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The Moving True Story Behind Anthony Hopkins' “One Life”: Hero Who Helped Save Hundreds of Children from the Nazis

Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Flynn portray the humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton in the 1980s and the 1930s in 'One Life,' in theaters now

<p>Bleecker Street</p> Anthony Hopkins in 2024

Bleecker Street

Anthony Hopkins in 2024's One Life

Anthony Hopkins helps shine a light on British humanitarian efforts in the months before World War II broke out with his new movie, One Life.

In One Life, Hopkins, 86, shares a dual role with Johnny Flynn (EmmaThe Outfit) as Sir Nicholas Winton, a British man who assisted in efforts to rescue hundreds of children from Nazi-occupied areas in what is now the Czech Republic. The movie details the efforts Winton — who died in 2015 at age 106 and was known as Nicky to his family and friends — and other humanitarians took during the Kindertransport, as the operation is known, and the public recognition he received decades later.

The film depicts Winton's visit to Prague in December 1938 and January 1939, shortly before Nazi Germany occupied the area, then known as Czechoslovakia. He coordinated with humanitarians like Trevor Chadwick, Martin Blake and Doreen Warriner (portrayed by Alex Sharp, Ziggy Heath and Romola Garai in the film, respectively) to identify hundreds of children who needed safe homes. Upon his return to London, Nicky and his mother Babi Winton (Helena Bonham Carter) worked to ensure safe passage for the children via trains across Europe.

The film's director James Hawes tells PEOPLE that Nicky "would be the first to say it wasn't just him — it was about a team of volunteers that included Czech volunteers who were in far more jeopardy than he was [and his mother.]" Hawes says Nicky's family and others who consulted on the movie "were very keen on Nicky's behalf that we saw it as a group operation and not just a caped superhero on his own."

Related: Nicholas Winton's Son Says Anthony Hopkins Is 'Just Uncanny' as His Father in One Life (Exclusive)

<p>Bleecker Street</p> Johnny Flynn a Young Nicholas Winton in 2024's One Life

Bleecker Street

Johnny Flynn a Young Nicholas Winton in 2024's One Life

Nicky largely kept his efforts in the Kindertransport private until the 1980s, when he and his wife uncovered scrapbooks detailing the hundreds of lives he helped save. The British talk show That's Life orchestrated a 1988 meeting between him and dozens of the children 50 years later.

YouTube videos of that talk show appearance have garnered tens of millions of views over the years. The movie recreates that iconic live moment, which filmmaker Hawes describes as "terrifying for a director" to film because of the emotional punch the real-life clip already packs.

Since the '80s, Nicky has been credited with organizing the transport of at least 669 children from Prague to the United Kingdom prior to Sept. 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland and set off World War II. Around 6,000 people are estimated to be alive today due to his and others' efforts in the Prague Rescue, considered one end of the larger Kindertransport operation.

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<p>Matej Divizna/Getty; Bleecker Street</p> Sir Nicholas Winton and Anthony Hopkins in 2024's One Life

Matej Divizna/Getty; Bleecker Street

Sir Nicholas Winton and Anthony Hopkins in 2024's One Life

Eve Paddock, a Czech-born woman who now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was just 3 years old when she and her sister boarded one of those trains. During an interview with filmmaker Hawes and Nicky's son Nick Winton, Paddock tells PEOPLE that when she met Nicky on multiple occasions later in life, the real-life man "really understood the place of his life in our lives."

"I try to begin to make some mumbly comment about thank you," Paddock recalls of traveling to England to meet Nicky on one occasion. "And he was not in the slightest bit interested. What he wanted to know about was my life, who I was, why I was there, what I'd done. And I think that's really the essence of the man. He was deeply interested in people."

Related: Anthony Hopkins Plays a Real-Life Hero in Moving 'One Life' Trailer

<p>Bleecker Street</p> Lena Olin and Anthony Hopkins in 'One Life'

Bleecker Street

Lena Olin and Anthony Hopkins in 'One Life'

Nicky's son shares with PEOPLE that his father largely found the recognition he received for his efforts — he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2003, among other honors — "rather embarrassing."

"When I first saw the movie, I was a little disappointed that the ending seemed a little flat," Nick recalls. "And I asked the producers at Seesaw Films why it just sort of ended. It could have been a really powerful call to action, a strong message of how the individual can triumph over evil. And it was explained to me, my father was a very understated man. He was a very ordinary man. He did this, and that was the style that they wanted to come across in the film rather than something overdramatic." 

"And I really get that," he adds. "Having seen it now several more times, I can see that it doesn't beat you over the head with anything. You're left to make your mind up about what you want to take away from his behavior and his action and the story."

One Life is based on the book If It's Not Impossible... The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton, written by Nick's sister, Barbara Winton. The movie is in theaters now.

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