Is The Finest Hours Based on a True Story?

Image Credit: Claire Folger/Disney

Helmed by Craig Gillespie, ‘The Finest Hours’ is a 2016 action thriller movie that chronicles the courage displayed by four extraordinary heroes in a time of peril. In February 1952, a severe storm hits New England, leading to an off-coast oil tanker being severely damaged and split in half. As the surviving sailors on the vessel struggle to make it out alive, the U.S. Coast Guard is tasked with rescuing the survivors. Meanwhile, Ray Sybert, the de-facto captain of the tanker, tries keeping his men alive till help arrives.

In what can only be described as a suicide mission, Bernard “Bernie” Webber and three of his men set out on a motorboat, courageously battling the hazardous storm and risking their all to bring the sailors back home safely. With compelling performances by talented actors like Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, and John Magaro, the movie intricately details the functioning of the U.S. Coast Guard in the 50s. Moreover, the realistic characters and how they daringly execute their dangerous mission make one wonder if ‘The Finest Hour’ depicts actual historical events and people. So, if you’re curious to know more, here’s what we found!

Is The Finest Hours a True Story?

Yes, ‘The Finest Hours’ is based on a true story. Writers Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy penned the script by adapting Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman’s 2009 book ‘The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue.’ It details the incredible true events of the historic 1952 Pendleton rescue by the U.S. Coast Guard. On February 18, 1952, the World War II-era oil tanker, the SS Pendleton, was hit by a severe cyclone off the New England coast, causing it to break in half.

Image Credit: Claire Folger/Disney

Unfortunately, the vessel could not make a distress call, as earlier that day, another oil tanker named SS Fort Mercer had faced a similar fate. Nevertheless, the shore radar at the Chatham, Massachusetts, Lifeboat Station discovered the SS Pendleton while searching for the other tanker. Since most of the U.S. Coast Guard was already employed in the rescue mission for the SS Fort Mercer, it came upon Boxswain Mate First Class Bernard “Bernie” Webber, a skilled coxswain at the Chatham station, to lead the rescue operation for the SS Pendleton.

Webber assembled a small crew comprising Engineman Third Class Andrew Fitzgerald, Seaman Richard Livesey, and Seaman Ervin Maske and took his Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat CG 36500 out to sea. With exceptional skill and presence of mind, he and his team battled fierce waves and wind and helped evacuate 32 crew members of the SS Pendleton who were stuck in the tanker’s stern section. All four U.S. Coast Guard members were later awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for their heroic act.

(L to R) Bernard Webber, Andrew Fitzgerald, Richard Livesey, and Ervin Maske//Image Credit: Cape Cod Community College

According to author Casey Sherman, though seven generations of his family have lived on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, he only heard of the 1952 Pendleton Rescue around 2006, when he came across a small memorial at the Coast Guard Station in Chatham. Intrigued by this valiant account, Sherman and co-author Michael J. Tougias began researching the same for their book. Eventually, they painstakingly tracked down the true heroes of the rescue mission — Webber, Fitzgerald, Livesey, and Maske — and insisted on getting their first-hand accounts.

Surprisingly, neither Webber nor his crew had ever recounted the exact details of the incident to anyone ever before. In a January 2016 interview with GBH, Sherman shared, “When they finally let us interview them, you could see the pressure and the relief pour off their shoulders…The first wave they encountered that night picked up that little lifeboat like a toy, tossed it into the air – leaving all four crew members momentarily airborne – and slammed it down on the surface of the sea…Bernie Webber always told me, “’I was a good skipper, but I wasn’t that good. Something else was at the helm of that little lifeboat that night.’”

Coming to the movie, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson wrote the script primarily by relying on Sherman and Tougias’ book, but they also conducted interviews with the survivors of the incident. Eventually, writer Scott Silver adapted the script into the movie’s riveting screenplay. In another interview with The Writing Studio, director Craig Gillespie divulged what pulled him to the project. “What I loved about this script is that it really makes you think about what you would do if you were given the choice of stepping up and doing something which takes a lot of courage for someone other than yourself, and I love that premise,” he said.

Bernard Webber, Richard Livesey, and Andrew Fitzgerald//Image Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Gillespie continued, “There was a purity to the generation of men in our story, and they often did put others before themselves, and that’s what made them so heroic. There are a lot of thrills in this story, and the scale is huge, but in the end, it’s a very personal story. What I loved about the script is that Bernie Webber has so much heart—he’s such an interesting, lovable character. He’s the guy who you feel is not going to amount to much…and then he surprises everybody…The story is not that well known, but it is actually the greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history.”

To maintain authenticity, the filmmaker and his team worked closely with Andy Fitzgerald and Lieutenant Commander Mel Gouthro, a retired U.S. Coast Guardsman involved extensively in the rescue mission. They frequently visited the sets and gave the cast and crew pointers wherever required. Considering all these points, it is safe to say that ‘The Finest Hours’ is an accurate retelling of the 1952 SS Pendleton rescue and a fitting tribute to the brave contributions of the four U.S. Coast Guardsmen who risked their own lives to save many others. Despite adding some dramatic elements for entertainment, the movie stays faithful to its source material and the real-life incident it depicts.

Read More: Where Was The Finest Hours Filmed?