According to the 1968 film Hellfighters, the oil industry is pretty dangerous. Here we thought it was all just drinking each other’s milkshakes. Apparently, oil is pretty dang flammable, who knew? In fact, the smallest thing can spark massive oil fires that just burn and burn and burn. Who do you call when such things happen? Why John Wayne, of course!
Wayne plays Chance Buckman, the hands-on owner of a company that specializes in fighting oil well fires. He’s developed a number of special techniques that have made him sought after and quite wealthy. As the film begins, we see him and his team fighting a particularly nasty blaze. However, he ends up landing in the hospital when all is said and done. Not because of the fire itself, but because a thoughtless reporter gets in the way.
The injury is serious enough that Chance’s buddies send for his estranged daughter Tish (Katharine Ross). She quickly becomes intrigued with her father’s line of work, and with his hunky partner, Greg (Jim Hutton). Before Chance is out of the hospital, the two youngsters end up hitched. Now, Chance has to struggle with sending his protege Greg out on dangerous assignments as he fears for his daughter having to worry if her new hubby will come home each night. This is what caused Tish’s mother (Vera Miles) to leave Chance many years earlier.
Wayne’s character is based on Red Adair, a real-life firefighter who specialized in oil well fires. He became a bit of a minor celebrity, and even though the lead character is fictional, the film goes out of its way to declare the film is inspired by Adair, and that he consulted on the film. There are even sequences early in the film that linger on photos of actual fires (that I’m sure Red Adair fought) and trophies presented to Chance from far-off lands (that I’m sure actually belonged to Red Adair). The level of self-promotion here reminded me a bit of the way Evel Knievel presents himself in the film Viva Knievel. This feels a bit odd, though. After all, we’re not jumping the fountain at Caesar’s Palace here. We’re dealing with actual disasters that caused folks to lose life and limb.
The film ends up being a bit uneven as it tries to balance the melodrama and the fiery set pieces. Honestly, it’s a bit hard to buy that Chance is that concerned about his daughter ending up the wife of a firefighter when he has been completely absent from her life for the last twenty-plus years. The film at one point actually seems to be setting up that Tish, herself, is becoming intrigued with fighting these fires and that she may want to join her old man on the front lines. But no, she’s just looking to hook up with Greg.
While the so-called drama is guaranteed to induce eye-rolling, I will say that Wayne does do a solid job here. I mean, he’s John Wayne, after all. This is the kind of role we like to see him in. If anyone can stare down a raging oil fire, it’s him! The fires burning in his own family, though, he struggles with. The dynamic between Wayne and Katharine Ross is a bit awkward, shall we say. Wayne also has zero chemistry with Vera Miles.
But seriously, family drama is not what we watch a John Wayne movie called Hellfighters for, anyway. We want to see FIRE! Hellfire; and the movie certainly delivers in that department. I can only assume that the oil well fires shown in this film were the real deal, cuz they are scary looking. It felt like there was actual heat coming off my laptop screen as I watched the fire sequences. Either that or my computer’s fan is busted. I don’t know how close to the action John Wayne and Jim Hutton actually were, but the filmmakers do an effective job of making it look like they are right in the thick of it. The scenes feel dangerous and did manage to draw me in. It does get a little bit silly when the third act has Wayne and company having to fend off Venezuelan guerilla fighters while fighting the fire, but whatever. There are also a few moments when the script gets a little overly technical in explaining the process involved in fighting these unique fires, but it was kind of necessary to understand what is going on.
Hellfighters is a movie that does present a certain level of enjoyment. It has an unusual subject matter that definitely sparks a degree of curiosity about the folks that actually do this sort of dangerous work. However, even though the firefighting scenes burn red-hot, the dramatic moments generate about as much heat as the candles on a six-year-old’s birthday cake.