Here's What Audiences Should Know About The True Story Behind 'Welcome To Marwen'

by Ani Bundel
Universal Pictures

The new movie Welcome to Marwen opens this weekend, just ahead of the Christmas box office crush. Starring Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Gwendoline Christie, and Janelle Monae, the film has a lot of star power going for it. Carell stars as an ex-Navy veteran who, after an attack by bigots, loses all memory of his life and must rebuild his world using art. It's just the sort of heartstring-tugging drama Carell has been doing on and off since The Office. But is Welcome To Marwen based on a true story? It seems almost too wild to be true.

In fact, the story of Carell's character, Mark Hogancamp, is based on a true story. One night in April of 2000, the 38-year-old Navy veteran went out to bar not far from his home in Kingston, New York. While deep in his drink, patrons at the bar badgered him into talking. From witness accounts, Hogancamp admitted to them he liked cross-dressing, resulting in five men jumping him on the way home and beating him nearly to death.

To this day, Hogancamp insists he has no memory of that night, or of the attack. What he remembers is waking up in the hospital, believing himself to be in Ibiza, where he was once stationed, and the year to be 1984.

This being years before the Affordable Care Act, Hogancamp's insurance refused to pay for his recovery after he's been in the hospital for just over a month. He was cut off from physical therapy, he could not work or pay bills, and he had no family or friends. At least, none he could remember.

Before the attack, Hogancamp had been an artist, but he had no memory of that either. But art finds a way. Alone at home, looking for a way to deal with his PTSD, he began to create a little World War II-era town in his backyard. He decided it was called Marwencol, and it existed in Belgium. He built it mostly from scraps of wood and trash he found. Each building was meticulously detailed. There was a town hall, a bank, an ice-cream fountain, a cemetery, and of course, a bar, the Ruined Stocking Cat Fight Club. The residents were all old Barbies and G.I. Joes he turned into characters based on people he knew in his life.

But Hogancamp didn't just create the town, he photographed it, creating collages of adventures for his residents that took place in Marwencol. When a neighbor, a professional magazine photographer, asked to see a few photos from the project, he was bowled over at the detail, the artistry, and the magic of this little town.

With his neighbor's connection, Hogancamp's work got noticed by art curators. His photographs of life in the (literal) small town went on to be featured in art galleries, magazine feature spreads, and finally, a documentary, called Marwencol, which was released in 2010.

Now the story of Hogancamp's struggle to rebuild his life, and the amazing little town he made, arrives in theaters just in time for Christmas.

Welcome To Marwen opens Friday, Dec. 21, 2018, nationwide.