In this episode, we’ll learn about historical events that happened this week in history as they were depicted in these movies: The Man Who Invented Christmas, Band of Brothers, and At Eternity’s Gate.
Events from This Week in History
- The Man Who Invented Christmas | BOATS #220
- Band of Brothers | BOATS series
- At Eternity’s Gate | BOATS #193
Birthdays from This Week in History
Movies Released This Week in History
Did you enjoy this episode? Help support the next one!
Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.
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.
December 19th, 1843. England.
Walking up stone steps, a man’s left hand is carrying a rectangle-shaped package in gold wrapping paper with a red ribbon tied around it in a bow. At the top of the steps, he enters a door. Inside, we can see he’s carrying the package in the other hand now as he’s walking through a dimly lit room. After a moment, he stops and hands the present off.
The recipient of the gift is a young man with shoulder-length hair who is sitting in a chair. He gasps at the gift, and then frantically rips into the wrapping to get it open. You can tell he’s excited to see what’s inside. After the ribbon is off, the paper is all but removed, he pauses.
He closes his eyes for a moment and takes a breath, as if savoring the moment. Then, from a camera angle over his shoulder, we see him peel back the final layer of wrapping to reveal what’s inside. Setting the paper aside, we can see an elegant book, bound in red. It’s hard to read the gold inlay on the cover, but if we pause the movie, we can see that it has a wreath of leaves around text saying: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie The Man Who Invented Christmas
That sequence comes from the 2017 film called The Man Who Invented Christmas. The event it’s depicting is when Charles Dickens’ book A Christmas Carol first published, which happened this week in history on December 19th, 1843.
The cover of the book we see in the movie is a lot like what the real first edition looked like, too. It had a red cover with a gold inlay lettering with leaves in the wreath-type shape, open at the top, with the text A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens designed on it.
A book publisher by the name of Chapman and Hall were behind the first edition, and each book cost five schillings. For a bit of historical context, in 1843 the average income in London was about 260 shillings a year, or a little over $11,000 in today’s US dollars. Of course, there was a huge disparity between those who were incredibly wealthy and those who had next to nothing, but that’s a different story for a different day.
Despite the cost of each book, due to the production costs that he put into it, Charles Dickens came away from the first edition with about £137. That’s equivalent to about $7,915 today.
Not bad, but he could’ve made more money off it had he not been so insistent on the way the book looked; how it was bound and the quality that went into it. Did that help make it an immediate hit? Maybe. After all, even though they say not to judge a book by its cover—the truth is when it comes to a physical book, we’re all guilty of judging it by its cover design. At least, I know I’ve picked up some leatherbound books because of how elegant they look, haha!
We’ll never know that “what if” scenario had the first edition of A Christmas Carol been bound differently. What we do know, though, is the book was an immediate hit.
In fact, since this week ends on Christmas Eve, it took merely this week for that first edition to sell out. The book was first published on December 19th and by December 24th, all 6,000 copies had sold out.
If you want to watch how the movie depicts the event from this week in history, you’ll find it about an hour and 32 minutes into the 2017 movie called The Man Who Invented Christmas.
Although, I’ll admit that maybe the sequence of the movie we talked about today isn’t really trying to portray the mass publishing of the book—obviously we don’t see all 6,000 copies being published; we only see the very first copy published to Dickens.
But, then again, the entirety of the movie is a highly dramatized version of Charles Dickens’ story. It uses the story inside of A Christmas Carol to tell the story of Charles Dickens, himself, which obviously wasn’t really what happened.
So, what really happened?
Well, we covered that movie many years ago, but just last year around this time we published a remastered version, so either scroll back to episode #220 of Based on a True Story or look in the show notes for a link to our look into the historical accuracy of The Man Who Invented Christmas.
December 20th, 1944. Bastogne, Belgium.
The ground is covered with a blanket of snow. From the soldier’s footsteps that enter the frame, it looks to be about three or four inches—maybe eight or nine centimeters.
When he bends down to pick up a plant poking through the snow, it pricks him and causes the tip of his finger to bleed. We can see the white armband with a red cross on his left arm, indicating he’s a medic and with his uniform we can tell he’s in the U.S. Army. We can also see his fingers look to be frozen cold—he’s been outside in the cold winter for a while.
An explosion in the distance catches his attention, and we follow his gaze into a landscape filled with white. There are some trees, and other trees are broken—but they’re all covered in snow. Even the sky is a hazy whiteout, making visibility in the distance difficult.
As the scene continues, he’s walking through the woods alone with the sound of gunfire and explosions continuing in the distance. With his hands tucked in his jacket to try and keep warm, he keeps walking until…he stops. Just ahead, the ground is littered with dead bodies of German soldiers. They’re all frozen solid, covered in snow and clearly have been there for a little while to let the winter get to them. Slowly, he backs up and shuffles his way back the direction he came.
In the next shot, we see another American soldier trying to shave in the cold. A twig snaps just as the medic arrives, and the two soldiers cautiously advance toward the sound of the noise. In the distance, they can see a soldier bending over to relieve himself. With his rifle raised, the American gives an order in German for the soldier to come toward them and the German soldier does as he’s told.
Going through the papers he has on him; the Americans take a few things they think might be important before a couple other soldiers who are there take him back to regiment as a prisoner.
Just then, a Jeep pulls up and two officers get out. One of them introduces the ranking officer, General McAuliffe as the acting division commander. Without wasting time, General McAuliffe asks them to give it to him straight.
Well, they’re gaining ground in one area and losing it in another. Now it’s a stand-off without any progress being made. There’s sporadic artillery fire, and there’s no aid station. They have no food, no winter clothes, and practically no ammo. We’re spread so thin the enemy makes it into our position to use the slit trenches—no doubt referencing what just happened with the German soldier about to relieve himself right next to them.
Right about then, Ron Livingstone’s character, Captain Nixon, wakes up. He tells McAuliffe that he went for a walk on the line at about 0300 last night and couldn’t find the 501st on their right flank. He says there are some considerable gaps in our perimeter.
After hearing all this, McAuliffe acts like he didn’t hear any of it by telling the men to close the gaps and hold the line. Basically, they’re being asked to do the impossible.
The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the TV series Band of Brothers
That sequence comes from the 2001 HBO miniseries called Band of Brothers. The event it’s depicting is the Battle of Bastogne, which started this week in history on December 20th, 1944.
The series does a good job of showing the bitter cold and lack of equipment they had, although there is more to the true story that we don’t see in the series.
A big reason for that is because the series focuses on the 101st Airborne in Bastogne, but to understand some of the bigger historical context we have to back up a few days as well as take a step back to understand the geographical context.
Let’s start there, with the geography.
The importance of Bastogne was due in large part to what lay about 100 miles as the crow flies, or 166 kilometers, beyond Bastogne: Antwerp.
Antwerp was a small shipping village along the coast that was incredibly important for the Allies who were supplying the fight against the Germans. And the Germans knew this, so they decided to launch an offensive that would get to Antwerp and effectively cut off the Allied supply route. That, in effect, would end any hope of the Allies to continue their offensive against the Germans in the area.
With that goal, the Germans amassed a force including over 400,000 troops and 1,000 tanks for what would ultimately end up being their final major offensive along the Western Front in World War II. That offensive is now known as the either Battle of the Ardennes or the Battle of the Bulge, and it started on December 16th.
The Allies were outnumbered with about 230,000 troops and about 500 tanks in the area when the German offensive started on December 16th.
In case you’re not aware, the Ardennes is an extensive forest filled with rolling hills and rough terrain. That plays a big part into the story because at that time, the VIII Corps was headquartered in Bastogne. That was due in large part to Bastogne being a crossroads town; that made it an important strategic place to hold in a region filled with tough terrain.
After the German offensive started, though, the Allies reacted by moving their divisions. By December 18th, the VIII Corps HQ was moved less than 20 miles, or about 30 kilometers, to the southwest to Neufchateau, Luxembourg. Meanwhile, the 82nd Airborne Division had moved north to confront the German advance there and the 101st Airborne stayed in and around Bastogne to defend it.
Both the 82nd Airborne and the 101st Airborne are divisions in the VIII Corps.
So, that’s why in Band of Brothers we see the 101st Airborne positioned in the forest around Bastogne as well as having access to the town.
As the German offensive pressed onward, they reached Bastogne on December 20th, starting the Battle of Bastogne. But, the 101st Airborne wasn’t going to give up Bastogne so easily, and they managed to fight back against the German attacks in and around the town. The terrain around the town, though, wasn’t defended as well and the German offensive continued to advance in those areas.
On top of the constant attacks, remember this was the dead of winter. Not just any winter, but one of the worst winters in the history of the region. I saw some reports of temperatures dropping as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s -29 degrees Celsius. That coupled with heavy snowfall is why, in Band of Brothers, we see the bitter cold being a factor for the men at Bastogne—because it really was.
It’s almost like the 101st was fighting a battle on multiple fronts. On one hand, they were fighting the Germans who were getting closer to surrounding them with every passing hour. On the other hand, because they lacked cold-weather gear to combat the bitter cold and dwindling food and medical supplies, every passing hour was a whole other battle to fight against the weather.
And just like we see in Band of Brothers, that bad weather also meant the Allies couldn’t airdrop the much-needed supplies to the troops in Bastogne because of poor visibility.
The Germans decided use these factors to their advantage and cut off the men in Bastogne instead of launching an immediate attack against the men who were fortified in and around the town. What this meant was any ground connections the Allies had to the 101st in Bastogne was slowly being cut off.
Do you remember the name of General McAuliffe from earlier in today’s segment? He’s the guy who shows up in the Jeep and asks the troops in the 101st to give it to him straight. Then, after hearing how bad things are, he tells them to close the gap and hold the line.
Well, General McAuliffe was a real person who was the acting commander of the 101st Airborne as they were defending Bastogne. On December 22nd, the German General von Lüttwitz sent a message to McAuliffe demanding he and his men surrender.
Here is that message:
To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.
The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.
There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.
If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.
All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.
The German Commander.
When he received this message, General McAuliffe knew he’d have to reply. Here’s what he sent back:
To the German Commander.
The American Commander
Ever since, General McAuliffe has been given the nickname “Nuts!”
But the message was clear. The 101st was not going to surrender Bastogne.
Things got worse for the 101st pretty quickly.
By the next day, December 23rd, the Germans main advance widened and the 101st was on the brink of being completely surrounded in Bastogne. By Christmas Day, December 25th, they were completely cut off. The German bombardments and attacks on Bastogne continued. The bitter cold endured.
So, too, did the 101st.
Finally, late in the afternoon of December 26h, the 4th Armored Division of Patton’s Third Army broke through the German forces from the south. The 101st was no longer completely encircled, but it was only a small passageway.
It was enough to offer some relief to the 101st, though. The next day, they were able to restore communication with the rest of the Allied forces nearby and evacuate their wounded.
While most consider the Battle of Bastogne to have ended when the 4th Armored Division broke through, the fighting in the greater Battle of the Bulge was far from over.
But, if you want to watch how the 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers depicts the events that happened this week in history, we started our segment today at the beginning of episode six. That episode is entitled Bastogne, so this is a great week to watch that whole episode and remember the events that happened this week in history.
And if you do want to take a deeper dive into the true story, we did our own miniseries on Band of Brothers which you can find over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com/bandofbrothers
December 23rd, 1888. Arles, France.
The screen is black. All we can hear is Willem Dafoe’s voiceover. He says there’s something strange about me. Sometimes I don’t know what I’ve done, or what I’ve said.
There’s still no image.
It’s just voiceover as he goes on to say there’s something that happened right before Gauguin left. We fought. A few times. Did I hurt him? I don’t know how. But I do know that I took a razor and cut off one of my own ears. Yes, it was me. No one else.
There was blood all over the place. I thought maybe I could give it to Gauguin with an apology.
Now we can see something. A man’s face. He’s looking right at the camera with a less-than-impressed look on his face. He’s not the one who is talking, but from his white coat we know this is a doctor.
The camera cuts to Willem Dafoe’s character now, Vincent Van Gogh, and we can see his left ear is wrapped in bandages. He continues to tell his story, saying that he gave his ear to the girl at the bar, Gaby, because he thought she’d know where Gauguin was. It scared her because of all the blood. So, she called the police, and they put me here.
The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie At Eternity’s Gate
That sequence comes from the 2018 movie called At Eternity’s Gate. The event it’s describing is when Vincent van Gogh cut off his own ear, which happened this week in history on December 23rd, 1888.
Of course, the movie doesn’t show what had to have been a gruesome visual.
And to this day there is some debate about whether or not Vincent did it to himself—if you notice, in the movie, Vincent said that he did it, no one else. That seems like an odd thing to bring up without being asked about it.
I mean, if you do something and you’re asked to describe the event, do you jump to saying, “I did that, no one else did it, it was only me.”
That sounds like you’re covering for someone else, doesn’t it?
But, that’s just my own speculation. And it’s not like the movie’s dialogue is exactly what the real Vincent van Gogh would’ve said, either, so we have to take that with a grain of salt.
Something that’s important to keep in mind whenever it comes to Van Gogh’s life is that he was not popular during his life. He was the epitome of a starving artist. The one constant that everyone agrees on is that Vincent van Gogh suffered from depression and anxiety throughout his life. Some suggest perhaps he may have been bipolar.
That’s important because most of what we know about Van Gogh comes from people researching his life after he died.
So, when it comes to things like whether or not Vincent cut off his own ear we’re relying on people’s statements after he died in 1890. If you try recalling a conversation about someone you met a couple years ago and you’ll start to understand why it’s important to keep in mind how difficult it is to piece together the true story behind a lot of things that happened in Van Gogh’s life.
On the other hand, though, Van Gogh is one of the most-researched artists in history, so there have been a lot people working on coming up with answers.
The reason I wanted to give that little bit of explanation is because, like many things in Vincent’s life, there is more than one version of what happened on the night of December 23rd, 1888.
The movie’s description of what happened is definitely one of those versions: Vincent van Gogh had a fight with Paul Gauguin that drove him to cut off his own ear in a manic state.
Another version is that perhaps there was an argument that led to Gauguin cutting off Van Gogh’s ear—whether on purpose or by accident.
Yet another version suggests that Vincent found out that his brother, Theo, was getting married and was afraid that’d mean Theo would stop supporting him. Theo supported Vincent not only financially, but he also provided a source of emotional support through constant letters—one of the big reasons we know a lot about Vincent today is because of those letters between Vincent and Theo. It was also Theo who paid Paul Gauguin to live with Vincent, essentially to keep him from being alone when Theo himself couldn’t be there due to his work as an art dealer in Paris.
What is the true story? Well, that depends on whose version of events you believe.
That brings us to the movie’s mention of Vincent giving his ear to a girl named Gaby at the bar.
As you can probably guess, we don’t really know for sure.
But, that definitely is part of the story that most historians believe happened. Although the name changes. Maybe it was someone named Gabrielle—or Gaby, like the movie mentions—or maybe it was someone named Rachel. Maybe she was a prostitute, maybe she was a maid.
We don’t know.
One little historical detail that the movie includes that we didn’t really talk about in the segment because it was through visuals is when we see the doctor drawing the damage done to the ear. In the movie, when he does this if you pause the movie you can see he’s drawing on paper with a letterhead saying his name is Dr. Felix Rey.
That really was the doctor’s name who treated him, and that drawing is a piece of evidence that has helped historians realize just how much of Vincent’s ear was cut off—it was likely the entire left ear instead of just the earlobe like a lot of people have thought.
Or, maybe that’s just another version of Vincent van Gogh’s story.
If you want to see how the 2018 movie At Eternity’s Gate describes the event that happened this week in history, you’ll find it at about 55 minutes into the movie.
And if you want to dig deeper into the true story, we had a chat about the historical accuracy of the movie At Eternity’s Gate with Vincent van Gogh’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Steven Naifeh back on episode #193 of Based on a True Story.
LINK IN SHOW NOTES