Wayne Travels Miles for Adair
As a John Wayne fan I like the "Hellfighters" but have to admit it is a movie which ends up seriously flawed by focusing on the wrong things. What I mean is here we have Wayne playing a fire fighter who tackles oil fire blazes, a character which is obviously inspired by legendary fire fighter 'Red' Adair, and as such we have the opportunity for a movie which shows the various techniques and dangers of tackling oil well blazes. But rather than focussing on the drama which comes from the danger we get a movie about the emotional stress that loved ones deal with when their loved ones put themselves in danger. It's an interesting alternative perspective but it is also quite weak and it's not what you want from a movie about heroes tackling oil well fires, you want action and drama from the clever ways they cap these out of control flame throwers.
Chance Buckman (John Wayne - The War Wagon) is the best at what he does and that is fire fighting, but not just any fire as he is a specialist at tackling oil well fires. When he is hospitalized during one such job his estranged daughter Trish (Katharine Ross - The Graduate) comes to visit and not only does she fall and marry his right hand man Greg Parker (Jim Hutton - The Green Berets) but learns that her mother left Chance not because she didn't love him but couldn't cope with the stress of whether he will come back in one piece or not. But will Trish be able to cope with the stress and fear and how will Chance react to now his son-in-law putting himself in danger.
So as already pointed out "Hellfighters" focuses on the emotional stress of those close to the fire fighters rather than the fire fighting itself and for me that simple fact is wrong. It's not what you want from what looks like it should be an exciting John Wayne action movie about battling out of control fires. And to be honest it doesn't start that way as for the first 10 minutes "Hellfighters" gets it almost right as we witness Chance Buckman tackle a blazing oil well and although we are spoon fed much of what happens via a TV reporter it is fascinating to learn how they go about putting out these raging blazes.
But sadly after those first 10 minutes it swaps focus as we get the emotional side of things introduced as we learn that Chance's wife left him because she couldn't cope with the stress that he may not return from a job. And then we also get what turns out to be the main storyline which is Chance's daughter Trish marrying his right hand man Greg and we watch the emotional drama of how everyone copes. Now on one level this side is interesting as it highlights the emotional stress which loved ones face when their husbands put their lives at risk but it certainly isn't what you are expecting. And to be honest it's not enough to sustain a movie which lasts just over 2 hours.
If that wasn't annoying enough we then get some manufactured drama as we have Chance and Greg trying to put out 5 oil wells in the middle of Guerrilla country where the danger is as much from being shot at as it is the fires. In many ways it doesn't need this manufactured drama as all you want is the actual drama and clever way they tackle the dangerous task of putting out 5 adjacent wells. It almost feels like hat those behind the storyline didn't have enough confidence in the story of these brave fire fighters and felt the need to jazz it up. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe 'Red' Adair did find himself in a similar situation but it ends up feeling too manufactured.
And manufactured is the only way you can describe certain cliche aspects which dominated John Wayne movies that were directed by Andrew V. McLaglen. What I mean by that is not only do we get the argumentitive relationship with his former wife but we also get a bar room brawl, a scene which really has no place in "Hellfighters".
Now ironically for a movie which ends up focussing on the emotional stresses of loved ones the most chemistry comes from John Wayne and Jim Hutton. There is a real sense of friendship which comes across, whether this was he case or not, and it is the scenes which Wayne and Hutton share together is where "Hellfighters" works best. Where it doesn't is when it actually comes to the characters of Trish and her mother Madelyn because they are so poorly written. For a movie which tries to highlight the emotional depth the characters are 2 dimensional and both Katharine Ross and Vera Miles are wasted in these roles.
What this all boils down to is that whilst entertaining "Hellfighters" is neither what you expect nor as good as it could have been. With the focus more on the emotional drama than the actual fire fighting it's most certainly not the action movie you expect with the first 10 minutes being as close it gets to not only being action packed but at the same time highlighting how these brave men go about putting out oil well fires.