The True Story Behind the Movie The 15:17 to Paris

6 minute read

On August 21, 2015, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, three childhood friends from Sacramento performed an extraordinary feat of heroism aboard a passenger train in France. In directing The 15:17 to Paris, the challenge for Clint Eastwood was to turn this relatively brief encounter into a compelling 90-minute narrative. To do so, he recruited those same three men, none of whom had any formal acting training, to play themselves on film.

Those heroes-turned-actors are Spencer Stone, a former U.S. Air Force Airman, Alek Skarlatos, a former Oregon National Guardsman, and Anthony Sadler, a senior at California State University at the time of the incident. On that August day, the trio was riding on a Thalys train headed towards the French capital when a man armed with an assault rifle and pistol opened fire, wounding a passenger. A struggle to restrain the gunman ensued, with Stone and Skarlatos instinctively deciding to charge at the assailant, and Sadler not far behind.

Despite several injuries, including a slashed neck and thumb for Stone, the three friends managed to overpower the gunman with the assistance of a British passenger. The four were hailed as international heroes and received various honors for their valor. The movie, the screenplay for which was adapted from the three men’s co-authored memoir of the same name, largely stays faithful to the story. Here’s where it sticks to the truth and the few facts with which it takes liberties.

Fact: The three men met as boys at a private Christian school.

Stone and Skarlatos both had some troublemaking tendencies growing up and could often be found shooting authentic-looking replica guns around their neighborhood for a paintball-like game called Airsoft. The boys’ mothers, also close friends, opted to enroll them in a Christian middle school, where they met Sadler and all became companions.

Fact: Stone didn’t qualify for the Air Force’s Pararescue troop because he lacked depth perception in his vision.

Not only did Stone fail to get into his dream unit after months of dedicated training, but he had to watch pararescuemen conduct their battlefield training in one of the base’s buildings next to his training facility. As the memoir puts it, “He was constantly confronted with his failure.”

Fact: In the days preceding the attack, Stone wondered whether the men might be destined for something significant.

In the film, Stone asks Sadler, “Do you ever feel like life is pushing us toward something, some greater purpose?” It may feel like fabricated dialogue, tailored for dramatic effect, but Stone really did express the sentiment aloud to his friend while they were perched on a roof in Italy.

Fiction: Lisa, who Stone and Sadler met in Venice, was from Los Angeles.

The filmmakers changed the hometown of the friend Stone and Sadler met while on a gondola in Venice. That decision was likely made to set up a conversation in which Sadler riffs on how uncanny it was that three Californians would meet on a boat in Italy — creating a more compelling reason for Lisa (played by Alisa Allapach) to travel alone with two strangers. But as Stone and Sadler describe in their book, “Lisa told them she was from New York, and that she’d been in Venice for a few days.”

Fact: The three friends considered not going to Paris.

Lisa really did attempt to put the men off from going to Paris. And she wasn’t the only one. Multiple people they encountered during their travels in Europe cautioned them that the City of Lights was overrated, including a woman they met in a Berlin hostel who said that “Paris is just really expensive” and that its residents were “actually kind of rude.” Based on these conversations, Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler were uncertain about visiting the French capital. They struggled to find a reason to leave Amsterdam — the city they most enjoyed during the trip. But ultimately, the trio opted to give Paris a shot, and the rest is history.

Fact: The Thalys train shooter changed in the bathroom prior to initiating his attack.

The assailant, 25-year-old Moroccan national Ayoub El Khazzani, did not enter the train car wielding weapons while shirtless. He was in the restroom preparing for the attack and stepped out to find a 28-year-old French banker, who first engaged the gunman. Another passenger, the 51-year-old French-American Mark Magoolian, then succeeded in wrestling El Khazzani’s assault rifle from him, before, as shown in the movie, El Khazzani used a concealed pistol to shoot Magoolian in the back.

Fiction: Stone charged down the train car at the gunman before he knew the rifle was jammed.

In the movie, Stone decides to run down the narrow train aisle directly towards El Khazzani, who has just retrieved his Kalashnikov assault rifle. It’s a scene in which Stone, while hustling as fast as he can, basically looks like he expects to get shot. But according to Stone’s own description of the event to reporters days after the incident, it went down in a slightly different way.

“It looked like it was jammed or it wasn’t working, and he was trying to charge the weapon,” he told press gathered at the U.S. embassy in Paris. “Alek just hit me on the shoulder and said, ‘Let’s go.'”

Fact: The three friends’ hometown, Sacramento, threw them a parade to celebrate their heroism.

Although they had already received France’s highest decoration, the Legion of Honour, as well as recognition on late-night talk shows and national media, the three childhood friends were given a heroes’ welcome upon their return to Sacramento. Approximately 10,000 people gathered, according to the mayor.

“I just want to say how overwhelming this all is,” Sadler said to a crowd at the time. “We’ve been all around the world these past couple weeks. But I just want you all to know, all the thanks we’ve received everywhere, it doesn’t feel anything in comparison to being in front of our home crowd like this.”

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