‘CHANGELING’ (2008) – a genuinely ‘true’ story.


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It is a pleasure to be able to write about a ‘true story’ that has been made into a movie without the end result having made the original tale almost unrecognizable along the way. Changeling (2008) should not be confused with the term ‘based on a true story’, a description that all but guarantees any resemblance to what really happened will be entirely accidental. This movie sticks to the facts (mostly), drawing primarily on court transcripts and official police documentation. Of course, there must always be the inevitable changes for expediency, to meet time frames, to provide composite characters and to heighten drama, but happily that has been kept to a minimum in this instance. More of that later.

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Christine Collins                   Walter Collins                        

Hilary Swank and Reese Witherspoon were keen to play the lead character, Christine Collins, but executive producer Ron Howard convinced director Clint Eastwood that Angelina Jolie’s face was better suited to a woman of the Roaring Twenties. It was also agreed that a married woman should portray Christine, an actress who could better empathize with her loss of a child. They were right, of course, and Angelina is very believable in the part.

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Publicity shot of Christine

and Arthur Hutchens

Quite possibly the most astonishing aspect of the Christine Collins story is the way the authorities, aided and abetted by doctors and psychologists, insisted that the boy Arthur Hutchens was actually Christine’s son, Walter. Even when she categorically refuted this they maintained that position until, faced with her continued abject refusal to accept Arthur as her boy, they declared her mentally unstable and committed her (without warrant) to a mental institution. And she was not the first woman to fall foul of this abominable method of disposing of troublesome individuals.

Changeling contains a number of anachronisms, some of which are, surprisingly, quite obvious. The story is set in 1928 (until about 1935), so it is rather sloppy writing for it to include expressions such as ‘don’t go there’ (popularized in the 1980s), ‘put out an APB’, (‘all points bulletins’ originated in the 1960s), ‘a sandwich in the fridge’, (refrigerators were new east coast inventions in 1928. Besides, Californians used the word ‘icebox’), and the term ‘serial killer’, used by Detective Ybarra here, was not coined until FBI Special Agent Robert K. Ressler did so in the 1970s.

Also, the electro-shock therapy we see operating in 1928 would not be used on humans until Italian doctor Ugo Cerletti took a crack at it in 1937. We are given a glimpse into Christine’s refrigerator and it contains an obviously pre-sliced sandwich in a clear plastic bag, neither of which was available in March 1928. Inexcusably, police officer Jeffrey Donovan’s left ear is clearly pierced, something that would have been completely impermissible for a policeman anywhere on the planet at that time. And the scene in which It Happened One Night is announced as the Academy Award winning picture in 1935 could not have happened. The Oscars were not the phenomenon in 1935 that they are today. There was no direct broadcast of the ceremony back then because nobody outside the industry was much interested.

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Christine meets Northcott in San Quentin

There were several understandable liberties taken with the facts in Changeling. Plus a couple that are quite puzzling. The film is based on the notorious Wineville Chicken Coop Murders of the mid-twenties, but the focus is very squarely on Christine, the mother of one of the boys kidnapped by the perpetrator of these horrendous crimes, Gordon Northcott. For dramatic purposes she is shown attending Northcott’s execution in the movie but, in reality, she spent the morning of his hanging in the home of the warden of San Quentin Prison, comforting the mother of the Winslow brothers, two of the condemned man’s known victims.

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Sarah Louise Northcott

For some reason (probably because the length of the feature began to be a concern), Eastwood chose not to mention Northcott’s mother at all. Sarah Louise Northcott was directly involved in the killings and confessed to committing at least one of them herself. Both she and her son made confessions which they later retracted. Northcott was hanged in 1930 (he was 23), and his mother served 12 years in prison, convicted of killing Christine’s boy Walter. In 1930 the residents of Wineville chose to change the name of their town, such was the notoriety connected to the case. Today it is called Mira Loma.

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Sanford Clark 1928                        LAPD’s Captain J J Jones 

The young 13 year-old nephew of the killer, a lad named Sanford Clark, confessed to helping his uncle in exchange for himself being spared, and was sentenced to five years in prison for doing so. A sympathetic Los Angeles District Attorney, Loyal Kelly, managed to get the boy’s sentence reduced to 23 months. Sanford returned to Canada, fought for his country during World War Two and worked as a mailman for the next 28 years after the war ended. He married, adopted and raised two children, and spent the remainder of his life serving local community causes. He passed away in 1991.

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Chief of Police James ‘Two-gun’ Davis

One final word on the outcome of the Chicken Coop Murders and the abominable treatment of Christine Collins by the LAPD’s Captain J.J. Jones and Chief of Police, James E. Davis. Jones was ordered to pay Christine $10,800 in damages – a lot of money in 1929 – but he never did. A city council welfare hearing recommended that both men be removed from their posts in the LAPD. The disgraced officers were reinstated later, once the furore had subsided, by the equally corrupt Mayor of Los Angeles, Frank Shaw. In truth, the LAPD would continue its corrupt practices for several decades more (see L.A. Confidential). The only thing that changed for the good was the introduction of new Californian State legislation that forbade police officers to arbitrarily commit someone to a mental institution without first obtaining a warrant.

The conduct of Chief of Police Davis and the officers under his command is something that is difficult to imagine today. ‘Two-gun’ Davis, as he was known, not only licensed his men to kill anyone caught in the act of committing a crime, but he encouraged them to shoot first and ask questions later – or not at all. Every criminal they gunned down in the streets was one less competitor to deal with, for the biggest and most successful gang in Los Angeles was the LAPD itself. Many of its detectives and officers were, in effect, hitmen with badges. In fact, they even hired themselves out to criminals as ‘protectors’ on occasion.

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Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins

Changeling is one of those ‘true stories’ that give us pause to think. I had never heard of the Chicken Coop Murders, although I was aware of the widespread corruption existent in the LAPD for many decades. Even so, I was appalled to think that any police officer could simply lock a perfectly sane person away in a mental institution, without certification, if it suited his situation. I am surprised that the producers of Changeling stuck with the title, however. For years I dismissed the film as a re-make of the George C. Scott classic supernatural thriller The Changeling of 1980, a genre I am not overly fond of. My wife convinced me to watch this 2008 drama and I am very glad she did.


  1. Were other women in the psychiatric ward released, as dramatized or is this simply a fictional event added to give the audience some relief from the the true and terrible facts of this case?

    • In all honesty, Laura, I do not know the answer to that question, but it smacks of dramatic license to me – a happy ending construed for audience approval. I could be wrong, I suppose, but the track record by studios of creating happy endings is a lengthy one.

  2. It is worth noting that when those of us who are older express revulsion at the levels of corruption and outright evil that are present in government, we are reminded by [good] dramatised history that it has always existed. What befell Christine Collins and all those for whom she became a trope, of sorts, can never be dismissed as politics as usual but remain an object lesson that we as a citizenry must continue to expose, put into the brightest light, and punish for the ignominy it is. Complacency is a poison America cannot afford.

  3. I just watched the movie and I am so happy cause I found informations about the true story of the movie. Angelina Jolie was amazing the movie had all the emotions that a drama movie recurring (at least for me). I always do that research when I saw “true story” or “based on a true story “. I hadn’t heard of Chicken Coop Murders before,I suppose because I am from Greece and we haven’t so many shows for crimes in USA. Anyway your article was very helpful Alan thank you!!

    • I must admit that I had not heard of the Chicken Coop Murders until I delved into the story’s background. It is often amazing what we come across when we start digging. I recently finished watching a doco on the Yorkshire Ripper and this also prompted me to do some digging. Imagine my surprise (and horror) to discover that the former partner of one of the victims, Jean Jordan, was a guy named Alan Royle – spelt the same as my name. Thankyou for your comment. Much appreciated.

    • You are right, of course, Kurt. Eastwood tends to not let the truth get in the way of a good story. I hate it when a film is designated ‘based on a true story’. Immediately, the door opens wide for ‘dramatic license’ to be used willy-nilly.

  4. I enjoyed the details you’ve enlightened us on in your review. It’s been some time since I’ve watched the movie, “The Changeling”, but I don’t remember the movie telling what actually happened to Walter Collins; so thank you so much for that. Cliff hanger endings always drive me nuts because there’s nothing left but to speculate on the outcome. Too bad Christine Collins didn’t pursue the court settlement she was awarded; money is a poor substitute for a lost child, but it would have made her life (financially) a bit easier. Especially since women, in that era, didn’t typically work outside the home and were dependent on family to provide for them.

    • Thankyou for your kind words, Ms. B. The story itself is one of the most infuriating cases of injustice and corruption imagineable. I would like to think that such things cannot happen today but, in all honesty, I fear injustice and corruption are never far from the surface and probably never will be. All we can do to combat them is to remain vigilant. Nice to hear from you.

    • Hi, Jenny. There is an excellent book available from Amazon.com that covers the story in detail. It is by Anthony Flacco & Jerry Clark and is titled: ‘The Road out of Hell: Sanford Clark and the True Story of the Wineville Murders’ (2009), Union Square Press. It is 304 pages in length and available on Kindle or paperback (About $6.50 kindle, $23.80 paperback) I believe it will answer all your questions.

  5. This film tore at my heart. Angelina Jolie was magnificent and Eastwood didn’t back down on the horror, although sometimes I wish he had. I cannot get certain scenes out of my mind, in particular the one in the actual chicken coop.

  6. I appreciate; clarifying the facts. It seems like this movie was edited with bits & pieces of true events. I understand they ( film makers) had to edit the film due to time. But the point got across…..it happened.
    One thing interesting; Roller skates? at work? That meant, someone can’t use the Roller skates they can’t get promoted to supervisory position?

    • Thank you for your interesting comments, Pete. I have only seen this movie once and that was nearly a decade ago, so I do not recall the ‘roller-skating’ at all. However, the picture is riddled with anachronisms (as I mentioned), so they may well be another.

  7. Hi Alan. Thank you for the information. I came across the movie on cable, but did not immediately know that it was about the Northcott murders. I learned of them recently from one of the reality crime shows. The crime show included the acts of Gordon’s mother, but did not address the treatment of Christine Collins. As I watched the movie, I wondered if that part of the story was true, but thanks to your commentary, I now know it is. How sad that Ms. Collins had to be victimized more than once, and by so many people!

    I believe Gordon’s mother helped to create the monster that he was and should have shared his fate. What a sad, sad affair…Thank you for sharing.

    Tamara L

  8. I’m so happy that I came across you on the web. Having finished with the movie, I decided to google for some reviews and one of the first results for my inquiry was your publication. As far as I see, I’ve got plenty interesting and useful information to learn reading you and I’ll definitely do that ))

  9. I’ve just watched it. Thank you for sharing your opinion on the movie. I live in Russia and English isn’t my native language, so I’m very grateful to you for giving explanations on some of the included expressions. That was informative indeed. As for the “pre-sliced sandwich in a clear plastic bag”, I spotted both too ))
    Anyway, all the stylistic howlers are of no importance. I hadn’t heard of the Chicken Coop Murders before I watched the movie either. The film impressed me a lot. Angelina Jolie is just brilliant here!

    • Wonderful to hear from you, Irina. Yours is the first comment I have received from a Russian reader. You might very well be my ONLY Russian reader. Glad to be of help. I must say your English is first class.

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