Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen
November 27, 1968
An oil rig firefighter must contend with the marriage of his daughter to one of his employees and the reentry of his ex-wife into his life while fighting fires across the globe.
John Wayne stars as Chance Buckman, the central character of this film-sort of. Chance borders on being a supporting character at certain points in this film. There are points his storyline takes a backseat to the storyline of his employee Greg Parker (Jim Hutton) and his new wife Tish (Katharine Ross) who also happens to be Chance’s daughter. I think Greg forgot one important written rule of the workplace: Don’t date the boss’s daughter!
Wayne is his usual tough self. In film he had a charisma and presence in that has been unequaled. He could really sell his part more often than not and his mere presence could help elevate a film. That is the difference between being a star and being an actor.
The character of Chance is a man married his job. So much so that he left his wife Madelyn (Vera Miles) and daughter rather go into something safer. Chance still holds a torch for his wife and his wife for a him. An accident caused by a reporter distracting a bulldozer driver brings Chance’s daughter back into his life and into the sights of Greg who is a bit of a lothario and uses his job to get women. Chance is cool with that until he finds out Greg has married his daughter.
The character of Tish is as tough and strong (for the late 60s anyway) as Chance. She just bursts back into his life and will not leave-not that Chance is trying to kick her aside. Not only that but during the film she forces herself to deal with the emotional highs and lows that come with being involved with someone that does what her new man does for a living.
I find the character of Chance’s employee Greg reminds me of a proto AJ Frost (Ben Affleck) from Deep Impact. The more I think about it they just ripped off much of Frost from this character. Both films come from Universal Pictures. Greg is a womanizer who eventually comes across the boss’s daughter and, welp, they hookup and it is love.
We get Bruce Cabot of the original King Kong showing up in this film as one of chances friends/employees Joe Horn. I think it said something nice that John Wayne had a group of friends who he liked to work with. He even cast regular sidekick Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez in an uncredited role as Hernando.
Jay C. Flippen plays the wheelchair bound Jack Lomax who is the head of Lomax Oil as well as being Chance’s friend. Flippen appeared with Wayne in Flying Leathernecks, Jet Pilot, and in How the West Was Won (all films Wayne appeared in) but in the latter his only scene was with Debbie Reynolds and Gregory Peck.
Wayne romances his ex-wife. Vera Miles is not one of Wayne’s better film pairings. At least in the romantic dynamic between her and Wayne. Those moments feel more like a little bit of a throwback to tepid romances of old than they do to anything of the then modern era. The character is much better in her moments in when she is angry over something. Either the danger Chance is in or her daughter’s actions or whatever.
The oil field fires are spectacular. They just look really cool and are exciting moments. The one that opens the film and how it starts is just a very good “Oh crap!” moment. This film was loosely based on the life of Red Adair who was a then well-known oil fire fighter who became known outside of the industry after extinguishing a Sahara Desert gas well fire called “the devil’s cigarette lighter.” He along with “Boots” Hansen and “Coots” Matthews (who named these guys?!) were technical advisors on the movie.
The direction is okay but not the best. Perhaps it is because this feels like it has so many of the trappings of a disaster film when it comes to the plot yet is not a disaster film. Something just does not quite click here. Andrew V. McLaglen, son of frequent Wayne costar Victor McLaglen, directed Wayne a few times beginning with McLintock! and followed that with this film followed by The Undefeated and finally Chisum. Chisum and McLintock! were the strongest two. He was not a bad director but certainly not one that could or would pull the best from Wayne.
This is a bit more of a soap opera than it is an adventure film. If Hellfighters had been reworked a little bit into a disaster style movie, I think it would have been much better. As it is the story is just okay. It is not a great film but it is not terrible either.
Hellfighters is not the strongest one on John Wayne’s résumé. That will come the following year with the original True Grit. I cannot call this a watch it for the general film audience, but I will call it an if you want for them. For the general John Wayne fan this is definitely a watch it. Then again all of his stuff is a watch it for the general John Wayne fan.