One of the most popular action movie conventions is the idea of the average Joe being forced into an extreme situation, discovering a storming well of ass-kicking fury buried deep within and dealing it out on a tactically superior enemy who by all rights should be killing the shit out of him.
What we tend to forget is that the reason those movies exist is because those things actually happen sometimes. Regular people get pushed, and sometimes they push back. Hard.
#5. Antonis Vratsanos
Like many Greek men in the 1930s, Antonis Vratsanos enlisted in the Greek Army because of the impending threat of the Axis powers. Unfortunately, Vratsanos was rejected from service for being a filthy, filthy communist, which in the eyes of the creators of democracy was almost as bad as being Hitler himself.
However, when Germany (and to a lesser extent Italy) invaded Greece in 1941, Vratsanos decided to prove his government wrong and immediately went into the Greek Resistance.
That guy in the back has something missing, but we just can't put our finger on it.
Once in, Vratsanos -- a random, non-military dude off the street -- formed a sabotage squad called Olympus. They quickly secured a reputation as the go-to mad bombers against the Axis powers.
Despite Vratsanos himself not having a clue on how to make or rig bombs, in three short years Olympus blew up 36 bridges, 47 railroad depots, 32 trains and over 3,000 Axis soldiers.
And only some of them were on purpose.
But most impressive were his actions in February 1944. Working completely alone, Vratsanos scouted a German train, rigged it with explosives and blew it right the hell up, walking calmly away with his back to the inferno.
"I think my beret's on fire."
The train bombing turned out to be the biggest sabotage by any non-military unit in the war, killing 300 soldiers, 150 officers and even a general. After the war, Vratsanos finally joined the Democratic Army of Greece, although as it turns out their initial reluctance to accept him was well-placed -- he tried to overthrow the government in the late 1940s and install a communist regime, presumably using exploding trains.
"The theory of communism may be summed up in the single sentence: I hate goddamn trains."
#4. Zinaida Portnova
What Zinaida Portnova's story lacks in scope it makes up for in its perfect, almost cliche resemblance to an action movie.
In 1941, about the same time that guy above was blowing up his first Nazi in Greece, Germany decided to invade the Soviet Union. Zinaida Portnova, a 15-year-old girl away at Soviet summer camp (which was probably even less fun than it sounds), was caught by surprise and tried to get home to Leningrad, only to find the Nazis blocking her way and preparing to siege the city. With nowhere else to go, she joined the Belarus underground as part of a unit nicknamed the Young Avengers.
They did a lot of good before Iron Man confiscated their weapons and told their parents.
Being essentially kids, they started off small, distributing underground leaflets and occasionally sabotaging an enemy truck or motorcycle in their base region of Vitebsk. When Zina turned 17, she was promoted to scout, responsible for venturing out into the field to look for possible targets, and getting away with it because, let's face it, she was adorable.
"Awww ... go on, get out of here. Have a souvenir grenade."
However, in December 1943 she was finally caught scoping out a new target for the underground. She was taken to a nearby village and interrogated by the Gestapo. While being grilled by her captors for answers, she suddenly spotted an officer's pistol sitting on the table right next to her. Oh, yes, this happened.
Waaait for it ...
Taking a page from every spy movie that has ever existed, she snatched up the gun and blasted the interrogator and two armed soldiers, whose sole job in the entirety of World War II was to make sure this exact thing would not happen.
She managed to escape out the window, but ran into a few competent Nazis outside and was recaptured. While it didn't end happily for Zina (she was executed the next year), her story inspired future resistance fighters and she was eventually made a hero of the Soviet Union in 1958.
The Famous Five never did this.
#3. Shalom Yoran
Born Selim Sznycer in a small town in Poland in 1925, Shalom Yoran's story is pretty much like if Red Dawn had freedom sex with Inglorious Basterds.
"I'll get the Commies, and Patrick Swayze can explode Hitler."
Yoran and his family fled Poland when the Nazis took over and kept moving through Eastern Europe until the Germans finally caught up with them in Lithuania in 1941. There, they spent a year living in a Jewish ghetto until the Nazis started dragging them off. Only Yoran, his brother and a few others managed to hide, and as his parents were taken away by soldiers they told him, "Avenge our death and tell the world what happened."
It's the "Do well in school and don't get a girl pregnant" of the 1940s.
Yoran and his brother eventually made it into the woods with some other Jewish survivors and spent the winter living off the land, using survival techniques from a copy of Robinson Crusoe they had brought along. By spring of 1943, the diminished group of 50 came to the conclusion that living in the forest was bullshit and decided to fight back.
"Forests are even worse than Nazis."
After trying several times to join local resistance groups, one commander finally let them in on the condition that they blow up a nearby heavily guarded munitions factory. To be clear, Yoran and his brother had no idea what they were doing -- the resistance fighters sent them believing it was a suicide mission. Imagine their surprise when Yoran returned, the munitions plant in ruins, saying, "Alrighty, that's done."
The commander, who we suspect was a dick, told them he wouldn't have sent them if he'd known they'd actually do it, and said he still had no intention of letting any Jews join his ranks.
"We're fighting Nazis. I don't expect you two to understand."
Yoran and his crew finally decided to form their own group. Operating out of a swamp, they managed to get weapons by ambushing German troops and started fighting back. Their numbers swelled to over 200 Jews. And, while they wouldn't get a chance to shoot Hitler at a theater, the climax of their movie would be at Stalingrad, where Yoran's band of misfits would join the Soviets in giving hell to retreating German troops, blowing up bridges and taking out railroads.
Oh, and the guy is still alive, by the way. He wrote a book about the whole thing.
A strangely reserved title about explosions.