Hellfighters (1969) ****

I’m sticking my neck out on this one – under-rated would be an understatement – and primarily because it’s the Duke’s most intriguing film of the decade and possibly ever. For a start we have John Wayne The Quitter (the hell you say!). Then he ducks out of the picture for a full quarter of an hour (he does what?). Fast forward a couple of years and this would have led the disaster cycle pack – a little tinkering with the structure and you would have all four principals fighting fires in South America in the middle of a revolution (beat that, The Towering Inferno.) But most enthralling of all this is a family drama masquerading as an action picture.

And it led me to thinking if True Grit (1969) had not landed on Wayne’s doorstep whether he would have continued down the dramatic rather than the action road for the tail end of his career. He had just collected his first million-dollar fee so in box office terms he was untouchable. And just for the record, the action scenes, especially given the absence of CGI, are terrific. Sure, the oil’s a little bit too thin to pass for real oil, but it does gets sloshed over all concerned, including the Duke, by the bucketload.

And it might be a shade on the episodic side, Chance Buckman (John Wayne) and compadres racing from one hellish event to another, but it’s wrapped around a tight dramatic core, Chance vs independent daughter Tish (Katharine Ross), Chance vs one-time sidekick and now Tish’s husband Greg (Jim Hutton), Chance vs. Tish’s mother Madelyn (Vera Miles) and Chance vs. all the dimwits on the board of the company he quit his own operation to join.

Chance is based on the real-life Red Adair, an oilman who had invented the extremely scientific but extremely dangerous method of putting out oil-well fires. When a gazillion gallons of oil spurting unchecked out of the ground catch fire you’ve got a helluva problem on your hands. A gazillion gallons of water ain’t going to cut it. The only solution is to cut off the oxygen supply long enough to cap the well. Red Adair’s technique: blast the oxygen out of the way. He’d attach drums filled with massive amounts of nitro-glycerine, roll them into the blaze on the end of cranes, hide behind nothing more resilient than hazard suits and shields made of corrugated iron, and detonate them. The resulting explosion did the trick.

The picture opens with this stunt, although after being accidentally injured, Chance is hospitalized, bringing estranged daughter and ex-wife into the dramatic frame. After a pretty frosty meet-cute,  Tish and Greg hit it off and get married, forcing Tish to confront the fear that drove Chance and Madelyn apart, that, like the wife of a Formula One driver, she never knows if her husband will come back. This bothers the feisty Tish a lot less than the weary Madelyn. And she even ignores all protocol and rushes to her husband’s side, regardless of the danger.

Meanwhile, Chance decides not only has he had enough of dicing with danger but he can leave his company in the safe hands of Greg. His life now on a more mundane keel, Madelyn is attracted back. But of course it wouldn’t do for Chance to live out retirement with nothing more testy than board meetings so he comes back into the fray during a rebellion in Venezula and both women have to confront their true feelings.

The action, considering the lack of CGI, or the kind of budget available to The Towering Inferno, is first-class. This is the ideal movie reversal. Instead of running away from a fire, these characters race towards it. There are some hair-raising moments. At one blowout, gas is leaking from the ground, poisoning everyone in sight, Greg is trapped underwater. And should complacency sneak in, fire, being on the unpredictable side, is prone to sudden explosion.

John Wayne (The Undefeated, 1969) has always excelled at restrained emotion and here he gets both barrels. Having got rid of the over-protective wife he’s now saddled with a daughter he’s desperate to protect from the hell he put his wife through. He’s faultless here, given considerably more acting scope than normal and not, as in McLintock (1963), just able to tan a woman’s backside, presenting a more contemporary male, perhaps as puzzled by female behavior as any of his cowboys, but taking a more modern approach to resolving his feelings.

Katharine Ross (Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, 1969) has her best role, not a mere appendage as in her other films of this period, but driving forward the action through her independence. Jim Hutton (Walk, Don’t Run, 1966) is growing on me. I’ve reversed my view of him as a lightweight. Vera Miles (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962) does a pretty good job of playing older – she was not yet 40 – and essays a complicated character, more rounded than was often the case with the female lead in Wayne pictures. Veterans Jay C. Flippen (Firecreek, 1968) and Bruce Cabot (The Undefeated) head the support.

The perennially underrated Andrew V McLaglen (The Undefeated) does a pretty good job with the action, as you might expect, but is also savvy enough to let the dramatic scenes flow. Clair Huffaker (Rio Conchos, 1964) penned the screenplay.

Guilty pleasure personified, you might say, but I’d retort that this is a damn fine picture erroneously ignored – rating only two paragraphs in Scott Eyman’s  650-page biography of John Wayne for example – possibly because it appeared in between the critically-reviled The Green Berets (1968) and the critically-acclaimed True Grit.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

8 thoughts on “Hellfighters (1969) ****”

  1. My family saw this at a drive-in theater at the time and it was a great movie for a nine year-old boy. I’ve retained fond memories of the film and picked up the blu-ray a few years ago for nostalgia’s sake. It’s a perfectly fine film for what it is and certainy no worse melodramatcally than any full-fleged disaster movie from just a few years later. It’s a shame Wayne didn’t didn’t get to do more movies like this and “The High and the Mighty.” He did them as well or better than anyone.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sounds like a pair of Wayne fans. It was the second john Wayne picture I actually saw at the cinema. El Dorado was the first. My parents were not cinema fabs – an annual Xmas outing to a roadshow like Oliver! and whatever was on at the seaside when we went on holiday in the summer.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My first Wayne in the theater was THE ALAMO(I was traumatized when he got speared in the movie). Then it was HATARI!, EL DORADO, THE WAR WAGON, HELLFIGHTERS and TRUE GRIT. When I turned 18, I went by myself to CHISUM, THE TRAIN ROBBERS, McQ, CAHILL, US MARSHAL, ROOSTER COGBURN, BRANNIGAN and THE SHOOTIST. Great times.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Yup, fond of this one, related to the director so a bit biased, but for a ‘fading’ star, Wayne’s last films are actually pretty good, Brannigan, McQ, Rooster Cogburn, The Shootist. This is a big action film with Wayne (mainly) at the centre, and Ross gives it a more modern edge than some of his other 60’s film. You’re not alone in digging this one!

    Liked by 1 person

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