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11 Natural Disasters That Led to Wars

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1. Eruption of Thera, c. 1600 BCE

Some of the most important events of ancient history -- and Greek mythology -- resulted from one of the more spectacular disasters to ever strike the eastern Mediterranean: the eruption of the volcanic island of Thera, today known as Santorini, sometime around 1600 BCE.

This massive explosion sent an incredible 24 cubic miles of earth and rock into the air and sea and (perhaps in conjunction with an earthquake) triggered a tsunami that swept the Aegean Sea. The ancient Minoan civilization on the island of Crete was probably fatally weakened by the multi-pronged natural disaster. Not long afterwards the Minoans were conquered by the Mycenaeans, warlike raiders from mainland Greece who descended on the defenseless Cretans and a host of other civilizations around the eastern Mediterranean.

Indeed, contemporary records from Egypt tell of chaotic conditions in the natural and human world around this time, followed in the 14th century BCE by the first mentions of the “Sea Peoples” -- seaborne raiders who almost succeeded in conquering Egypt before they were finally repelled in the 13th and 12th centuries BCE. Although the identity of Sea Peoples remains mysterious, some of them were probably Mycenaean Greeks, who (according to legend) also attacked the city of Troy in Asia Minor around 1200 BCE. It’s pure literary speculation, but the sea monster Cetus, sent by Poseidon to attack Troy, might be a symbolic representation of the Aegean tsunami.

2. Earthquake at Sparta, 464 BCE

In addition to living in a geological hotspot, the ancient and classical Greeks faced numerous ethnic and social divisions -- and natural disasters could provide the catalyst for open warfare. This was especially true in Sparta, where a relatively small population of Spartan “equals” (full citizens) ruled over a vast population of indentured laborers known as “helots,” who had no rights and worked in conditions resembling slavery.

The Spartans always feared a helot rebellion, and with good reason. After a massive earthquake leveled the city of Sparta and killed many Spartan warriors in 464 BCE, the helots seized their chance and staged what became the most serious uprising in Sparta’s history. The situation was so dire, in fact, that the Spartans called on their Athenian rivals for help in putting down the rebellion -- but then changed their mind out of fear the democratic Athenians might be more sympathetic to the oppressed helots. The Athenians were furious about Sparta’s humiliating dismissal of the Athenian contingent, setting the stage for the Peloponnesian War (so that’s two conflicts resulting from one disaster!).

3. Central Asian drought, c. 350-450 CE

As nomadic pastoralists who relied on herd animals for food and clothing, the Huns of Central Asia were as vulnerable to drought as any settled farming population. So when a prolonged dry period hit their homeland and surrounding areas beginning around 350 CE, the Huns picked up and moved to more welcoming climes in Eastern and Southern Europe. There were some minor obstacles, of course, including the Germanic tribes and the Roman Empire, but the Huns never let this sort of thing get in their way. Armies of horse-mounted warriors swirling out of Central Asia subjugated various barbarian tribes, who became vassals of the Huns or sought protection from them across the border in the Roman Empire. However the Western Roman Empire couldn’t protect its own population, let alone the Germanic tribes. By 395 CE the Huns were raiding the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Empire, and during the reign of Attila (434-453 CE) they devastated Europe from the gates of Constantinople to the modern French city of Orleans. As noted the Huns’ depredations also triggered Germanic migrations, which ultimately resulted in the fall of Rome.

4. A "climatic event," 535-536 CE

While the Huns disappeared from the pages of history shortly after Attila’s death, the Germanic tribes invading the Roman Empire stuck around a bit longer -- and weird climatic events continued to result in violent conflict.

Although no one knows exactly what happened, the Byzantine historian Procopius recorded extreme weather events in 535-536 CE that indicate drastic cooling: “During this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness... and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death.” Irish chronicles covering the same period recount failed harvests, and evidence of cooling, drought, and crop failures has also been found in places as diverse as China and Peru.

In North Africa, as Procopius noted, the effects included another round of strife, as defeated Vandals, Moors and mutinous Roman soldiers rebelled and began plundering the countryside after their demands for land were rebuffed. Although the rebellion spread across North Africa, the Byzantines eventually defeated the rebels, who according to Procopius were “battling hunger” while also fighting the Romans. Contemporary scholars speculate that the events of 535-536 CE were caused by atmospheric dust from a huge volcanic explosion or a comet or meteorite hitting the earth.

5. Fiery dragons (?), 8th century CE

While it’s once again hard to know exactly what was happening (the early medieval period was not known for accurate meteorology), the first Viking raids apparently resulted from a similar sequence of unusual climatic events leading to bad harvests and, finally, desperate violence. The unfortunate victims of these raids lived in England, where the Anglo-Saxons had ruled since the end of the Roman Empire. In 792 CE, the inhabitants of Northumbria were terrified by “excessive whirlwinds and lightning storms” (along with “fiery dragons” – see previous parentheses). Meanwhile, archaeological evidence suggests that across the North Sea in Norway harvests failed in 792-793 CE. So it’s probably not a coincidence that one of the first Viking raids, the plundering of the famous Lindisfarne monastery, came in January 793. And this was just the beginning, as droughts blanketed Western Europe again in 794 and 797.

One possible explanation: contemporary scholars speculate those “fiery dragons” may have been meteor showers, which kicked up atmospheric dust, resulting in another bout of cooling; Chinese chronicles recount repeated meteor showers in this period.

6. Central American drought, 9th-10th centuries

Severe climate changes were also probably to blame for much of the warfare that apparently accompanied the collapse of Classic Mayan civilization beginning c. 800 CE. Although the Mayans lived in the midst of lush rain forests, there were actually very few sources of freshwater that were available year-round: the Mayan city-states relied on advanced techniques for collecting and storing rainwater for both agriculture and human consumption, making them especially vulnerable to repeated droughts. And that’s exactly what happened at 50-year intervals in 760, 810, 860, and 910, according to scientists who studied sediment core samples from the Caribbean Sea to determine the amount of rainfall during this period.

These four droughts correspond to distinct phases in the decline and eventual collapse of the Mayan civilization. However drought was far from the only culprit, with adverse environmental conditions triggering other negative trends in a cascading or “snowball” effect. This included intensifying warfare, as rival city-states battled each other for diminishing resources, city-states dissolved in civil war, and populations migrated in search of food. Mayan written records and archaeological evidence both point to escalating conflict during this period, as war was waged more often, with a larger proportion of the population participating, and by more brutal methods. Archaeological evidence includes fortifications built around even small villages, skeletal trauma resulting from combat, and the sudden appearance of foreign objects, suggesting invasion by outsiders.

7. Central Asian drought, 1212-1213 CE

Central Asian droughts are just bad for civilization. The same basic phenomenon that drove the Huns to invade Europe also played a role in the devastating Mongol invasion of China led by Genghis Khan in 1212-1213 CE. Archaeological evidence points to a long period of severe climate change in Mongolia and other parts of northern Asia lasting from 1175-1300 CE, with a drastic drop in temperatures resulting in less forage for herd animals as well as fewer wild animals for hunting. Luckily for the conquered population of northern China, a Chinese administrator was able to convince the Mongols to drop their plan to turn wheat fields into pastures for Mongol horses -- a move that would have resulted in the deaths of millions of Chinese from starvation.

Interestingly, Genghis Khan decreed a number of environmental protections in the Mongol homeland (but not necessarily in conquered areas) including forbidding the cutting down of trees and hunting wild animals during their breeding season. It’s also worth noting that half a century after the first Mongol invasions of China, Karakorum -- the new imperial capital in Mongolia -- was entirely dependent on food shipments from China, giving Kublai Khan leverage over rival Mongol princes.

8. Southern Africa drought, c. 1800 CE

The rise of Shaka Zulu, one of Africa’s greatest warriors, was tied to a period of devastating drought in southern Africa. After the discovery of the New World, the introduction of corn to southern Africa by European colonists triggered a population explosion, even as -- unbeknownst to native farmers -- corn cultivation was also leaching minerals from the soil. When a prolonged drought hit around 1800, the food supply collapsed, leading to fierce competition for resources among native tribes.

Gradually rising from a lowly position to leadership of the Zulus, Shaka’s innovations with new weapons and fighting techniques allowed him to unite rival tribes through diplomacy and conquest. But he also became notorious for his paranoia and brutality. Indeed the Zulu expansion resulted in a huge upheaval -- the Mfecane, or “scattering,” which saw huge numbers of deaths and massive movements by refugee populations across southern Africa from 1815-1840. While the precise death toll will probably never be known, some scholars estimate that as many as two million people perished during the Mfecane.

9. Haiphong typhoon, 1881 CE

One of the deadliest typhoons on record also facilitated European imperialism in southeast Asia, leading to the French conquest of Vietnam. On October 8, 1881, a massive Pacific typhoon hit the northern Vietnamese city of Haiphong, which serves as the main port for the country’s capital, Hanoi. Although its name means “coastal defense,” the city was completely unprepared for the huge storm, as sustained winds of 115 miles per hour generated a 20-foot storm surge that totally swamped the low-lying city; according to one contemporary account, “there were six feet of water in the houses three and four miles distant from the sea shore.” Over 300,000 people died in this catastrophe.

Adding insult to injury, the typhoon weakened the native government and provided a convenient pretext for the French conquest of northern Vietnam, as the French argued that the Vietnamese emperor was incompetent and unable to protect his own people. In 1882-1883 French forces marched into Haiphong, Hanoi, and the central Vietnamese city of Hue, completing their takeover of the country. However they still had to fight off Chinese mercenaries, while native resistance continued in rural areas, with guerrilla tactics foreshadowing the later Vietnam War.

10. East Pakistan cyclone, 1970

What is today the independent nation of Bangladesh used to be part of Pakistan: these predominantly Muslim areas were originally a single country, which split from Hindu-majority India following independence in 1947. But a terrible natural disaster in the form of a huge cyclone helped precipitate a civil war, leading to the independence of “East Pakistan.”

By 1970 tensions were already simmering between East and West Pakistan, as East Pakistan complained of oppression by West Pakistan; the populations of the two sections came from different ethnic backgrounds and spoke different languages, and the Bengali people of East Pakistan felt they were discriminated against by the government. Then on November 12, 1970, the huge Bhola cyclone hit East Pakistan with sustained winds of 115 miles per hour and a storm surge 34.8 feet high, coinciding with high tide. Up to 500,000 people were killed by the storm and flooding, leading to intense anger at the government and military, which were criticized for failing to heed warnings about the storm and bungling relief efforts in its aftermath.

Popular anger reached new heights when the government said it would go ahead with elections scheduled for December, even though most parts of East Pakistan were in no condition to participate. Civil war broke out in March 1971, and quickly widened into a regional conflict when India intervened on the side of Bengali rebels in East Pakistan. The war finally concluded with a resounding defeat for West Pakistan, and independence for the new nation of Bangladesh, in December 1971.

11. Darfur drought, 1983-present

Although it only came to the attention of the Western world in the first years of the 21st century, the brutal conflict in Darfur traces its roots back to the early 1980s, when drought conditions first triggered competition among tribal groups for scarce resources. These conflicts were intensified by shifting geography, as desertification increasingly pushed nomadic and settled groups into each other’s territory, along with the breakdown of traditional forms of conflict resolution (tribal councils) due to government interference. The mounting tension finally erupted into all-out civil war and genocide in 2002, when settled “African” tribesmen formed the rebel Sudan Liberation Army to protect themselves against the “Arab”-dominated central government (actual ethnic identities are more fluid than these terms might suggest). The central government responded by encouraging the nomadic “Arab” janjaweed to form militias, and the situation soon escalated from combat to mass murder. To date the United Nations estimates that 300,000 people have been killed in Darfur, although the true death toll may be higher.

See Also: 11 Wars That Led to Natural Disasters

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13 Fantastic Museums You Can Visit for Free on Saturday
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On Saturday, September 23, museums and cultural institutions across the United States will open their doors to the public for free, as part of Smithsonian magazine’s annual Museum Day Live! event. Hundreds of museums are set to participate, ranging from world-famous institutions in major cities to tiny, local museums in small towns. While the full list of museums can be viewed, and tickets can be reserved, on the Smithsonian website, we’ve collected a small selection of the fantastic museums you can visit for free this Saturday.

1. NEWSEUM // WASHINGTON, D.C.

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. is an entire museum dedicated to the First Amendment. Celebrating freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, the museum features exhibits on civil rights, the Berlin Wall, and the history of news media in America. Their latest special exhibitions take a look back at the event of September 11, 2001 and go inside the FBI's crime-fighting tactics.

2. INTREPID SEA, AIR & SPACE MUSEUM // NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK

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New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum doesn’t just showcase America’s military and maritime history—it is a piece of that history. The museum itself is one of the Essex-class aircraft carriers built by the United States Navy during World War II. Visitors can explore its massive deck and interior, and view historic airplanes, a real World War II submarine, and a range of interactive exhibits. Normally, a ticket will set you back a whopping $33 (or $19 for New York City residents), but on Saturday, general admission is free with a Museum Day Live! ticket.

3. AUTRY MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN WEST // LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

Perfect for art lovers, history buffs, and cinephiles alike, the Autry Museum of the American West (named for legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry) offers up an eclectic mix of art, historical artifacts from the real American West, and Western film memorabilia and props.

4. MUSEUM OF ARTS AND SCIENCES // DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA

A massive art, science, and history museum located on a 90-acre nature preserve, the Museum of Arts and Sciences features the largest collection of Florida art anywhere in the world, as well as the largest collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia in all of Florida. Its diverse exhibits are alternately awe-inspiring, informative, and quirky, ranging from an exploration of 2000 years of sculpture art to an exhibition of 19th and 20th century advertising posters.

5. INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE HORSE AT THE KENTUCKY HORSE PARK // LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY

The International Museum of the Horse explores the history of—you guessed it!—the horse. That might sound like a narrow scope, but the museum doesn’t just display horse racing artifacts or teach you about modern horse breeds. Instead, it endeavors to tackle the 50-million-year evolution of the horse and its relationship with humans from ancient times to modern times.

6. THE PEGGY NOTEBAERT NATURE MUSEUM // CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

Pete LaMotte, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 160-year-old Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is pulling out all the stops for this year’s Museum Day Live! In addition to their vast exhibits of animal specimens and cultural artifacts, the museum will be hosting a live animal feeding and a butterfly release throughout the day.

7. OGDEN MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN ART // NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art aims to teach visitors about the rich culture and diverse visual arts of the American South. Right now, visitors can view a collection of William Eggleston's photographs and check out the museum's 10th annual invitational exhibition of ceramic teacups and teapots.

8. BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF INDUSTRY // BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

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Located in a 19th century oyster cannery on the Baltimore waterfront, the Baltimore Museum of Industry tells the story of American manufacturing from garment making to video game design. Visitors this weekend can meet video game designers and create custom games at the museum’s interactive “Video Game Wizards” exhibit.

9. SYLVAN HEIGHTS BIRD PARK // SCOTLAND NECK, NORTH CAROLINA

You can meet 2000 birds from around the world this weekend at the 18-acre Sylvan Heights Bird Park. Visitors to the massive garden can walk through aviaries displaying birds from every continent except Antarctica, including ducks, geese, swans, and exotic birds from all over the world.

10. DELTA BLUES MUSEUM // CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

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Visitors to the Delta Blues Museum can learn about the unique American musical art form in “the land where blues began,” with audiovisual exhibits centered on blues and rock legend Don Nix, as well as Paramount Records illustrator Anthony Mostrom.

11. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NUCLEAR SCIENCE & HISTORY // ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

America’s only congressionally chartered museum dedicated to the story of the Atomic Age, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History features exhibits on everything from nuclear medicine to representations of atomic power in pop culture. Adult visitors to the museum will delight in its impressively nuanced take on nuclear technology, while kids will love the museum’s outdoor airplane exhibit and hands-on science activities at Little Albert’s Lab.

12. MUSEUM OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN // PINEDALE, WYOMING

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Dedicated to the mountain men who explored and settled Wyoming in the 19th century, the Museum of the Mountain Man brings American folklore and legends to life. The museum features exhibits on the Rocky Mountain fur trade and tells the story of American folk legend and famed mountain man Hugh Glass (the man Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar playing in 2015's The Revenant).

13. BESH BA GOWAH ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK AND MUSEUM // GLOBE, ARIZONA

Arizona’s Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum lets visitors connect with history firsthand. The museum is home to the ruins and artifacts of the Salado Indians who inhabited Arizona from the 13th century through the 15th century, and even lets visitors wander through an 800-year-old Salado pueblo.

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20 Facts About Your Favorite Coen Brothers Movies
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Ethan Coen turns 60 years old today, if you can believe it. Since bursting onto the scene in 1984 with the cult classic Blood Simple, the younger half of (arguably) the most dynamic moviemaking sibling duo in Hollywood has helped create some of the most memorable and quirky films in cinematic history, from Raising Arizona to Fargo and The Big Lebowski to No Country For Old Men. To celebrate the monumental birthday of one of the great writer-directors of our time (though he’s mostly uncredited as a director), here are some facts about your favorite Coen brothers movies.

1. THE COENS THINK BLOOD SIMPLE IS “PRETTY DAMN BAD.”

Fifteen years after Blood Simple’s release, the Coens reflected upon their first feature in the 2000 book My First Movie. “It’s crude, there’s no getting around it,” Ethan said. “On the other hand, it’s all confused with the actual process of making the movie and finishing the movie which, by and large, was a positive experience,” Joel said. “You never get entirely divorced from it that way. So, I don’t know. It’s a movie that I have a certain affection for. But I think it’s pretty damn bad!”

2. KEVIN COSTNER AND RICHARD JENKINS AUDITIONED FOR RAISING ARIZONA.

Kevin Costner auditioned three times to play H.I., only to see Nicolas Cage snag the role. Richard Jenkins had his first of many auditions for the Coens for Raising Arizona. He also (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Miller's Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996) before calling it quits with the Coens. In 2001, Joel and Ethan cast Jenkins in The Man Who Wasn't There, even though he had never auditioned for it.

3. THE BROTHERS TURNED DOWN BATMAN TO MAKE MILLER’S CROSSING.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

After Raising Arizona’s success established them as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the Coens had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

4. BARTON FINK AND W.P. MAYHEW WERE LOOSELY BASED ON CLIFFORD ODETS AND WILLIAM FAULKNER.

The Coens acknowledge that Fink and Odets had similar backgrounds, but they had different personalities: Odets was extroverted, for one thing. John Turturro, not his directors, read Odets’s 1940 journal. The Coens acknowledged that John Mahoney (Mayhew) looks a lot like the The Sound and the Fury author.

5. THE COENS' WEB OF DECEPTION IN FARGO GOES EVEN FURTHER THAN THE OPENING CREDITS. 

While the tag on the beginning of the movie reads “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” Fargo is, by no stretch of the imagination, a true story. During the film's press tour, the Coens admitted that while not pinpoint accurate, the story was indeed inspired by a similar crime that occurred in Minnesota, with Joel stating, “In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional.”

However, any and all efforts to uncover anything resembling such a crime ever occurring in Minnesota come up empty, and in an introduction to the published script, Ethan pretty much admitted as much, writing that Fargo “aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true." 

6. THEY WANTED MARLON BRANDO TO PLAY JEFFREY LEBOWSKI.

According to Alex Belth, who wrote the e-book The Dudes Abide on his time spent working as an assistant to the Coens, casting the role of Jeffrey Lebowski was one of the last decisions made before filming. Names tossed around for the role included Robert Duvall (who passed because he wasn’t fond of the script), Anthony Hopkins (who passed since he had no interest in playing an American), and Gene Hackman (who was taking a break at the time). A second “wish list” included an oddball “who’s who," including Norman Mailer, George C. Scott, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, Andy Griffith, William F. Buckley, and Ernest Borgnine.

The Coens’ ultimate Big Lebowski, however, was the enigmatic Marlon Brando, who by that time was reaching the end of his career (and life). Apparently, the Coens amused themselves by quoting some of their favorite Jeffrey Lebowski lines (“Strong men also cry”) in a Brando accent. The role would eventually go to the not-particularly-famous—albeit pitch-perfect—veteran character actor David Huddleston. In true Dude fashion, it all worked out in the end.

7. JOEL COEN WOOED FRANCES MCDORMAND ON THE SET OF BLOOD SIMPLE.

Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand and Joel Coen at the Oscars
Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand, and Joel Coen celebrate their Oscar wins in 1997.
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Coen and McDormand fell in love while making Blood Simple and got married a couple of years later, after production wrapped. McDormand told The Daily Beast about the moment when she roped him in. “I’d only brought one book to read to Austin, Texas, where we were filming, and I asked him if there was anything he’d recommend,” she said. “He brought me a box of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler paperbacks, and I said, ‘Which one should I start with?’ And he said, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ I read it, and it was one of the sexiest f*ckin’ books I’ve ever read. A couple of nights later, I said, ‘Would you like to come over and discuss the book?’ That did it. He seduced me with literature. And then we discussed books and drank hot chocolate for several evenings. It was f*ckin’ hot. Keep it across the room for as long as you can—that’s a very important element.”

8. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? WAS ORIGINALLY INSPIRED BY THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Joel Coen revealed as much at the 15th anniversary reunion. “It started as a 'three saps on the run' kind of movie, and then at a certain point we looked at each other and said, 'You know, they're trying to get home—let's just say this is The Odyssey. We were thinking of it more as The Wizard of Oz. We wanted the tag on the movie to be: 'There's No Place Like Home.’”

9. THE ACTORS IN FARGO WENT THROUGH EXTENSIVE TRAINING TO GET THEIR ACCENTS RIGHT.

Having grown up in Minnesota, the Coens were more than familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the “Minnesota nice” accent, but much of the cast—including Frances McDormand and William H. Macy—needed coaching to get the intricacies right. Actors were even given copies of the scripts with extensive pronunciation notes. According to dialect coach Larissa Kokernot, who also appeared as one of the prostitutes Gaear and Carl rendezvous with in Brainerd, the “musicality” of the Minnesota nice accent comes from a place of “wanting people to agree with each other and get along.” This homey sensibility, contrasted with the ugly crimes committed throughout the movie, is, of course, one of the major reasons why the dark comedy is such an enduring classic.

10. NICOLAS CAGE'S HAIR REACTED TO H.I.'S STRESS LEVEL IN RAISING ARIZONA.

Ethan claimed that Cage was "crazy about his Woody Woodpecker haircut. The more difficulties his character got in, the bigger the wave in his hair got. There was a strange connection between the character and his hair."

11. A PROP FROM THE HUDSUCKER PROXY INSPIRED THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.

Billy Bob Thornton in the Coen brothers' 'The Man Who Wasn't There' (2001)
© 2001 - USA Films

A bit of set dressing from 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy eventually led to 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a barbershop scene, there’s a poster hanging in the background that features a range of men’s hairstyles from the 1940s. The brothers liked the prop and kept it, and it’s what eventually served as the inspiration for The Man Who Wasn’t There.

12. GEORGE CLOONEY SIGNED ON TO O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? BEFORE EVEN READING THE SCRIPT.

The brothers visited George Clooney in Phoenix while he was making Three Kings (1999), wanting to work with him after seeing his performance in Out of Sight (1998). Moments after they put their script on Clooney’s hotel room table, the actor said “Great, I’m in.”

13. A SNAG IN THE MILLER’S CROSSING SCRIPT ULTIMATELY LED TO BARTON FINK.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

14. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY IS THE FIRST COEN MOVIE THAT WASN’T THE BROTHERS’ ORIGINAL IDEA.

In 1995, the Coens rewrote a script originally penned by other screenwriters, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano. They didn’t decide to direct the movie, which became Intolerable Cruelty, until 2003.

15. THE LADYKILLERS WAS WRITTEN FOR BARRY SONNENFELD TO DIRECT.

A still from the Coen Brothers' 'The Ladykillers.'
Melinda Sue Gordon, SMPSP - © 2004 - Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

The Coens effortlessly jump from crime thriller to comedy without missing a beat. So when they were commissioned to write a remake of the British black comedy The Ladykillers for director Barry Sonnenfeld, it seemed to fall in line with their cinematic sensibilities. When Sonnenfeld dropped out of the project, the Coens were hired to direct the film.

16. BURN AFTER READING MARKED THE FIRST TIME SINCE MILLER’S CROSSING THAT THE COENS DIDN’T WORK WITH THEIR USUAL CINEMATOGRAPHER, ROGER DEAKINS.

Instead, eventual Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki acted as the director of photography. The Coens would work with Deakins again on every one of their films until 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

17. IT TOOK SOME CONVINCING TO GET JAVIER BARDEM TO SAY “YES” TO NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Though it’s hard to imagine No Country for Old Men without Javier Bardem’s menacing—and Oscar-winning—performance as antagonist Anton Chigurh, he almost passed on the role. “It’s not something I especially like, killing people—even in movies,” Bardem said of his disdain for violence. “When the Coens called, I said, ‘Listen, I’m the wrong actor. I don’t drive, I speak bad English, and I hate violence.’ They laughed and said, ‘Maybe that’s why we called you.”’

18. PATTON OSWALT AUDITIONED FOR A SERIOUS MAN.

Patton Oswalt auditioned for the role of the obnoxious Arthur Gopnik in A Serious Man, a part that ultimately went to Richard Kind. Oswalt talked about his audition while appearing on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, in which it was also revealed that Maron was being considered for the lead role of Larry Gopnik (the role that earned Michael Stuhlbarg his first, and so far only, Golden Globe nomination).

19. THE CAT IN INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS WAS “A NIGHTMARE.”

A photo of Oscar Isaac in the Coen brothers' 'Inside Llewyn Davis' (2013).
© 2013 - CBS Films

Ulysses, the orange cat who practically stole Inside Llewyn Davis away from Oscar Isaac, was reportedly a bit of a diva. “The cat was a nightmare,” Ethan Coen said on the DVD commentary. “The trainer warned us and she was right. She said, uh, ‘Dogs like to please you. The cat only likes to please itself.’ A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don't want them to do, if anyone's interested; I don't know if there's a market for that.”

20. THE COEN BROTHERS PROBABLY DON’T LOVE THE BIG LEBOWSKI AS MUCH AS YOU DO. 

We’re assuming the Coen brothers are plenty fond of The Dude; after all, he doesn’t end up facing imminent death or tragedy, which is more than most of their protagonists have going for them. But in a rare Coen brothers interview in 2009, Joel Coen flatly stated, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.”

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