrepancy in the numbers. But I guess that’s something that can happen about an event that took place thousands of years ago.
And to be fair, most historians today dispute there being over a million soldiers—that comes from some ancient sources. For example, a Greek historian who lived at the time, Arrian, estimated 40,000 cavalry and 1,000,000 infantry for the Persians. Another ancient historian estimated 800,000 infantry and 200,000 cavalry. Another estimated just 1,000,000 troops without breaking them down into cavalry and infantry. Yet another said 45,000 cavalry and only 200,000 infantry.
200,000 is still a huge army for a battle. But, you get the point of how conflicting accounts make it difficult to know exactly how many were there. Generally, modern estimates range between 50,000 and 120,000 soldiers altogether for the Persians.
On the Greek side, most historians agree the army under the command of Alexander the Great was about 47,000. There seems to be less dispute about that, but anyway you look at it, the Greeks were outnumbered.
Perhaps that’s one reason why the battle is something we still talk about to this day.
Times were different in 331 BCE, and both Darius and Alexander themselves led the attack with their soldiers. After some intense fighting, the decisive blow took place when Alexander charged with a giant wedge of soldiers against the Persian infantry. They managed to weaken the Persian center where Darius was located.
Remember the name Arrian that I mentioned a moment ago? Arrian was a Greek historian who lived from around 86 to around 160 CE, so he wasn’t alive during 331 BCE when the battle was—but, of course, he was still closer to the events than we are today. Arrian’s book called The Anabasis of Alexander is one of the best sources we have about Alexander the Great.
Here’s a quote from Arrian about the turning point in the Battle of Gaugamela:
For a short time there ensued a hand-to-hand fight; but when the Macedonian cavalry, commanded by Alexander himself, pressed on vigorously, thrusting themselves against the Persians and striking their faces with their spears, and when the Macedonian phalanx in dense array and bristling with long pikes had also made an attack upon them, all things together appeared full of terror to Darius, who had already long been in a state of fear, so that he was the first to turn and flee.
By the end of October 1st, Alexander won what many consider one of his finest and most decisive victories in the face of overwhelming odds. On the other side, the Persian King Darius III did manage to escape on horseback, but it was considered to be the beginning of the end for the First Persian Empire, which later fell completely to the Greeks and Alexander the Great.
If you want to watch the start of the battle as it’s portrayed on screen, check out the 2004 movie simply called Alexander. Our segment today started right at the beginning just under 8 minutes into the movie. And if you want to learn more about the true story, we covered that movie in a lot more depth back on episode #157 of Based on a True Story.
October 1, 1961. New York.
We’re on a baseball field. The camera dollies down just behind home plate, so we can see a perfect angle of the batter, catcher, and umpire on the right side of the camera frame. On the left side, the pitcher stands on the mound. In the distance behind them is the crowd in the stands.
At the plate is number 9, and we can see from the uniform he’s on the New York Yankees. After a few moments, he gets into position in the batter’s box. The pitcher, wearing a Boston Red Sox away uniform, nods to the catcher the approval of the next pitch. Then, he winds, and throws.
The batter swings. We can hear the crack of the bat as the ball goes soaring into right field. The announcer is excited. It’s going back, back…the camera cuts to the crowd in the outfield looking up. The outfielder races to the fence, tracking the ball. He gets to the wall just in time to see the ball land a few rows into the stands.
And the crowd goes wild!
The true story behind that scene in the movie 61
That sequence comes from the 2001 made-for-TV movie called 61*, and it depicts an event that really did happen this week in history when Roger Maris hit his 61st home run of the 1961 season, breaking Babe Ruth’s record that he had set in 1927.
The pitcher being on the Red Sox was also correct, but there’s more to the story that we don’t see in the movie.
It was the final game of the 1961 season when the New York Yankees were playing their rivals, the Boston Red Sox. On the mound for the Red Sox was a rookie starter by the name of Tracy Stallard. Technically, Stallard had his major league debut the year prior in 1960, but he only had four appearances that year so he qualified as a rookie in 1961.
That day, Stallard managed to get Roger Maris to pop out to left field during his first at bat. That was in the first inning. Maris came to bat again in the fourth. On a 2-0 pitch, Maris hit a fastball into the right field stands for his 61st home run.
As a little side note, the movie title has an asterisk in it. There’s a story behind that, too. You see, Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs was set in 1927 when there were 154 games played in a Major League Baseball season.
That changed in 1961, when the American League expanded with the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators joining the league—the previous Washington Senators moved to Minneapolis after the 1960 season to become the Minnesota Twins. With more teams in the league, they decided to change the number of games played from 154 to 162. 1961 was the first year the American League did that, the National League didn’t follow with the 162-game season until the following year, 1962.
So, when Roger Maris was on his record-setting season in 1961, baseball was in the midst of a lot of changes. Not only the expanded number of games, but with new teams in the league that meant there were a lot of players in the majors who had just been called up from the minors.
In other words, a lot of people felt the teams were not quite as good as they had been just a year prior with 50 more players added to the league in the two brand-new expansion teams.
And, in a nutshell, that’s why the asterisk is on Maris’ record. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 154 games. In 154 games of the 1961 season, Roger Maris had 59 home runs. It wasn’t until the final game of the 162-game season for Roger Maris to hit his 61st home run. Since it took Maris more games to break the record, a lot of people questioned whether or not the record was a legitimate record.
More specifically, it was a New York sportswriter named Dick Young who suggested the asterisk. Whether or not there’s an asterisk is still something many people debate today, due in large part to the 1998 season. That’s when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both broke Maris’ record with Sosa hitting 66 home runs and McGwire hitting 70 home runs. That record would then be broken three years later when Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in the 2001 season. None of those three players, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds, have been inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame because of their alleged use of PEDs.
As a little side note, it’s worth pointing out that Maris’ record of 61 home runs was still the most by a New York Yankee until Aaron Judge hit 62 in 2022.
If you want to watch the event that happened this week in history, though, check out the 2001 movie called 61*. Roger Maris’ at-bat with the 61st home run starts at about an hour and 52 minutes into the movie.
Oh, and since I mentioned Babe Ruth, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that it was also this week in history when Babe Ruth’s called shot took place. That was on October 1st, 1932.
The New York Yankees were playing the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field for game three of the World Series when things got to be pretty chippy on the field with players on both sides doing their fair share of name-calling. When Babe Ruth came to bat in the fifth inning, he made a gesture that looks like he was pointing to the center field bleachers. Then, sure enough, he hit a home run right to those center field bleachers.
Was he calling his shot? This is another thing that’s up for debate. Some people say that’s exactly what he was doing. Footage of the event that you can find online certainly looks like that could be what he’s doing. But, again, it’s footage from 1932 so not quite the high-definition footage we have today. Some say he wasn’t calling his shot but simply gesturing his bat toward fans or other players or something else.
Regardless of what you believe, no one can deny that Babe Ruth calling his shot is an event that has gone down in sports history, and it happened this week.
Oh, and to bring it back to movies, there is a scene about 11 minutes into the 1984 movie The Natural where a nicknamed “The Whammer” that’s supposed to be kind of like Babe Ruth called his shot in a contest between himself and the star of the movie, Robert Redford’s character, Roy Hobbs.
Of course, that happens in a contest at a fair and not the World Series. “The Whammer” may have been based on Babe Ruth, but he’s a fictional character. Just like Roy Hobbs is a fictional character. So, that scene may only be inspired by a true story, but it’s enough of a reason to watch The Natural if you’re looking for more baseball movies to watch this week!
The last baseball movie I’d recommend is a documentary, not a fictional movie. It’s called Say Hey, Willie Mays! from HBO and as you can probably guess it’s all about Willie Mays. I’m throwing that into the baseball recommendation this week because it was also this week in history when Willie Mays made what we now know simply as “The Catch.”
That happened during game one of the World Series on September 29th, 1954. With the score tied 2-2 in the 8th inning, Vic Wertz of the Cleveland Indians hit a fly ball to deep center field. It traveled some 420 feet or so, that’s about 130 meters, before Willie Mays made an over-the-shoulder catch while sprinting from where he had been positioned in shallow center field. In a single motion, he caught the ball, spun around and threw the ball back to the infield preventing any runners from advancing. It was such an amazing play that it’s been regarded as one of the greatest plays in all of baseball history.
Hephaistion = Heh-fi-stee-yon