"It's fashionable these days (perhaps because of the vogue for "political correctness") to deride John Wayne and all his works, but the fact is that he was among the last actors to stick steadfastly to the notion that movies were, and should remain, family fare. And even though he admitted in so many words, "I play John Wayne in every picture regardless of the character," such a tendency isn't necessarily a handicap: what is important that an actor displaying it be certain that he chooses the right scripts. For Wayne, "The Hellfighters" was one such. The film was loosely based on the experiences of Red Adair and his Wild Well Company (they served as technical advisors, and many viewers may remember that twenty years later Adair was still at work, helping to quench the Kuwait oil fires), and chronicles the adventures of Chance Buckman (Wayne) and his Houston-based outfit with a series of fires, gradually building in seriousness and difficulty, tied together by the dual romance of Chance with his long-estranged wife Madelyn Randolph (Miles) and their daughter Tish (Ross) with Chance's young protege Greg Parker (Hutton). (This aspect somewhat echoes those which occur in Wayne's "McLintock," and viewers may enjoy watching the two as a double feature.) Madelyn left Chance many years before when she found she couldn't bear his work, though they kept getting together for some time, and Chance's old friend, oilman Jack Lomax (Jay C. Flippen), flatly states that they've "never been out of love" with each other. When Chance is badly injured at a fire site, Greg tracks down his daughter and brings her to his side, fearing that he may not live. Five days later, Greg and Tish get married ("It was the cutest little Cajun church in Louisiana," Tish admits), and their union in turn brings Chance and Madelyn back together. Eventually Madelyn "convinced [Chance] that I should leave the store [she's the heiress to the Randolph Department Stores in San Francisco] and go and live in Houston with him," they get remarried, and when a guerrilla-plagued job in Venezuela tests both their union and the Parkers', Madelyn shows, in the end, that, as Chance says, "You'll do!"
The romances, however, are really the least part of the film. It is usually classified under action-adventure, and there's plenty of both: in the first two or three minutes an accidentally shattered light bulb sets an oil gusher on fire and sets the tone for the entire movie. Tish's eleventh fire, in Malaya, is "a poison gas well"--hydrogen sulphide, which can kill or blind--and the climactic Venezuelan sequence involves five fires (four of them set off by guerrillas with packs of dynamite), of which three must be capped simultaneously, a task that takes two tries and 29 minutes of running time. And, like all the best movies, there's also plenty of recognition of the fact that it's people that make a story. Wayne's Chance Buckman--torn between his love for Madelyn, his devotion to the work he does so well, and his concern for his daughter and son-in-law--is, despite his outlandish profession, not so different from many of the adults (fathers especially) who will view it. Ross as Tish is clearly, as she herself admits, both her father's and her mother's daughter: going to fires with Greg doesn't seem to bother her at all--it's when she's evacuated from the Venezuelan site, supposedly for her own safety, that she begins to stress out. Hutton's Greg Parker starts out as a classic male chauvinist (he uses fires to get girls, and in his introductory sequence goes so far as to check his watch to see whether he has time to make love and still catch his plane), but his attachment to Chance is soon shown to be real, and extends itself to Tish, with whom he seems to have a sound and solid marriage despite their very brief acquaintance. And Miles as Madelyn gives a taut performance that convincingly portrays her terrors for her daughter and the man she loves, her deep loyalty to them, and her uncertainty about her own ability to adjust. Two of Wayne's long-time friends and frequent members of his stock company, Bruce Cabot and Edward Faulkner, weigh in as his firefighting backup Joe and helicopter pilot George, and Flippen's Jack Lomax, himself a former wild-well man and apparently Chance's mentor ("[Chance] and I were--well, about like he and Greg are now"), adds a touch of stability to both Chance's life and the entire movie. Andrew V. McLaglen, the son of another of Wayne's frequent co-players, directs, and mention should be made of Leonard Rosenman's thrilling theme music, which plays under every fire and call-to-arms.
Some critics consider this to be one of Wayne's less notable films, but I think it better than many (though not my ultimate favorite among his works). It's probably best suited to families of boys, who will be hooked at once by the action and suspense of the fires. On the other hand, even the obligatory brawl (in Madame Lu's bar in Malaya) has the kind of seriocomic feel that will keep it from being too scary, though the fires themselves may be too intense for very young or sensitive kids. A good Saturday-night film overall, especially suited to a bitter cold winter's evening!"
Who else but John Wayne could play Red Adair
Anthony Duca | Turnersville, NJ | 04/14/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Loosely based on the life and career of Red Adair, I find this movie a joy to watch not only because I am a big fan of John Wayne, but also because of the fascinating job of being an oil well firefighter. Yeah, there is some soap to it with the love stories between Wayne and Vera Miles as well as Katherine Ross and Jim Hutton, but its not ridiculous or over the top, and I think the stories portrait how such a dangerous profession can have an effect on the families of the men who do it. The friendship between Wayne and Hutton's characters come through, and the play between them will keep you chuckling, especially when their relationship as friends grows to Father-in-law/Son-in-law."
THIS MOVIE ROCKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Anthony Duca | 09/22/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This movie is fabulous. It is one of my all-time favorites. John Wayne, Katharine Ross & Jim Hutton do a wonderful job."
Very interesting film about an unusual occupation
B. Lafave | lakeland , fl | 03/06/2010
(4 out of 5 stars)
"first of all , what a great price for this film . $8.99 at the time of this writing . i'd seen this film a few times over the years but it was always formatted to fit my t.v. . that was a shame because the letterbox aspect ratio really is the way to see this fascinating outing by the Duke and Jim Hutton . i really love John's westerns but also enjoy his pictures outside the western genre . this one is of particular intest to me because i knew nothing of these brave men and their work . other people will write about the films merits . and their right . i'm just really happy to have the picture in my collection now . strongly recommended ."
kecksburg65 | 06/04/2009
(1 out of 5 stars)
"Universal ruins a fun movie with this sloppy DVD which provides a non-anamorphic version of the movie and without much cleaning up of the image. Spend a little more for the John Wayne collection which has the proper anamorphic version of this fine film."