Hellfighters - Hellfighters( Blu Ray) [Powerhouse - 2021]
Hellfighters is a firefighting action caper-come-soapy US drama from the late 1960s. It features John Wayne as the head of an oil rig firefighting company, whose estranged daughter and ex-wife sudden come back into his life. The film flip-flops back and forth between heroic and daring rig action set-up, soapy dramatic interactions, a few moments of tension, a few fistfights, and some fleeting gunplay. Here from the guys at Powerhouse is a Region B Blu Ray release of the film- taking in a new HD print of the film, a commentary track, and a few other extras.
Hellfighters appeared in the year 1968- it was directed by London born Andrew V. McLaglen, who started his directing career with low budget western Gun The Man Down (1956). Between the late 50’s and mid-’60s, he moved on to directing episodes for the likes of Perry Mason, Rawhide, and Gunslinger. In the mid-’60s onwards he helmed the likes of war film western crossbreed Shenandoah (1965), WWII action drama The Devils Drama (1968), Comedy western Something Big (1971), police thriller Mitchell (1975), desert adventure Sahara(1983), and his final film Eye Of The Widow( 1991) which was a terrorist thriller. Hellfighters is a well enough made film, though its shifts between action and drama sometimes feel a little uneven. I’m not sure if the purely focused action crowd would have enjoyed the more soapy drama, and vice-a-versa- though I guess it’s one of the things that makes it stands out from your standard Wayne action fare.
The film’s lead character is Chance Buckman (Wayne), who has for many years been the head of a respected firefighting company that flies around the world putting out oil rig fires. He’s a very hands-on boss, often in the middle of flames, heat, and black spurting oil. At one big US job, the press is on-site when Chance and his men are putting out a fire- and he gets crushed between two diggers due to a reporter trying to interview him. He’s rushed to hospital in a critical state, and it’s decided by Greg Parker(Jim Hutton) his younger right-hand man, and his wheelchair ex-firefighter/ oilman buddy Jack Lomax( J C Flippen) that they inform Chance’s ex-wife of his condition. She is away in Europe- so instead along comes Tris( Katherine Ross) Chance’s twenty-something daughter- who he’s not seen since she was a child. And this shakes up both Chances & Parkers world/ work upside down, as Tris won’t be told to stay away from their jobs, and she’s very strong-minded.
The film moves between quite impressively staged rig fires and their extinguishing, emotional drama interactions, and of -course this been a Wayne film, lots of macho/man's man postering- though thankful due to the more soapy drama edges it doesn’t get too overbearing. When the fire action occurs we get good explanations of what is going on, and what they're doing- which is interesting in its self, with a whole list of advisers on the film including Red Adair- who of course dealt with Kuwaiti oil fires in the ’90s. We do have a few forced in/ sightly awkward action scenes- like a
semi-comic bar room punch up, and some in the jungle oil field gunplay- though on the whole the action elements are done well enough.
On the drama/ emotional side- this, as already mentioned fairly US soapy, but effective enough. Though unsurprisingly this side of things is left to the female members of the cast- Ross works well as the pushy/won’t accept no daughter, when her mother Madelyn( Psycho’s Vera Miles) she’s good as the ex-wife, who still loves Chance but left because she couldn’t handle worrying about him. Though we're nearing the 70’s with this film the men are largely no emotional men’s-men, and often chauvinistic - but again it’s a Wayne film, and talking of the duke he’s well what you’d expect, but works well enough in the role. On the whole, Hellfighters is entertaining enough- and the blend of drama and action is certainly interesting, though it felt like the two-hour length could have been cut down somewhat, by say twenty/ thirty minutes
Moving onto this region B Blu Ray- and we get a good selection of new and archive extras. First off we have a commentary track from film historians C Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke- and is a great pro track. They start off by talking about the films impressive opening oil rig explosion, and the neat miniature work. They mention this been the first film that Wayne got one million $’s for, as well as other interesting Duke facts- like he had to use special make-up, as the normal stuff brought him up in a rash. They talk about this being a fairly typical looking Universal picture of the period, they comment on the films art direction by Alexander Golitzen- who worked on a lot of the studios' films. They give in-depth and interesting actors bios, background matt painting, the general effects work, and more-
making for a most worthy track.
Next on the new stuff side we get The Rare Breed- which runs twenty-nine minutes and finds film archivist Tom Vincent giving a most worthy overview of Andrew V. McLaglen directing and film making career in general. There’s a twenty audio interview with Edward Faulkner- who played one of Chancer’s team.
On the archive side, we have a BFI audio interview from 1999 with McLaglen, this runs sixty-one minutes. We have a four-minute interview with the director from 2009, discussing his work with Wayne. There are two oil rig fire-related newsreels, a super 8 cut down version of the film, a trailer and a promotional/ publicity gallery. With the finished release comes with a 36-page booklet featuring a new essay by Andrew Nette, archival articles on the film and the events that inspired its screenplay, an overview of critical responses, and film credits.
Hellfighters is certainly an interesting enough mix of action and soapy drama-sure as always Wayne is paying his typical mans-man action hero, and some of the film's treatment of women is very much of its time. But it’s an entertaining film, that I can see appealing to those looking for a different edge to their normal 60’s/ 70’s action fare- and as always, a great, and nicely extras padded release from the guys at Powerhouse.