We need a big screen re-release of this, in Universal’s Sensurround, pronto.
By Paul Mavis
Mill Creek Entertainment has just released a rather dazzling Blu-ray transfer of Universal’s 1968 macho firefighting actioner, Hellfighters, directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, scripted by Clair Huffaker, and starring John Wayne, Katharine Ross, Jim Hutton, Vera Miles, Jay C. Flippen, Bruce Cabot, Barbara Stuart, Edward Faulkner, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, and Laraine Stephens. Based loosely on world famous oil well firefighter Paul “Red” Adair, Hellfighters performed below expectations at the box office and with the critics, but it was in heavy rerun rotation on TV back in the 70s, gaining a whole slew of young fans with its cartoon action and simple storyline. No extras here, but the Blu transfer is impressive.
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On a private jet headed for New Year’s Eve gambling in the Bahamas, oil well firefighter Chance Buckman (John Wayne) breaks the bad news to his guests: he has to head back to Houston, Texas and The Buckman Company HQ (“Around the Clock, Around the World”). There’s an oil well on fire, and his team is assembling. Secretary Irene Foster (Barbara Stuart), though, is having difficulty pinning down which Acapulco lovely is shacking up with randy BC employee Greg Parker (Tim Hutton). At the fire, Parker arrives with a new beauty, Helen Meadows (Laraine Stephens), who falls for Parker’s sure-fire seduction routine of massive, out-of-control inferno plus noble, brave firefighter—much to Chance’s amusement.
However, a freak accident at the fire puts Chance in intensive care, and that’s when his former partner and now oil magnate Jack Lomax (Jay C. Flippen) calls Chance’s ex-wife Madelyn (Vera Miles) and estranged daughter, Tish (Katherine Ross). Tish, having only fleeting, vague childhood memories of Chance, comes immediately to his side, where she’s told he’ll be sedated and out of commission for at least a week. Madelyn is in Europe, so it’s going to take some time for her to come. That gives Tish a chance to go against everyone’s wishes and attend the company’s next oil fire…where she promptly falls in love with Greg and marries him. Well…when Chance finds this out, the explosion is nothing compared to the various fires he’ll fight for the movie’s two hour running time.
Always one of those solid go-to titles when I was a kid, whenever it popped up on the Dialing for Dollars afternoon movie program (you never called me, Joe Ashton…), or on the Late, Late Show, Hellfighters was perfect early 1970s kids entertainment for the tube, with its frequent action sequences (they’d cut the dialogue scenes for the commercials), its A-B-C comic book construction, and of course its larger-than-life star, the Duke (and if John Wayne suddenly offends you now, don’t start your sh*t with me about him until you look around at current people we’re supposed to venerate today, and the outrageous crap they say).
Seen today on Mill Creek’s strikingly crisp, color-soaked Blu transfer, Hellfighters may run on a bit towards its protracted finale, but before that, it’s a big, fun, exciting, and sometimes even fascinating actioner…when it sticks to the fires. Many mainstream critics at the end of 1968 certainly didn’t think so, with Hellfighters getting mostly withering notices. But that’s not exactly surprising, considering Wayne had already outraged them earlier in the summer when his brawling Vietnam epic, The Green Berets, not only thumbed its nose at their liberal posturing about the war…but cleaned up at the box office, too. The big city movie reviewers no doubt still had a collective bad taste in their mouth when Hellfighters‘ G-rated family adventures hit the screens.
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No question, Hellfighters’ biggest pull are the firefighting scenes. Viewed on a large monitor, they’re rather spectacular, with their impressive full-scaled pyrotechnics dominating the carefully composed, busy frames (courtesy of special effect supervisor Fred Knoth and cinematographer William H. Clothier). Wisely, director McLaglen takes his time to show us exactly how the fires can start (in the startling opening, a mere busted lightbulb ignites a well, followed by a disturbing shot of men, on fire, running in the background), and then the painstaking, dangerous mechanics of “blowing out” the fires with asbestos-wrapped “shaped” charges of nitroglycerin. These sequences, overlaid with bellowing sound effects of the flames and water cannons and explosions (how cool would a stereo mix be here…or the aforementioned in-theater Sensurround!), have an elementary, primitive, satisfying feel to them, with the fascination of watching men with their machines and equipment solving a dangerous problem, providing effortless suspense and excitement.
Add to that Hellfighters‘ expensive-looking, geometric production design and its almost cartoonish, primary color palette (lots of bright reds, oranges, and yellows against the nicely appointed and designed sets), and it often-times plays like a live-action version of a G.I. Joe Adventure set, or a Charlton action comic come to life (we even get the obligatory Wayne bar smash-up, designed for comedic relief). There’s an easy, self-assured, confident tone to Hellfighters that seems to come best from these late-model studio genre efforts, guided by and starring pros who knew their jobs inside and out (once you get used to seeing an older Wayne in modern garb—even a tux!—you appreciate his gameness at getting in there with the fake oil and water…but you also realize, upon close inspection, how surprisingly careful he’s holding himself. They’re putting a lot of rouge on those cheeks to make him look hale and hearty).
I would imagine our female viewers will find the whole “Jim Hutton is a manipulative poon hound” subplot problematic today (and by “female” I mean the sensitive beta male hand-wringers who increasingly chime in on feminist concerns). However, most real women will recognize this for what it is—i.e.: the truth, that men will say or do anything to sleep with a woman—and dismiss it as the broad goof it’s played as. Unfortunately, the potentially interesting aspect of Ross continually insisting she’s going to stay at the fires, to be an equal with her husband, is negated by the fact that she continually has to insist it. Hellfighters‘ script does itself no favors by this eventually tiring repetition (both Hutton and Ross—the first knowingly on a career downswing, the second not knowing it—quite frankly look bored to tears here).
Also of note is Wayne’s and Miles’ openly sexual attraction, despite 20 years of sporadic separation. Miles, in a deadly straightforward manner, tells an insensitive, pursuing Wayne that she will spend the night with him, if he asks…only she asks that he doesn’t ask. He accepts this more painful rejection—as a woman, she’s physically attracted to him and won’t say no, but as a person not wanting to get emotionally hurt, she’s not attracted to him—with Wayne’s usual resigned maturity (critics never write about so many of the “equal partner” relationships in Wayne’s movies—Rio Bravo comes to mind—because it doesn’t fit in with their bias and stereotypes about his screen persona). More careful attention to these themes might have elevated Hellfighters out of its comic book orientation.
Aside from some judicious cutting (at 121 minutes, it’s simply too long for the simplified genre effort it is), what could have benefited Hellfighters was a different director. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy Andrew V. McLaglen’s clean, uncomplicated approach to moviemaking. For what it is. He’s telling a story as quickly and efficiently as he can, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, in this effort at least, that approach withers in the final stretch, when we either want some depth in the dramatic narrative, or to have things quickly wrapped up. Had a Howard Hawks (in his prime) approached this material, those romantic scenes would have crackled with gender role-twisting permutations. And maybe a speedier helmer like Gordon Douglas could have cut the fat and got on with the story in 90 minutes or under.
By Hellfighters‘ protracted finale, we’ve had one too many fire sequences (not helped when they start looking all the same), and 3 or 4 too many scenes where we rehash yet again the already-settled concerns with the womenfolk (how many times does Ross get the go-ahead from her father and husband to be an independent woman?). Thankfully, the script avoids any overt political commentary on the guerilla/government forces context of the final blow-out (except of course, that it’s good to blow away commie guerilla forces. As you do). Was it really necessary, though, to remind the audience of Wayne’s roots by having that ridiculous shot of him, decked out in modern day cowboy clothes, grinning at us from the back of a cargo plane? Now all of the sudden, he’s in charge of the company again? And not a peep out of new boss Hutton? Still…those five oil well fires are a stunning visual, and you still find yourself getting into how they’re blown out…so Hellfighters wisely ends with a bang.