Hollywood has a long history of Presidential drama (and comedy) but with Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen, the highest office in the United States is getting a serious dose of action. Casting Gerard Butler as a Secret Service agent determined to save the President (Aaron Eckhart) from a terrorist takeover of the White House, Olympus, strangely enough, isn’t the only upcoming film focusing on a President under fire.
Roland Emmerich’s White House Down will follow a similar plot with the talents of Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum, and feature plenty of explosive action (if Emmerich’s directorial habit of blowing the White House to pieces continues). With this pair of films (and more possibly on the way), we have to ask: is this the start of a new genre?
The ‘White House movie’ idea may seem far-fetched, but the real building has seen its share of intruders and attacks; some we wouldn’t believe possible if they hadn’t already happened. Here are the stories of 5 Real-Life White House Attacks.
Date: January 20, 1985
The Real Story: We all have a desire to be a part of history, whether by making it ourselves or witnessing it; Robert Latta decided to do a little bit of both. On the day President Ronald Reagan was sworn-in for his second term, Latta decided not necessarily to attack, but go sightseeing, following the 33-member Marine Band past White House security.
From there the Denver native strolled the residence, overnight bag in hand, until Secret Service agents discovered him and brought his 14-minute-long tour to an end. He was interrogated and searched for explosives, but none were found. Claiming that he thought “if I wasn’t supposed to be there, somebody would stop me,” Latta was charged with unlawful entry and despite the court’s wishes for psychiatric evaluation, he posted bail and returned home.
The Denver Water Department meter-reader maintained his intrusion was simply a mistake, even if it did turn out to be the highlight of his trip. Although Latta later revealed that: “I wanted to see how far I could get.”
Date: October, 1978
The Real Story: To be honest, we’re not really shocked by the fact that Anthony Henry climbed over the White House fence with Bible in hand to argue to President Jimmy Carter that printing “In God We Trust” on United States currency was blasphemous. But it’s how he went about doing it that perplexes us – specifically that he was wearing a white, Karate-style gi, and that in his other hand he held a knife.
Unsurprisingly, Henry only got 15 yards into the compound’s north side before Secret Service approached him. Whatever had brought the protester to the House that day, the slices he took at the agents’ arms and faces sealed his fate. The agents were able to disarm and subdue Henry without further injury, and he was promptly arrested.
Sadly, we’ll never know what argument he was going to deliver to President Carter and if his choice of clothing was somehow connected, or simply being used to give him the confidence needed to get his point across.
Date: December 25, 1974
The Real Story: If one attack brought about changes in White House security that are readily apparent, it’s Marshall Fields’ ‘attack’ on Christmas Day, 1974. Crashing his Chevy Impala into the Northwest Gate (when the gate itself had yet to be updated from its 19th-Century wrought iron original) Fields drove up to the North Portico.
He then exhibited a staggering amount of racial and religious insensitivity, leaping from the vehicle dressed in Arab robes and declaring himself the Messiah (he picked the right day, we suppose); he also had explosives strapped to his body. With President Gerald Ford and his family out of town, the ‘Messiah-bomber’ surrendered after a 4-hour standoff.
The ‘explosives’ Fields was wearing turned out to be road flares, but the attack did cause the White House gates to be refitted with sturdier steel that have since prevented would-be intruders from similar attempts.
Date: February 22, 1974
The Real Story: The story of Samuel Byck, a mentally ill man who made open threats against President Richard Nixon has already been told in The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004), with Sean Penn in the lead role.
Betting that an airplane crashing into the White House would be the best way to assassinate the President, Byck hatched a plan he dubbed “Operation Pandora’s Box.” Less than a week after, and possibly inspired by the Preston incident (we’ll get to that in a minute), Byck traveled to Baltimore/Washington International Airport with pistol and homemade bomb in hand. Storming a Delta flight after killing an airport guard, he entered the cockpit and ordered the crew to take off.
When they objected, Byck shot both pilots, killing one and injuring the other. Authorities soon rushed the aircraft and opened fire on Byck injuring him, at which point he took his own life. Police and security avoided a greater tragedy, but the case remains one that is truly stranger than fiction.
Date: February 17, 1974
The Real Story: There are stories that are hard to believe, and ones that seem pulled straight from a blockbuster movie. Take Private Robert Preston, for instance: after stealing an Army helicopter from Fort Meade, Maryland, Preston decided to do what any self-respecting pilot in the Washington, D.C. area would do (sarcasm): flew it into the White House Complex.
Hovering over the south lawn for 6 minutes before landing – as security unaware of the theft watched in confusion – Preston fled when a State Police helicopter arrived. According to First Sergeant Louis W. Saffran (aboard the police chopper), authorities “chased the rogue Helicopter down the Baltimore/Washington Parkway (I-295)” and engaged in “a brief dog fight around the Washington Monument” before Preston returned to the White House, and was brought down from a barrage of gunfire before being apprehended.
…Are we absolutely sure Olympus Has Fallen isn’t at least based on a true story?
It’s hard to think that given the prominence of the White House, and the amount of attention the President of the United States usually garners, that most attacks and intrusions on the house itself go unnoticed by the public.
Granted, most of them took place when the President was either well removed from danger or traveling, so perhaps Olympus Has Fallen is more dramatization than documentary after all.
Which of the White House action films are you most excited for? Think the Presidential setting is a fitting one for explosive action, or should it only be used for dramatic films?
Olympus Has Fallen opens on March 22nd, 2013.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.