Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: The Many Lives of Phoebe HesselOn June 17, 2020 by Elyse
Some lives were made for the silver screen. Phoebe Hessel (née Smith) is one of them.
Spoiler alert: Her adventures as a British soldier in the 18th century took her to the West Indies and battlefields across Europe. However, her story doesn’t end there. After incomprehensible tragedy as a wife and mother, she went from rags to slightly nicer rags and rubbed elbows with at least one A-list celeb.
Since Hollywood has yet to feature her in even one movie, never mind a dozen remakes, I present for their—and your—consideration an outline for a film loosely based on her story. As usual, a disclaimer: Primary sources are scarce, and accounts of her life on the internet vary. Please don’t cite me in any term papers.
Because movie theaters are still closed, zap some popcorn in your microwave, fill up a giant glass of soda, and picture this:
Scene 1 – Stepney, England – 1728
A 15-year-old Phoebe Smith embraces Samuel Golding, a dashing young soldier, clad in the British Army’s trademark red coat. She recites, “O Romeo, er, Samuel, wherefore art thou, Samuel?” Etc.
Samuel dolefully replies that he has been ordered to leave with his regiment the next morning. He breaks into song, crooning “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Historical accuracy is overrated.
Phoebe has a brilliant idea to keep them together: Rather than mimic Juliet and drink a potion to make her appear dead for an oddly specific 42 hours, she’ll chop off her hair, disguise herself as a man and join the 5th Regiment of Foot. “I’ll Make a Man out of You” begins to play.
Scene 2 – The West Indies – Sometime between 1728 and 1745
As “Kokomo” plays, we see a montage of Phoebe and Samuel’s adventures in the West Indies: marching in the hot sun, clandestine rendezvous on a moonlit beach and lots of sand dumped out of shiny black boots.
Captain Jack Sparrow makes a cameo appearance. The three of them share a bottle of rum and become best friends.
Scene 3 – Antoing, Belgium – May 11, 1745
A 32-year-old Phoebe and Samuel march into the Battle of Fontenoy against the French and their admittedly delicious stinky cheese. Cue an epic score composed by John Williams.
Phoebe watches in horror as Samuel is wounded. So intent is she on reaching him that she doesn’t see the French soldier with a bayonet charging towards her. The screen fades to black.
Scene 4 – A Field – 1745
Phoebe has recovered from her wound. However, she’s committed an unspecified misdemeanor and is about to be whipped. Her shirt is removed. . . and her secret is revealed. Defiantly, she cries out, “strike and be damned!” Nobody takes her up on the offer. Phoebe sings “I’m Still Standing” as she receives her discharge papers—and her full salary.
Scene 5 – A Church – 1745
Phoebe and Samuel marry in a quaint country church while “All You Need Is Love” plays. Rice is thrown, birds chirp, and they live happily ever after.
Scene 6 – Plymouth, England – 1745-1765
Just kidding. “My Heart Will Go On” plays over another montage, in which Phoebe gives birth to—and buries—nine children, Samuel dies, she moves to Brighton, and she marries fisherman Thomas Hessel, who dies on her as well. Phoebe has the worst luck.
Scene 7 – Shoreham-by-Sea, England – 1793
An aged Phoebe drowns her sorrows in the Red Lion pub. Next to her, two men brag about their latest heist. She’s about to ask if they’ll spot her a drink when she overhears their names—James Rooke and Edward Howell. She knows who they are; they may steal from the rich, but they definitely don’t give to the poor. “One Way or Another” begins to play as Phoebe’s eyes go wide.
Thanks to her, the highwaymen are apprehended, convicted and executed. Phoebe becomes a hometown heroine. The townspeople raise her up on their shoulders, shouting “hip hip hooray!”
Scene 8 – Brighton – 1808
Heroine or not, Phoebe still has to earn her bread. She barely scrapes by selling fish, fruit and gingerbread on street corners, and for a time, she even lands in a workhouse.
However, at the ripe old age of 95, her luck may finally be changing. Stories of her fame have spread far and wide, and when the future King George IV visits Brighton, he insists on an introduction.
Through plenty of flashbacks, Phoebe regales the Prince Regent with tales of her colorful life. He appreciates a good yarn as much as anyone, so he offers her an annual pension. Phoebe informs him that “Half-a-guinea a week will make me happy as a princess.” He doesn’t bat an eyelash. As “Money, Money, Money” plays, she puts on a tiara.
Scene 9 – Brighton – 1821
Having scored an exclusive invitation to the new King George IV’s coronation celebrations, 108-year-old Phoebe rides in a horse-drawn carriage and waves to her adoring fans. “Don’t Stop Believin’” plays as the screen fades to black.
Artistic license aside, Phoebe’s story—as told by her headstone in St. Nicholas Church in Brighton—needs no embellishments:
In Memory of
who was born at Stepney in the Year 1713
She served for many Years
As a private Soldier in the 5th Regiment of foot
in different parts of Europe
and in the year 1745 fought under the command
of the Duke of Cumberland
at the Battle of Fontenoy
where she received a Bayonet Wound in her Arm
Her long life, which commenced in the time of
extended to the reign of George IV
by whose munificence she received comfort
and support in her latter Years
she died at Brighton where she long resided
December 12th 1821 Aged 108 years
And if any bigwig Hollywood producers are looking to make a multi-million dollar romantic, tragic epic adventure film, drop me a line. The screenplay is coming along swimmingly!
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Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above sources. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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