Every year, Hollywood rushes to adapt real people and events into biopics, dramas and even action movies. We’ve had movies depicting real-life terrorist attacks, delving into the true stories behind inventors, and approximately 100 movies per year about the Royal Family. But somehow, despite all the ripped-from-the-headlines films gracing our scenes each year, these wild and true stories have never made it to the big screen.
The Halley’s Comet Panic of 1910
In 2021, director Adam McKay brought us Don’t Look Up, a comedy-satire about a comet that was about to wipe out the earth and destroy humanity. While his story was mostly a metaphor for climate change, many viewers found it closely resembling our current pandemic as well. But if McKay wanted to satirise response to the pandemic, he should look to a different comet.
In 1910, Edward Halley discovered a comet that was going to closely pass by Earth. Things began to get strange, however, when the New York Times highlighted French astronomer Camille Flammarion’s theory that the comet’s tail consisted of a poisonous gas that would kill us all. While most serious scientists disagreed with Flammarion, people still ran with Flammarion and started panic-buying gas masks. Other grifters and pseudo-scientists began to try and make a buck off the hysteria, claiming that their pills and elixirs could prevent death from poison gas. Flammarion never backed down from his theory and even claimed that onlookers could smell the gas as the comet passed by.
If nothing in that story of the mainstream media accidentally highlighting quacks and grifters selling alternate medicines reminds you of our current times, Google “ivermectin” and get back to me. This particular comet panic might hit a little too close to home these days.
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Did you think Human Centipede was too far-fetched? What about Hostel? While the torture porn genre may have faded from popular culture in recent years, there is still an appetite for real, visceral horror, and no one can deliver quite like the US government.
MKULTRA was a sweeping CIA programme investigating mind control and often using unknowing civilians as test subjects. One experiment within MKULTRA was Subproject 68, which sounds more like a horror movie than most horror movies.
Dr. Ewen Cameron, a Scottish-born psychologist, believed he could essentially erase people’s minds and leave them with the mental capacity of babies, allowing their personalities to be completely rebuilt. To do this, he would put his subjects in sensory deprivation chambers, induce comas, perform electric shocks and play the same messages on repeat for days on end.
Some subjects suffered for over 100 days in this extreme form of torture. Many subjects suffered from memory loss, and some are still seeking compensation from the government as some form of justice. A made-for-TV Canadian movie is the only media that attempts to depict Subproject 68, but it could easily be a tense and brutal thriller with a terrifying character actor as Dr. Cameron – maybe John Goodman channelling his 10 Cloverfield Lane performance?
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The Last Queen of Hawaii
There are approximately 10 movies about Princess Diana this year, but royalty outside of Europe never quite seem to get as much play. One story that would make an incredible movie is that of Queen Lili‘uokalani, the first and last Queen of Hawaii.
King Kalākaua, Lili‘uokalani’s brother, had signed something called the Bayonet Constitution which gave some power to the white landowners and farmers who had attempted a coup. After King Kalākaua’s death, Lili‘uokalani wanted to restore power back to the monarchy and away from the businessmen who were looking to export natural resources like sugar back home to America and Europe.
Unfortunately, only two years after coming to power, the business owners staged another coup, this time backed by the U.S. military. The landowners removed Lili‘uokalani from power, and after her supporters attempted a coup of their own, she was tried for treason. Lili‘uokalani gave up her powers as monarch in exchange for pardons for her supporters and the U.S. was able to annex Hawaii. Lili‘uokalani continued to fight for a free Hawaii, despite living in exile.
A powerful female monarch who fought for the rights and the land of her people, under house arrest in the palace, was forced to sign away her power but never backed down. It’d be a powerful film centred around a strong performance – like Elizabeth, in another time and place.
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The Town That Faked Crime
Have you ever heard of Palisade, Nevada? Well, if you were a big traveller in the 1870s, you might have. The sleepy town was passed through regularly by trains and, either due to boredom or a need for tourism, the residents decided to stage a show for commuters.
As the train approached, the townsfolk would get into position and act out gunfights, bank robberies, and battles with the local Native American tribes. No one outside the town knew it was a hoax, and Palisade gained a reputation as the most dangerous city in the West. In reality, the town was so safe it didn’t even have a real sheriff!
Palisade could easily be a Christopher Guest style comedy, with character actors like Catherina O’Hara and Jennifer Coolidge as community theatre via the Wild West types, desperate to put on a good show.
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Salt of the Earth
How about a movie, based on a true story, about a movie, based on a true story?
In the 1950s, Hollywood was going through a dark period where filmmakers and stars were blacklisted due to their personal politics – or how their personal politics were being perceived by those in charge. Many writers, directors and producers were even called to testify in Washington in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and either denounce their connections to socialism and anti-Fascism or name those in Hollywood who might be socialists.
In the midst of this, Blacklisted writers Paul Jarrico, Michael Wilson and director Herbert Biberman made a pro-union, pro-feminist and pro-minority film – which Hollywood didn’t exactly care for. Salt of the Earth was about striking zinc miners in New Mexico and not only depicted the union favourably but also cast some of the actual miners and union members as themselves.
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The film ended up being under just as much pressure and harassment as the striking workers had been – few people in Hollywood wanted to touch the film, so they hired other Blacklisted artists as well as crew members with little to no experience. Many seasoned creatives walked away from the film after receiving threats, or out of fear of being added to the FBI watchlist. The remaining cast and crew were also harassed, with one actor having their car shot at and another having their home burnt down.
No one suffered more so than lead actress Rosaura Revueltas, who was jailed during filming before being deported to Mexico. Politicians claimed the film was trying to “incite racial hatred,” and the film was under so much scrutiny the filmmakers had to finish it in secret. They created a makeshift lab where they developed the footage in secret, used code names and unmarked canisters, and wouldn’t even let the composer watch the footage he was scoring – too risky.
Despite all that, the movie was still banned throughout most of America for its left-wing political leanings, although it has retained its legacy today. A movie about the movie would be perfect for Hollywood (they love telling stories about themselves!) and it’d be a rare case where they’d be the good guys and the bad.