In this episode, we’ll learn about historical events that happened this week in history as they were depicted in these movies: Joyeux Noel, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and Evel Knievel.
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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.
December 25th, 1914. France.
It’s nighttime as we’re inside the German trenches during the Great War. On the screen we can see two German soldiers. One of them picks up a Christmas tree and hoists it above the wooden walls of the trench. As he does, we can see there’s some garland hanging off one of the wooden beams in the trench.
The tree he’s putting up isn’t a huge tree. It’s small enough that he can carry it with one hand, causing the small ornaments on it to jingle as he places it at the top of the trench. Then, the other soldier steps up. He has another tree. Again, the ornaments jingle as he places it above the trench. This time we can see a little better that there are some sort of lights on the tree, too.
Now we’re in the middle of No Man’s Land—that’s the space between trenches—as a soldier is crawling along the snowy ground. While we can’t see them, we can hear there are some bagpipes playing. That’s not German, which indicates there are probably some Scottish soldiers somewhere nearby passing the time with sounds of home.
The soldier looks up to see a row of Christmas trees being placed above the German trenches. One, two, three…there are at least seven trees we can see with lights on them. He must think something is up, because immediately he rolls over and down into a nearby trench.
A soldier in the trench notices him and, in French, identifies him as a Lieutenant. We can see there are a number of other soldiers sitting around. It looks like they’re eating, but it’s interrupted by the new soldier’s arrival. The French Lieutenant says to come quickly, something odd is afoot.
One of the soldiers makes his way to the top of the trench where he carefully peers over. The sight he can see is surely something odd. All along the German trenches are scores of Christmas trees. It’d be hard to see them if not for the dots of Christmas lights on the trees. The soldier tells the Lieutenant that he doesn’t like it. This has to be a diversion or some sort of trick.
Now, the movie cuts to a different scene. The bagpipes we could hear in the distance before are being played right in front of us now for a bunch of soldiers around the man playing them. As his song comes to an end, everyone cheers his playing.
While the movie doesn’t say it here, we can tell from the actor playing the guy playing the bagpipes, it’s a character named Father Palmer. He’s played by Ben Chaplin in the movie.
The movie cuts again, this time we’re back in the German trenches. Someone is playing the harmonica and, along with him, a German officer starts singing in a clear, beautiful voice. We can tell from the actor that this is Nikolaus Sprink. He’s played by Benno Fürmann in the movie.
I won’t even attempt at singing it, but we can clearly tell the words he’s singing are, “Stille Nacht.”
Translated to English: “Silent Night.”
With an overhead shot of the German trenches, we can see the row of Christmas trees on the right side. In the center of the frame are a bunch of German soldiers all gathered around to hear their talented comrade sing to them.
As they do, the movie cuts back to Father Palmer with the Scottish soldiers. He smiles as he obviously recognizes the tune.
In the distance we can hear the singing, “All is calm, all is bright.”
Well, it’s in German, of course, but that’s the translation for where he is in the song.
Back in the German trenches, the song continues as we can see the two main characters in the movie: Daniel Brühl’s character, German officer Lieutenant Horstmayer, as well as Diane Kruger’s character, Anna Sörensen. They’re both enjoying the sounds of the song in what is truly a silent night in the middle of a terrible war.
The movie cuts to soldiers in other trenches, including the Scottish bagpipe player. They’re silent as well, also enjoying Sprink’s spectacular singing.
“Sleep in heavenly peace.”
When the movie cuts back to the German trenches, Sprink starts the second verse, “Sile—” He stops short, and everyone looks toward the direction of the camera.
The Germans stopped their music, but we can still hear the tune of the second verse continue.
Now we can see why. Father Palmer has picked up his bagpipes and started playing exactly where they were in a seamless transition. Sprink pauses for only a brief moment as he hears the bagpipe, then he continues on singing to the bagpipes right where it’s at in the song.
“…at the sight. Glories stream from heaven afar,” he belts out.
As Sprink continues singing, “Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia,” he starts moving, climbing to the steps of the trench near the Christmas trees. From across No Man’s Land, the French soldiers can still see the line of trees along with Sprink. Of course, they don’t know his name. They just know there’s a lone German soldier who is singing.
“Christ our Savior is born.”
One of the French soldiers takes aim with his rifle, but the French Lieutenant from earlier puts his hand on the rifle, stopping him.
Horstmayer calls to the Sprink to get down just as the verse comes to an end. Then, something Sprink’s attention changes to a different direction as the French soldiers start cheering and applauding the song. He looks over in their direction and he can see all the French soldiers sitting at the top of their trench watching him. They’re not huddled in the safety of their trenches, they’re all out in the open, cheering and clapping.
Sprink simply nods his approval.
Now the camera shifts to Father Palmer. He stands up. Taking a deep breath, he starts playing the opening notes to, “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie Joyeux Noel
That sequence comes from the 2005 movie called Joyeux Noel. The event it’s depicting is what we now know as the Christmas Truce, which happened this week in history on December 25th, 1914.
Now, the way things happen in the movie isn’t what really happened…and to be fair, the movie is one of those films that tries to capture the essence of a historical event instead of being entirely accurate to the details of history.
A big reason for that is because, well, the Christmas Truce is something that didn’t happen in just one location. There are reports of it happening all over the Western Front and even some on the Eastern Front, too.
Oh, and this is all unofficial—there were no orders for a peace at Christmastime. It was simply that the soldiers recognized what day it was and essentially decided that Christmas was not a day for war. Because it wasn’t official, that’s why we have to rely on the reports of soldiers who were there instead of any sort of officially documented orders or anything like that.
With that said, the way the movie shows it happening certainly could be how some of it really went down because we do have reports of soldiers singing as being the way the truce started.
In the movie, we see the German soldiers start singing first, and there certainly are reports of the Germans being the ones who started it. This is a letter that a British rifleman named J. Reading wrote to his wife at home where he referenced the truce:
I hope you all had a merry Christmas; let me tell you how I spent mine. My company happened to be in the firing line on Christmas eve, and it was my turn – with a non-commissioned officer and four others – to go into a ruined house and remain there until 6.30 on Christmas morning. During the early part of the morning the Germans started singing and shouting, all in good English. They shouted out: “Are you the Rifle Brigade; have you a spare bottle; if so we will come half way and you come the other half.” At 4 a.m part of their Band played some Christmas carols and “God save the King”, and “Home Sweet Home.” You could guess our feelings. Later on in the day they came towards us, and our chaps went out to meet them. Of course neither of us had any rifles. I shook hands with some of them, and they gave us cigarettes and cigars. We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet that it seemed like a dream. We took advantage of the quiet day and brought our dead in.
Another private reported on the truce from a different location:
Christmas in the trenches! What a time? “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” It is hardly to be believed, but nevertheless it is quite true that such was the case this Christmas. Who can realise it? It will astound everyone who hears about it, which everyone will do in good time. Of course I am speaking about the part of the firing line we are situated in. On Christmas Eve at four p.m. we had orders that unless the “enemy” advanced we were not to fire, and the same applied to Christmas Day. Whether the Germans had the same order or not I don’t know but no shot was fired on either side. In Christmas Eve we shouted “Compliments of the Season” to each other, and passed pleasant remarks. We sang the “Austrian Anthem” and they replied with “God save the King.” On Christmas Day after service in the trenches, we went halfway and we shook hands, and had a fine crack with them. Quite a number of them speak English. I got one’s autograph and he got mine, and I exchanged a button with another, and exchanged cigs and got cigars galore. Altogether we spent a very pleasant two hours with them, and found them a nice lot of fellows.
These are the sort of reports that soldiers started sharing about what happened that Christmas. A lot like what we see happening in the movie, the Christmas Truce happened between collections of French, German, Belgian, and British troops all up and down the line.
Some have estimated the number of soldiers who participated in some form of Christmas Truce at about 100,000. As amazing a number as that is, that’s not the entirety of the troops stationed in the trenches. It was still in the middle of the war, and there was still fighting in a lot of areas.
But it was also a lot more than just one location. In some areas, the British and German troops crossed into No Man’s Land to shake hands, exchange trinkets, sing songs together and, for all intents and purposes, have a little holiday party.
At one location, the British and German soldiers even played a game of football in No Man’s Land. That’s soccer for those of us in the United States.
If you want to watch the Christmas Truce as it’s portrayed in the movies, that is the point of the 2012 Joyeux Noel movie, so I’d recommend watching the whole thing! But, the truce itself that we started our segment with today is at 46 minutes into the movie.
And if you want to hear more about the true story, scroll back to episode #31 of Based on a True Story.
December 29th, 1890. Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota.
We’re outside in the middle of the night. There’s a small, log cabin in the center of the frame. It’s a quiet scene until we see movement in front of the house. It’s a dog that was sleeping, but has obviously been alerted by something. The dog starts to bark at something we can’t see yet.
Inside the cabin, a sleeping man and woman are in bed. The barking dog wakes them up, though, just in time for the front door to be kicked in by a group of armed officers. In a stern voice, one of the officers tells the man in bed to get dressed. We can tell from the actor this soldier is a character named Bullhead. He’s played by Sean Wei Mah in the movie.
In the next shot, it’s daytime now and we can see Adam Beach’s character, a doctor by the name of Charles Eastman helping an older man’s eyesight. Charles notices a commotion outside. Looking through the front window, he sees a bunch of people running through the streets of town, screaming, and in a panic.
The camera focuses on Anna Paquin’s character, Elaine Goodale, as she rushes to help a young woman who appears to be injured. She tells someone to get Dr. Eastman, but even before we see that happening, we can see Charles grabbing his bag and rushing out the door.
Back in the city streets, there’s a scene of chaos as townspeople are gathering around a bunch of people who are bleeding. It’s not just the young girl we saw a moment ago.
But, that’s the one the movie focuses on for the moment, as some townspeople help her onto a stretcher and carry her into a nearby building. In the building, which we can see some remaining Christmas decorations still hanging, there are also a lot of other injured people are already gathered. Immediately, Charles starts working on the young woman’s injury: A gunshot wound to the neck. He manages to get the bullet out of her neck and asks her what happened.
She’s crying, covered in blood, but she manages to tell Charles what happened. As she does, we see a flashback of the event.
She says they came to arrest Sitting Bull, and we see a repeat of the scene we just heard described of the armed officers kicking in the door of the cabin, waking up the sleeping man and woman.
“We tried to stop them,” she says, and in the flashback, we see a bunch of armed men blocking the officer’s path just outside the cabin’s front door. An argument ensues as they try to stop the officers from dragging Sitting Bull away. Before long, one of the officers pulls out his pistol and waves it at the crowd of people.
“Stay back!” he orders.
For a moment, everyone’s attention is distracted by a white horse in the distance. Even the officers are watching the horse. Then, one of the men in the crowd aims at a soldier and shoots. One of the officers shoots Sitting Bull point blank in the head, and all hell breaks loose.
The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
That sequence comes from the 2007 movie called Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The event it’s depicting is what we now know as the Wounded Knee Massacre, which happened this week in history on December 29th, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.
It was the deadliest mass shooting in American history when the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment shot and killed almost 300 Lakota people—most of them civilians. There are some varying accounts on the exact number of people.
To understand the true story, we’ll need to start with a crash course on the Ghost Dance.
As the name implies, it was a dance used in a spiritual ceremony. First reports of it were in 1899, but by the time 1890 rolled around it had turned into more of a spiritual movement as it spread through tribal Nations from Nevada, California, Oklahoma, and, of course, South Dakota.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government had passed the Dawes Act in 1887 which had the purpose of assimilating Native Americans into the United States. It was eventually repealed in 1934, but by that time about two-thirds of Native American land was lost as they were forced to sell or swindled out of their lands or worse.
Part of the Ghost Dance movement taught that spirits would bring peace and prosperity to indigenous peoples. The part the U.S. didn’t like about that was that the way Ghost Dance adherents thought the spirits would bring about that peace was by stopping the American expansion from taking their lands.
Now, one of the most prominent believers in the Ghost Dance movement was the Chief of the Sioux Nation, Sitting Bull. He was the one who led warriors in a victory over Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn in 1876.
Before long, the U.S. prohibited Ghost Dance ceremonies because they thought it was a threat to whites. Basically, the U.S. was afraid of the religious beliefs and sought to find a way to end it. That’s a story for another day, but as you can tell, between the Dawes Act and the Ghost Dance—tensions were high between the U.S. government and the tribal Nations who were on the lands before the U.S. existed.
In a now infamous message from November 18th, 1890, an agent named Daniel F. Royer sent this telegram to the commissioner of Indian Affairs:
Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. I have fully informed you that employees and government property at this agency have no protection and are at the mercy of these dancers. Why delay by further investigation? We need protection, and we need it now. The leaders should be arrested and confined in some military post until the matter is quieted, and this should be done at once.
So, they needed protection from…dancers?
That brings us to the movie’s timeline because the scene that we see in the movie starts with Sitting Bull being arrested.
At the beginning of segment today I gave the date of December 29th, 1890. We’ll find out why that is here in a moment, but it was a couple weeks earlier when the U.S. Army decided to arrest Chief Sitting Bull as an attempt to stop the Ghost Dance ceremonies.
So, at about 5:30 AM on December 15th, 1890, Sitting Bull’s house was surrounded by about 40 officers. According to some reports, 39 officers from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and four volunteers. They were led by a man named Lieutenant Henry Bullhead, which is the man we see telling Sitting Bull to get dressed in the movie.
Some say the officers knocked before entering, so a little different than just bursting in like we see in the movie, but then again, we can probably take that with a grain of salt since those reports come from the officers—the aggressors. But, the concept the movie shows gives the gist of what happened.
The officers were there to arrest Sitting Bull. He didn’t want to go, and others in the village tried to stop the officers from arresting their Chief. Things turned violent when someone in the village shot Bullhead who, in turn, shot Sitting Bull in the chest. Then, it was another officer named Red Tomahawk who shot Sitting Bull in the head. In the aftermath of Sitting Bull’s death, many Sioux fled the area fearing for their own lives.
But, as I mentioned before, that was on December 15th. It also didn’t happen at Wounded Knee. Sitting Bull was assassinated in Standing Rock Reservation, roughly 270 miles, or 434 kilometers, away from Wounded Knee.
So, that brings us to the events of the Wounded Knee Massacre itself.
It’s only natural that the fleeing Sioux, my research indicates most of them were Lakota, would look to Sitting Bull’s half-brother. That’s Chief Spotted Elk, and he was convinced he and other chiefs would be targeted as Sitting Bull was. They were heading toward Pine Ridge, which was an Indian reservation established in 1889 in the southwest corner of South Dakota.
On December 28th, U.S. Army troops caught up with them as they neared their destination and told Spotted Elk and the others to camp at the nearby Wounded Knee Creek. The next morning, the commanding officer in the U.S. Army, Col. James Forsyth, entered the Lakota camp with the 7th Cavalry and ordered them to lay down their weapons. Once they’d done that, Forsyth said he’d take them to a new camp.
The Lakota feared this meant they’d be taken away from South Dakota and their territories altogether, so some of them started doing the Ghost Dance. Remember, it was essentially a religious belief that this would help the spirits protect them.
If they were Christians, they probably would start praying. For Lakota, they turned to the Ghost Dance. While that’s not a 1-to-1 equivalency since obviously Christianity is very different than the religious beliefs of the Lakota, I only mention that to help you understand how it’s perfectly normal for people to turn to spiritual and religious beliefs when they’re afraid.
However, many of the soldiers in the U.S. 7th Cavalry had been taught the Ghost Dance was a prelude to war. They thought it meant they were going to be attacked. On edge, it only took for one of the dancers to grab dirt from the ground and throw it into the air—which was merely part of the ceremony—for the soldiers to assume this meant something more than it actually did.
A massacre ensued.
While the Lakota fought back, they were outnumbered and outgunned.
Men, women, and children—including many babies—were shot and killed at close range. Some were killed at distance, as well, if they tried to flee.
It took hours, but when the shooting finally stopped, the Army gathered their own dead and left the dead and injured Lakota to freeze in a blizzard that hit. When they returned a few days later, the Army stripped many of the Lakota naked and took souvenirs from the dead before throwing them into a mass grave.
In the massacre, about 25 U.S. Army soldiers lost their lives. Most historians think a majority of those deaths came as a result of friendly fire due to the chaos of it all. And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this, estimates are that at least 300 Lakota were killed.
Now, I know it’s Christmastime and it’s supposed to full of warmth and happiness. I hope this doesn’t damper your holiday, but I believe it’s important to remember even these sad moments in history, so we can both ensure we don’t repeat such horrific events as well as ensuring those who died unnecessarily aren’t forgotten.
If you want to watch how the 2007 movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee portrays this event…as you can tell, it’s not a happy story. I’d highly recommend viewer discretion, because the scenes are tough to watch, but it starts around an hour and 46 minutes into the movie.
December 31st, 1967. Las Vegas, Nevada.
It’s a beautiful day with white clouds against a blue sky. In the foreground we can see Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In fact, the movie gives us the date and location: January 1, 1968. Caesars Palace, Las Vegas.
There are huge crowds of people all gathered outside for the show. In the center, though, are the huge fountains for the hotel and casino. No one is around those. All the crowds are blocked off from being able to get there. We see what we can presume are journalists setting up a camera to film the event.
The movie cuts to a shirtless man wearing white pants in what looks to be the inside of a trailer. We can tell from the actor that this is George Eads’ character, Evel Knievel. He has an nearly empty bottle of liquor in his hand. After taking one last swig, it’s completely empty now and he searches the cupboards for a replacement.
From inside the casino, we can see a couple guys overlooking the crowds below. One of them is Fred Thompson’s character, Jay Sarno. They seem happy with the attendance.
Back in the trailer, in walks Eric Gordon’s character. He’s cast as…well, no one. His character doesn’t seem to have a name. He tells Knievel he hid the other bottle of Turkey so it couldn’t get into trouble. But, he’s also not good at hiding, because Evel finds it anyway. He takes another swig from the fresh bottle, then looks outside at the crowd before putting on a white jacket with red and blue stars and stripes that matches his pants.
Outside, Evel has a helmet on as he gets ready on his motorcycle. The helmet is also red, white, and blue, with his name written on the front.
A brief moment later, and Evel revs the engine. The crowd cheers louder as his motorcycle races off down the ramp. Right at the top of the ramp, he stops. The crowd continues cheering. Up in the casino office, Jay Sarno says even if Evel doesn’t make the jump, it’ll keep ‘em happy at the tables whichever way it goes.
Back on the ground, Evel returns his motorcycle to the start of the ramp. He revs the engine a few times, looking out at everyone. He waves to the crowd. Then, staring down the ramp, the tires squeal as the motorcycle races forward. Faster, faster. He hits the end of the ramp and goes airborne—over the fountains, over everything. It’s an amazing sight to see him and the motorcycle flying through the air.
On the other side, there’s another ramp. He hits it…and everything goes wrong.
The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie Evel Knievel
That sequence comes from the 2004 movie called Evel Knievel. The event it’s depicting is when the daredevil Evel Knievel jumped over the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, which happened this week in history on December 31st, 1967.
Quick side note, Evel was not his real first name. That was a stage name. His real name was Robert. But, everyone knows him as Evel Knievel so that’s what we’ll call him.
Right away, let me address something because just a moment ago I said the movie gave us the date of January 1st, 1968. That’s the text on screen in the movie as it sets up the event.
The movie got that text wrong.
It was not a New Year’s Day jump, but rather a New Year’s Eve jump on December 31st, 1967. So, if the filmmakers didn’t even get the text on the screen correct, that probably gives you a good indication of how accurate the movie is overall.
With that said, though, the movie was correct to show that the jump didn’t go well. But, there’s more to the story that we don’t see in the movie.
At the time, the jump was the longest attempt for Evel Knievel at a massive 141 feet going over the fountains at the Caesars Palace hotel and casino. That’s about 43 meters. Something else we don’t see happening in the movie, at least it’s not obvious to me when I was watching it, is the reason for why Knievel didn’t make the jump.
Basically, as he was on the takeoff ramp, something caused the motorcycle to lose power right at the last moment. It decelerated just enough to give him power for a jump, but not enough power to make a 141-foot jump. Fortunately, they had a safety ramp set up on the other side in case of emergencies. Unfortunately, when Knievel’s motorcycle hit the safety ramp, the handlebars were ripped out of his hands and a lot like we see happening in the movie, he tumbled over the handlebars to the pavement below.
His hip, wrist, and both ankles were fractured. He had a concussion, and his femur and pelvis were crushed. It was a terrible accident that landed him in the hospital for the better part of a month.
But, in the end, it ended up being a great thing for Evel Knievel because the crash made him more popular than ever. Before this event, while he’d done a number of stunts, most people still didn’t know who Evel Knievel was. In fact, he had make up interest through phone calls to Caesars’ casino CEO Jay Sarno, that’s Fred Thompson’s character we see in the movie. He pretended to be from Sports Illustrated or ABC to call Sarno and make him think people were interested in seeing Evel Knievel’s jump.
It worked. Evel Knievel got the gig.
In the movie, we see a woman filming it all. And in the true story, Knievel had his wife at the time, Linda Evans, film it all with the intention of producing a film about it to garner some semblance of fame for Knievel. When Evans’ camera captured Knievel’s disastrous crash, the footage made Knievel more famous than he could’ve hoped.
If you want to watch the event that happened this week in history as it’s shown in the movie, it starts at about 28 minutes into the 2004 movie called Evel Knievel.