American Experience: ‘The Boys of ’36’ Were Working Class Boys Beating Two Systems

Sports means different things to different people and in 1936, at the Berlin Olympics under Hitler, it meant a chance to prove things. For nine American men, it was a chance to prove privilege was not everything and state-sponsored programs could be beaten with raw determination and teamwork and “The Boys of ’36” looks at how a team of blue-collared boys beat out Ivy League traditions and Aryan supremacy claims.

Rowing used to be a popular sport. Director Margaret Grossi illustrates this with tales of trains following the route and archival photographs of eager spectators. But in the United States, the sport was dominated by East Coast Ivy Leagues schools. This team was from the University of Washington, training under George Pocock.

Grossi provides some essential background of the nine boys: coxswain Robert “Bobby” Moch, stroke oar Don Hume, the throw-away boy Joe Rantz, engine room George “Shorty” Hunt, engine room “James “Stub” McMillin, engine room Johnny White, engine room Gordy Adam, Chuck Day and bowman Roger Morris. During the Depression era, a pragmatic approach toward children and affordable food meant that some kids were left behind to fend for themselves. It’s amazing that a man like Rantz still kept himself in school.  Some might have been in the athletic program solely because it guaranteed them enough food.

Written by Aaron R. Cohen, this documentary is a sensitive thoughtful look at the meaning of sports in the lives of nine men. There’s a sense of raw power and potential, but also hope and a sense of brotherhood and bonding–team spirit in the best sense of the word when near the end, the risk is taken that does eventually pay off. The documentary is based on the 2013 Daniel James Brown book, “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.”

“The Boys of ’36” can be viewed online at American Experience page on

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