The terrifying tale of how an heir to the billion-dollar Getty fortune was kidnapped and then held captive for five months has been brought to the big screen by Ridley Scott in the new film All the Money in the World.

J. Paul Getty III was just 16 years old and living in Italy when members of the Italian mafia grabbed him off the street on July 10, 1973, as he returned home from a night out with friends, reports the Daily Mail.

He was thrown in the back of the van and taken 480km south to the mountains of Calabria. His captors informed the teenager's family that the boy would be safely returned after they paid a $17 million ransom.

The boy's mother, Gail Harris, and father, J. Paul Getty jnr, had been cut off from the family fortune, and so they asked J. Paul Getty if he would be willing to cover the amount of money demanded by the kidnappers.

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At the time, J. Paul Getty was worth a little less than $2 billion, making him not only the richest man in the world but also the wealthiest man in history.

That is when the already shocking kidnapping took the most bizarre twist of all: J. Paul Getty refused the pay the ransom.

J. Paul Getty said at the time that if he agreed to the kidnappers' demands for the return of his grandson, there was nothing to stop financially motivated individuals from abducting his other grandchildren.

"If I pay one penny now, I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren," he told reporters.

J. Paul Getty III, his right ear missing, sits in police station after being freed from five months captivity by his alleged kidnapers. Photo / Getty Images.
J. Paul Getty III, his right ear missing, sits in police station after being freed from five months captivity by his alleged kidnapers. Photo / Getty Images.

He was known at the time as much for his oil fortune as for his frugality, and some believed that J. Paul Getty III may have staged the entire kidnapping to get money from his grandfather.

J. Paul Getty jnr had been cut off after his drug addiction led to him leaving the family business.

But his Harris pushed back on her former father-in-law, and used the press to launch subtle attacks that eventually shamed the man into paying the ransom.

That took four months however, and after the kidnappers showed just how far they were willing to take the negotiations.

A package was delivered on November with a note that read: "This is Paul's ear. If we don't get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits."

Inside was the teenager's ear, and a request for $3.2 million if the family wanted to see him come home safe and not returned in "little bits".

This forced J. Paul Getty to the negotiating table, and he agreed to pay $2.2 million for the return of his grandson. He loaned an additional $700,000 to his son to be paid back with interest.

The money was quickly handed over to the kidnappers, who had been keeping their captive in the tiny village of Cicala, and on December 15 J. Paul Getty III was dropped off at a gas station in Potenza, north of where he was being held in the mountains.

Nine people were arrested for the kidnapping but only two were convicted, and the ransom money was never found despite police efforts.

There was also no great reunion between grandfather and grandson. J. Paul Getty refused to take a phone call from the recently released captive when he called from Italy.

The Gettys play a major role in Scott's film. British actor Charlie Plummer plays the young victim and Oscar-winner Christopher Plummer tackled the role of the world's richest man.

It was a part that had initially been filmed by Kevin Spacey, but Scott cut him from the picture after allegations of his sexual misconduct with underage boys became public this year.

Paul Getty III steps down the staircase of a local police station in Rome after he was questioned about his kidnapping. Photo / Getty Images
Paul Getty III steps down the staircase of a local police station in Rome after he was questioned about his kidnapping. Photo / Getty Images

The star of the film however is not the Getty men, but rather the woman responsible for getting the boy back - his mother Harris.

She is portrayed by Michelle Williams who, with Plummer and Scott has been nominated for a Golden Globe award.

Harris was followed by the press and did everything in her power to get her son back despite having no access to any of the Getty funds and no support from her drug-addicted ex-husband.

"Get it from London," she was told by the kidnappers when she explained her predicament, suggesting she call her former in-laws.

That was later followed by a letter from her son, which read: "Dear Mummy, Since Monday I have fallen into the hands of kidnappers. Don't let me be killed."

With no money and little time, Harris began to very adroitly use the press to shame her former father-in-law and his refusal to hand over any of his fortune.

It was also Harris who had to convince the entire Getty family that this was not some prank her son was pulling in a bid to get a multi-million dollar payday.

Through this all, Harris was forced to communicate through an intermediary as her former father-in-law refused to speak directly to her or her ex.

That man was J. Fletcher Chase, a former CIA operative played in the movie by Mark Wahlberg.

He arrived in Italy to try to get the kidnapped teen back without paying any ransom, at J. Paul Getty's insistence, and was ultimately accused of almost botching the operation by making a number of foolish moves.

Chase arrived in Rome five weeks after the kidnapping and soon began sleeping with a woman who was reportedly being paid to feed him false leads while suggesting the entire kidnapping was a hoax.

He also botched his first attempt to hand over the ransom to the kidnappers.

"The aftermath of the ordeal left Getty as a reckless personality; the year after his release he married a German photographer whose name has been variously reported as Gisela Zacher and Martine Zacher," read J. Paul Getty III's obituary in the New York Times when he died in 2011.

"They lived for a time in New York, where they consorted with the art crowd of Andy Warhol. Mr. Getty became a drug user and a heavy drinker."

A 1981 drug overdose when he consumed a cocktail of Valium, methadone and alcohol left him quadriplegic and partially blind.

He was survived by his son, actor Balthazar Getty, and his mother, who cared for him until his death.

His grandfather J. Paul Getty died in 1976 and left his son $500 in his will, and his grandson nothing.