Fact Checking “The Finest Hours”

Posted by

The Finest Hours is a faithful and truthful telling of the rescue of crewmen on the tanker the SS Pendleton.

Truthful does not in all cases mean factual.  There are no huge bloopers in the movie.  There is compounding of characters and time is both stretched, cut and pasted.

For me it works, and I figure I’m in as good a position as anyone to judge this.  I spent a good chunk of time and hours and hours talking with Bernie, researching the wreck, combing through archived records and cross-checking with him for my book on the rescue, “Two Tankers Down.”

In other words, I know this subject matter well, and I am not indebted to the studio.

So how did the Hollywood guys do on the facts?

Based on the cheesy previews and trailers, I was prepared to flatten this baby.  But in fact, it’s well done and true to the event and the people even if the facts are not sometimes.

There are no “Pants on Fire” rankings here.  And some of my “catches” are nerdish maritime writer notes.  What some people MIGHT think are whoppers I can accept and I’ll explain why.

Let the Fact Check begin:

  1. Miriam Webber did not come down to the Coast Guard Station.
    In fact, she was very sick at home with the flu.  The couple had been married before the rescue.
    Why it doesn’t matter to me:   The film pretty well represents the couple’s romance, right down to the “bear skin” coat.  The presence of Miriam in the film allows for a nice conflict of concerns:  a human concern for life versus the Coast Guard code of the ‘You have to go out– you don’t have to come back.”   I guess for purists this would be a pants on fire fact fail.  For me, I think it’s a great bit of dramatic license that while not factual gets the truth across.
  2. Bernie was far taller and less pretty than Chris Pine.
    Bernie was kind of a big lug of a guy.  Okay, but Pine does a pretty good job of playing Bernie as the good-hearted and well-intended fella he was. If there is a critique here, I’d say the director portrays Bernie as a little dumb and simple.  He wasn’t.  He was cagey enough to know questions I would ask him before I asked them.  The guy had been admitted to a top prep school.  He had an unerring ability to compute multiple factors in his head — navigational and personal.  On the other hand, Bernie often played dumb.  And in social matters, he could be dumb. I can’t fault Pine’s performance at all and feel it’s on the money.
  3. The Pendleton did not split at a weld.
    I told you this would get a little nerdy.  But T-2 tankers did not have welding faults — though it was widely suspected they did.  Their fault was in the type of steel used, which under 50 degrees turned brittle.  Cracks would form and race through the whole hull.  The “crack arrestors” or steel belts were there to stop that, not reinforce the welding.  This is about a big a false fact as I can find.  But it’s not crucial to the plot or the fact that the ships were flawed.
  4. At times the movie actually understates conditions.
    I’ve read some reviews that say the angle of the lifeboat ascending waves was improbable.  The movie had it right.  It might have been interesting to dwell on the boat descending waves — when Webber had to jam the engine in reverse to slow the boat as it gained speed.  Had he not done that, the boat would have essentially kept going to the bottom.
    Other understatements: Bernie emerged from the “bar” crossing with windshield fragments embedded in his skull.  The men in the engine room of the boat fried great sections of their arms on the hot motor.  Not essential to the movie, and I thought actually showed some restraint.5. The “Lost Man” was probably “lost” before he hit the water.If I did nothing else through Two Tankers Down, I hope I eased Bernie’s mind on this death.  Throughout his life Bernie was haunted by the one guy he lost.  He mentioned this frequently in conversations and correspondence.  The crew and the rescuers even concocted a story to say that Tiny was the last man down the ladder — and had waited until all were clear.
    In fact, Tiny was probably in the advanced stages of hypothermia.  He was a large man, 300+ pounds.  And at the top of the ship, he had stripped off all his clothes, in the advanced stages of hypothermia.  This phenomenon is known as “paradoxical undressing.”  The blood flows suddenly from the heart to the extremities and causes a feeling of burning.  Once in this state, few come back.  So yes, the rescuers could not get Tiny in the boat.  But almost certainly, even had they been able to wrestle the huge man up over the side, he would have passed.6. Livesey and Bernie had no beefMore dramatic license here.  Bernie and his crew member had no quarrel or grudge as suggested in the film.  They respected each other.  The director uses the grudge as a way of referring back to the story of an earlier failed rescue — when Webber and others tried in vain to reach a fishing boat on the other side of the Chatham Bar.Again, in my mind: poetic license granted.  This worked for me as a dramatic device.7. There is a bittersweet ending to the real story.

    The movie tells the tale well and has no obligation to go beyond the story.  Truth is life got very complicated for Bernie after the awards with some of the brass.  He was offered the Lifesaving Gold Medal and declined it unless his whole crew got it. (They did.) He was nearly court martialed for disobeying the order to take the boat out to sea to offload the rescued.
    Worse, some of his own colleagues shunned him in the egalitarian ranks of the non-officer corps, or gave him the cold shoulder.
    Uncomfortable with the spotlight, he nevertheless was forced to do speech tours with the Coast Guard brass when he wanted nothing more to get back on his boat with his crew.
    Then, as a publicity project, in the early days of the Vietnam War, the Coast Guard shipped him over in charge of a riverine warfare gunboat.  There he performed close-in duty, in the mode of Apocalypse Now.  It’s the one thing I could not get him to talk about. He retired from the Coast Guard shortly after this tour, thinking the Coast Guard had moved into another era.
    The good news is he maintained his sense of honor and self dignity.  He actively chose to stay within the working ranks of non-commissioned officers when he might easily have become an officer.  Decades later, Coast Guard rescue workers still talk of him.

    8. The movie may have overstated Bernie’s natural courage and understated his doubts.

    Throughout his voyage to the bar, Bernie kept saying to himself that they would call him back, he hoped they would call him back.  I mention this not to criticize Bernie but to underscore the fact that he was a real human being with real thoughts, not a hero sprung from whole cloth.  I can’t fault the director too much here.

9.  They did not sing a sea chanty as they motored toward the bar.
          They sang the hymn Rock of Ages.

Let me know what other questions you have.  Also, if you’re interested in the other wreck that day — involving the SS Fort Mercer — you’ll find it in my book, Two Tankers Down. 


  1. Thank you Mr. Frump for your ‘fact check’ review. I’m in the process of reading “The Finest Hours” book and agree with your assessment. I get that Hollywood must sometime cram years of history into a two hour movie and make thing work, but some of the untrue changes where really not necessary. And the one most problematic for me, being a man of faith, is to change the song they sang while approaching the bar; so very uncalled for. If they in truth sang “A pirate’s life for me” for instance and it was change to “The Old Rugged Cross”, I would also be against that. Why is it we have become so afraid of the truth whether it be for or against me? Have we become such cowards we cannot bare the plane and simple of it? When I go and see a movie, or read a book that states “based on a true story”, maybe I’m too gullible; nevertheless; I still remain hopeful.

    Paul R.

    1. Hi Paul… Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      You know, I have to think about this and dig through some notes. I know Rugged Cross is what Bernie mentioned but I also remember him saying they sang a lot of other popular songs. So it is not impossible the sea chanty worked its way in there.

      Bernie was a man of faith, but he never really talked about it much. There was a point at which he paused in his thinking while on the boat as he was having those second thoughts…and he asked himself who he was. His answer in his head was he ws a Coast Guard rescuer and he knew his duty and felt not only that he could do it but would do it. In The Finest Hours book the authors say Bernie felt that it was God’s destiny. (I believe this accurate and am not contesting it.) There was no doubt that he believed miracles had occurred. 1.) He crossed the bar. 2.) without compass, he found the ship 3.) He loaded a boat built for 12 with 30 plus men 4.) without compass, he found his way directly back to Chatham. I can’t fault the movie for not making more of the religious aspects of this because Bernie himself did not.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Frump for the review. As the daughter of Fred Brown, a survivor, I was somewhat disappointed in the way in which the ship’s crew was portrayed…not at all the way my dad spoke of it. Dad was quoted in the Portland Press Herald, and he was also quoted in the book The finest hours which described a very different crew. They banded together and prayed like never before. Also, the movie was confusing as to how the Coast Guard discovered the Pendleton. Tiny Myers was my dad’s best friend. When dad returned to us, he had Tiny’s blood on his clothing from trying to pull him in the boat. The rescuers forced him to let go because Tiny was dead. And what about the eight officers that were lost, and the way in which they were lost? I think they deserved some recognition in the movie. All things considered, it was a good movie, especially for those who don’t know the whole story. Thank you for correcting some errors, like the song. It was the great hymn…Rock of Ages!

    1. Yes, I agree. The portrayal of the Pendleton crew was inaccurate. I believe they combined elements of the Fort Mercer crew, which had some people pretty insistent in abandoning ship. But only a few. I’ll do an expanded post on this and point out the errors I more detail. Bob

      1. Hi Letty…a question arose from a reader you might help me with. Do you know the race of Tiny Meyers? I assumed that he was white but in fact do not know and assuming is never a great footnote on research.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.