“Two smoldering women made all the danger worthwhile!”… heck, we didn’t even see ’em catch fire. John Wayne is charismatic and Andrew V. McLaglen’s direction is decent for once in this formulaic ‘easy listening’ pot-boiler from the Wayne school of laid-back ’60s entertainment. After winning the Vietnam War, our intrepid action man extinguishes 101 out-of-control oil fires, which appear to happen every twenty minutes. When nothing’s burning, there are plenty of domestic tangles to straighten out with the womenfolk. In support are Katharine Ross, Jim Hutton, Vera Miles, Bruce Cabot and Jay C. Flippen. It’s old-fashioned but not embarrassing — Wayne still has his charm.
1968 / Color/ 2:35 widescreen / 121 min. / Street Date May 4, 2021 / Available from Mill Creek Entertainment / 19.99
Starring: John Wayne, Katharine Ross, Jim Hutton, Vera Miles, Jay C. Flippen, Bruce Cabot, Edward Faulkner, Barbara Stuart, Edmund Hashim, Valentin de Vargas, Frances Fong, Alberto Morin, Alan Caillou, Laraine Stephens, Pedro González González, Chuck Roberson.
Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Film Editor: Folmar Blangsted
Original Music: Leonard Rosenman
Written by Clair Huffaker
Produced by Robert Arthur
Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen
John Wayne must have been one tough guy — after having one lung removed he was soon back performing in films that required physical exertion, with his personal project The Green Berets being no exception. After starring in In Harm’s Way for Otto Preminger — who hopefully wasn’t as demanding with Wayne as he was with other actors — America’s favorite cowboy hero took the action scenes only a little easier. 1968’s Hellfighters was likely almost a vacation compared to The Green Berets or the entertaining, endearing True Grit. Although Wayne’s right in there next to Hellfighters’ ever-present flaming oil geysers, there’s no running up hills or riding horses all day. Half the movie is a domestic light drama, which which Wayne’s fans appreciated almost as much.
Hellfighters is not an official account of the work of the famed oil-fireman Red Adair, but Adair and several of his top lieutenants are credited as experts, and likely advised on the special effects. The basic idea of using explosives to extinguish oil fires is true; Adair spent thirty-years developing his own techniques, snuffing out over 2,000 blazes.
Wayne’s Chance Buckman sounds like his Sheriff Chance in Rio Bravo but is vocationally more akin to his Sean Mercer in Hatari! Buckman’s exciting profession doesn’t involve carrying a gun; he instead zips around the world in his private jets and helicopters to oversee his work. His company keeps equipment near many oil fields, so that specialized rigs and replacement drill heads are always available.
As is typical of late John Wayne pictures, almost everyone we see had a history with the iconic actor. His top troubleshooter is the young hotshot and womanizer Greg Parker (Jim Hutton). The crippled Jack Lomax (Jay C. Flippen) works from a wheelchair and Joe Horn (Bruce Cabot) drives bulldozers. Some roles are filled by Universal contractees, but a number of minor players come from the ‘extended’ Wayne stock company: Edward Faulkner, Valentin de Vargas, Frances Fong, Pedro González González. Stuntman turned actor Chuck Roberson is in everything but stayed mostly anonymous, and Wayne gives him exactly one dialogue line.
The personal story is (pleasantly) xeroxed from the John Wayne / Maureen O’Hara playbook. Vera Miles’s character in The Searchers was a generation or two younger than Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, but here she’s Chance’s ex- wife Madelyn, who disapproves of his dangerous lifestyle. That formula for disharmony echoes the busted-up marriages of Rio Grande, The Wings of Eagles and I assume other Wayne/O’Hara pictures — the solution is always for the wife to stop being stubborn and ‘reenlist.’
The newcomer is Katharine Ross, between her biggest pictures The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That Ms. Ross earned her right to ‘good trouper’ recognition is easily proven: just watch the actress gamely slug her way through excruciating dialogue in the horrendous Debbie Reynolds picture The Singing Nun. Here Ross is the daughter that chance has barely seen since she was a baby — as was the case with Claude Jarman Jr. in Rio Grande and with Brandon de Wilde in In Harm’s Way.) I assume that John Wayne at least once played a character that hung around to help raise his children…?
The energetic, positive-thinking Chance Buckman is also a pilot. He’s always on the move, earning big money extinguishing oil wells in Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Southeast Asia. When Chance is injured by a falling iron beam, his oldest associate Joe Horn arranges for his estranged daughter Tish to come to his hospital room. This also reunites Chance with Madelyn, and they find that the old bitterness is gone. Scenes of firefighting alternate with the progression of two love relationships: Chance gets back with Madelyn, while Tish falls in love with the former ladies’ man Greg Parker.
Let’s call the film’s story conflicts ‘low stress.’ The fires do escalate in terms of jeopardy, a wise choice, but they alternate with issues as crucial as, ‘should Tish accompany Greg to his fires?’ Chance wants to keep his second chance with Madelyn and realizes that he’s getting on, so he and Jack quit and sign on with a normal oil exploration outfit. Greg takes over The Buckman Company. At the climax Chance goes back on active duty to help Greg with a tough mission. Revolutionaries are causing havoc in a South American country, and have set three wells in a row on fire. The army gives Greg cover but those pesky rebels spoil things with, you know, guns and stuff — the work must be done in the middle of a war zone.
An elite family of troubleshooters that race to all parts of the globe to do good deeds? Frankly, the Hellfighters setup is all but identical to the marionette rescue heroes of the juvenile TV show Thunderbirds. Like the Buckmans, the Tracy family works out its domestic squabbles while zipping around the world to do nifty rescues ‘n’ stuff. Maybe their performances are a little wooden, too — but sincere.
Putting out oil fires certainly provides exciting images, and the effects people produce some okay illusions of major jeopardy. William Clothier’s images have focus; a flaming tower of Texas Tea figures in scene after scene, forming a backdrop for the disposable drama. The humor is corny but workable, as when Tish shouts to a room-ful of Catholic Latins, “My father is going to marry my mother!” Unmarried oil firemen are like jackrabbits with any woman not nailed down, but the moment they don a wedding ring they become arrow-straight. Actor Jim Hutton never found a fully comfortable comedy partner after Paula Prentiss, not with Jane Fonda or Pamela Tiffin. He perhaps came close with Samantha Eggar. Hutton’s utterly stock character here is just as shallow as his scrounger in The Green Berets, but like everyone else he fits in with the film’s agreeably superficial flow.
Clair Huffaker’s screenplay manages to make the fires less repetitive than they might be. Andrew V. McLaglen’s direction is reasonable, although we suspect Wayne influence from the sidelines, as McLaglen’s pictures for James Stewart are not as peppy. Hellfighters does have an excellent pace and a smart way of cutting episodes short to leap to the next plot point. Ace editor Folmar Blangsted was working for Universal at the time, but had previously done terrific work on Wayne’s Rio Bravo.
Of course, nowadays Hellfighters will be pre-judged based on one’s opinion of the oil industry, even though Chance just puts out fires. The real Red Adair reportedly helped extinguish many of the hundreds of fires set during the Kuwait War — see Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness for a sobering meditation on that calamity. Hatari! was considered a happy perennial until the idea of catching African animals for circuses and zoos became PC poison. And we won’t go into the politics of Hellfighters except to say that the big happy ending sees The Buckman Company making another Latin American country safe for oil production… ‘even though those pesky rebels can reignite the wells the moment Chance leaves. After the flak caught by Green Berets Wayne sets the pontificating aside… although he still makes room to depict ‘the media’ as total morons.
The elegant Vera Miles and Katharine Ross escape with most of their dignity intact. As was still the norm in the movie mainstream, the script defines women as accessories for their husbands, helping their careers. The men miss the women but it’s the women that always run to them, wherever they may be, and sometimes apologize for doing so. Tish is a good egg about the boys’ club around her, all of whom are gentlemen, even South American military men. She verbally volunteers to exit a room so the ‘man talk’ can go forward uninterrupted, and even announces at one point that she’s getting coffee! Excitement’s where you find it, I guess, and you can’t say that Ms. Ross’s characters in The Graduate or Butch Cassidy were all that enlightened. Well, I guess that outlaw schoolmarm Etta Place knew when it was time to cut bait and run.
Critics in 1968 complained that Hellfighters ‘wasn’t about anything.’ Do we really want a message like Tulsa or Boom Town where the lust for oil riches is all-important, or the James Stewart film Thunder Bay that tells fishermen and environmentalists to shut up and let the Gulf fill with oil? This movie isn’t going to be accused of pretension. Its main reason for being is to let John Wayne be John Wayne. He smiles at Vera Miles, and takes part in a public brawl of the kind that’s been a Wayne requisite since at least North to Alaska. Sure, the fight is meaningless, but this one’s not bad, perhaps because it avoids unfunny ‘comedy’ touches. I’d say that the audiences of 1968 were looking for light entertainment, not social relevance.
Mill Creek’s Blu-ray of Hellfighters is a good-looking encoding in a plain-wrap presentation. The picture’s in great shape, allowing us to admire the good pacing and the charismatic actors, both those in the Wayne Pals Club and a newcomer like Katharine Ross. Universal put out its own Blu-ray in 2015; Mill Creek doesn’t mention a remaster so they may be functionally identical. I didn’t take much note of Leonard Rosenman’s music score, which doesn’t have a great deal of personality.
It’s truly plain-wrap — the only menu toggles are to play the show and to turn the subs on and off. I’m not sure that the fans of Hellfighters would want a commentary or a visual essay anyway. The only surviving cast members I can see are Vera Miles and Katharine Ross, and I doubt either of them would leap to a microphone to talk about it.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good +/-
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: May 25, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson