From Ben-Hur (1959) to Dunkirk (2017), film adaptations of history have captivated audiences. Directors have brought the strife, ambition, agony, and triumph of the past to the screen with great success. But not every critical point in history has had that chance yet—here are the top five historical events that still need adaptations in modern film:
- The Controversial Discoveries of Paul du Chaillu:
Unlike the rest of the items on this list, the story of the discoveries of Paul du Chaillu isn’t a violent one. A Frenchman of both European and African ancestry, du Chaillu spent much of his youth travelling with his father in Gabon, on the west coast of Africa, which inspired him to become an anthropologist in adulthood. He was sent on an expedition back to that continent by the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1855 with the hopes of enlightening Western society as to what lay within the jungle. What he found proved remarkable, and he briefly charmed European scientific community with it: the discovery of the gorilla. But du Chaillu’s work was quickly wrapped in controversy. Much of a European scientific community recently galvanized by The Origin of Species and entrenched in racist thought viewed du Chaillu’s work as fantasy, the machinations of the genetically weak. Others established theories connecting Africans, and by extension, du Chaillu, to gorillas in shared subhumanity. His struggle is not only one of scientific validation but also that of a young man trying to assert himself as his self-image and to overcome a dynamic stacked against him. In his writings at the time, he explicitly asserts himself as European and as white, signalling a painful awareness of the harm his background presented among the scientific community he wished to enrich. Eventually, however, Paul du Chaillu was vindicated, his gorilla discovery accepted by the scientific community as well as his correct taxonomic classifications, they, too, contested by European scholars touting intellectual superiority. Du Chaillu’s story provides both a journey into the unknown and a glimpse of the struggle against racism among the scientific community of the mid-1800s, presenting plenty of material for a multifaceted biopic.
- The Second Punic War / Hannibal’s Crossing of the Alps:
No war in human history has as much potential for a film epic as the Second Punic War. For one thing, over a million men fought in it, numbers unseen in Europe again until the sixteenth century, but more critically is its story. Hannibal, son of Hamilcar Barca, the Carthaginian commander during the first Punic War, has obeyed his father’s wishes by swearing an oath of revenge against Rome for what it has done to Carthage. But Rome’s naval superiority presents problems for Hannibal in this endeavor, so he resolves to do the undoable: to cross the Alps into Italy. Hannibal gathers tens of thousands of infantry, thousands of cavalry, and several dozen war elephants (yes, war elephants) and fatefully embarks, from Iberia through the Pyrenees and eventually to the great formidable mountains themselves. His men undergo a grueling trek, weathering cold and treacherous slopes, and many succumb to the elements. But Hannibal and his army emerges, having withstood their hardship, and fight the Romans that greatly outnumber them. Yet they again achieve success, consistently routing Roman troops, evading unsuitable conflicts by way of bearing further misery of swamp travel and hunger. In battle after battle, Hannibal clutches victory against enormous odds; at Cannae, they achieved the militarily unthinkable: they surrounded a larger force with a smaller one, crushing Roman troops. The elephants, alien to roman legions, struck fear into the enemy. Yet Hannibal cannot take Rome; despite gaining support from non-Roman subjects of the Republic, his forces are too small, victory too unassurable, and after fifteen years of warfare, he is recalled to the Carthaginian state where Scipio Africanus sweeps through Iberia, signifying the end of Carthage’s hopes of Mediterranean domination. The war lends itself scenes of danger and of action, recurring themes of ideal and vengeance, and intermittent celebration and morale-bolstering festivity. The clash of empires and of military greats is displayed at its most pure, providing the perfect setting of an unmatched film of ancient war.
- The Life of Ching Shih:
Though a fictionalized version of Ching Shih made a small appearance in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), there’s huge potential here for a biopic. Known to history by a name that means Cheng’s widow, Ching Shih began her adult life as a Cantonese prostitute but married the pirate lord Cheng I at twenty-six. Upon his death, she fought and politically maneuvered to assume control of his fleet, and, upon being successful, used it to dominate the China Sea as a de facto empress. After several years of consolidating power and terrorizing civilian and military vessels alike, she negotiated on equal footing with the Ming, agreeing to abandon her piracy but keep the spoils,after which she opened a gambling house she’d manage to her death. Ching Shih’s life presents a perfect opportunity for an unconventional twist on the classic rags-to-riches narrative while simultaneously lending itself to fast-paced, high-stakes naval battle scenes and overarching themes of intrigue among outlaws and gender’s influence in power structures, with a convenient epilogue to top it off if needed. Truly, the only downside is that someone else has already secured the moniker of “Pirate Queen”; otherwise, that sounds like quite the Hollywood title.
- The Battle for Castle Itter:
May 3, 1945. Fearing Allied invasion, the Nazi garrison at Castle Itter has abandoned its post, and its French prisoners—former prime ministers, commanders-in-chief, resistance and trade union leaders, and a tennis star among them—have taken control of the fort. They have sent a messenger, a Czech cook, toward the Allies forty miles away. After a day of wait, help arrives in the form of a dozen defected Germans, one SS and eleven Wehrmacht, and sixteen Americans armed with a lone tank. They send out again, this time by telephone, and another two defected Germans and a teenage Austrian resistance member arrive. The battle that ensues is perhaps the strangest of the war. On May 5, just under 200 SS troops arrive to retake the fort, now defended by not only perhaps the strangest group of Allied-aligned troops but also by the extremely important French prisoners who insist on aiding them. Throughout the night, the two ill-equipped sides exchange fire in an easily dramatic sequence, with the tide beginning to turn against the defenders when a Nazi anti-tank gun does its job. Adrenalinic sequences are plentiful: the day is saved when tennis great Jean Borotra successfully sprints through a gauntlet of Nazis to reach allied lines and tell them of the enemy. Neither is the battle without tragedy; in what easily lends itself to a heartbreak, Josef Gangl, the defected SS officer leading former Nazi troops, dies by taking a bullet for former Prime Minister Paul Reynaud. The best part? A film about it is already in production, directed by Peter Landesman and set to release in 2018 under the title The Last Battle.
- The Fall of the Inca Empire:
Manco Inca may have come to power as a Spanish puppet, but he didn’t stay one for long. One of several sons of the last uncontested Inca emperor, Manco was installed by Francisco Pizarro’s Spanish after a war of succession. On unstable footing and realizing the threat posed by the foreigners rapidly increasing in control over him and his people, Manco fatefully twice attempted to escape, the second time fleeing from his small Spanish guard while away from the main Spanish forces under the pretenses of retrieving a statue of his father. In his success, the era’s tension ignites. Manco Inca quickly raises some 200,000 Inca forces, largely from the southern part of the empire that supported his faction in the civil war, and laid siege to the great city of Cuzco, but was ultimately forced to retreat to Ollantaytambo, where he successfully routed several Spanish endeavors to relieve Cuzco or reconquer his lands. As the Spanish ignited into a civil war of their own, Manco made one final lunge at Lima, the stronghold of Pizarro himself, threatening to sever the final Spanish cord that bound the Inca empire. The expulsion of foreign invaders in his grasp, the stage was set for a moment of glory and of rest. But no such show played in Lima, and Manco was driven back, back to Ollantaytambo and and then further, to Vitcos and then deep in the jungle at Vilcabamba. So the story goes, after crossing a river in his retreat from the Spanish he turned back, yelling “I am Manco Inca! I am Manco Inca!” Such an impactful tale of final rise and fall, largely forgotten, deserves to be brought to the screen.