Hellfighters: Not Exactly John Wayne’s Finest Moment

For today’s guest post, Rick 29 writes about John Wayne’s Hellfighters — a film that co-star Katharine Ross called “the biggest piece of crap I’ve ever done.” Here are Rick’s thoughts on the movie:

Here are some interesting tidbits about Katharine Ross’ above quote. She made it during the production of Hellfighters (1968), which is not the kind of publicity favored by movie studios. She had only made a handful of films at that time, though one of them was The Graduate (1967)–so perhaps Hellfighters was her worst film to date. However, Ms. Ross later made some pretty crappy movies like The Swarm, The Betsy, and The Legacy (all produced in 1978). If she had dubbed Hellfighters the “crappiest” after that trio, then that would have meant something!

Sandwiched between two of John Wayne‘s best known films–The Green Berets and True Grit–Hellfighters owes more to the former (without the politics) than the latter. In fact, two of the Duke’s fellow Berets, Jim Hutton and Bruce Cabot, team up with him again in Hellfighters. This time, the trio are fighting oil fires for money. Wayne plays Chance Buckman, whose Houston-based company’s motto is: “Around the clock. Around the world.” Their clients are oil well owners, who buy insurance just in case one of their wells turns into a tower of spewing flames. When that happens, the phone rings (answered by the ever-efficient Gloria Stuart) and our guys take off in their helicopter to put out the fire.

That’s no easy task, of course, and the film’s best scenes show Buckman’s well-rehearsed crew managing the flames before they blow them out with nitroglycerin. I don’t know about you, but handling nitro in the vicinity of a raging fire is not my idea of a promising occupation. This opinion was apparently shared by Madelyn Buckman (Vera Miles), Chance’s ex-wife, who left him and took their young daughter Tish. However, when Chance undergoes a life-threatening surgery, his right-hand man Greg (Hutton) sends for the estranged now-adult Tish (Katharine Ross).

Not only does Tish reconnect with her father, she also marries Greg. Their daughter’s wedding reunites Chance and Madelyn, who have never stopped loving one another. Chance retires from the oil firefighting business and take a boardroom job (resulting in an entertaining scene where the board discusses the virtues of various bathroom colors for their gas stations). Can Chance live without the adrenalin rush or will Madelyn be forced to leave him again? Will Tish be able to continue coping with Greg’s risky occupation? And what about those South American guerrilla fighters trying to blow up the wells where Greg’s team is working?

Despite its unusual topic, Hellfighters is a formula movie, the kind that dominated much of Wayne’s later career (e.g., McQ, Big Jake, The Train Robbers). It’s way too long at 118 minutes and, after the second oil well fire, the action scenes become redundant. Its worst crime, though, is wasting Vera Miles in a small and thankless role.

Hellfighters is loosely based on the life of Paul “Red” Adair, who founded his oil firefighting company in 1959. Adair gained fame in 1962 when his company doused the flames of a Sahara Desert oil well fire that had burned for over five months. Adair, who was one of several consultants on the making of Hellfighters, died in 2004. A company bearing his name still provides services for “wild well control, oil well fires, and blowouts.”

While Wayne and Ross went on to memorable roles (in, respectively, True Grit and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), Jim Hutton moved from the big screen to the small screen. He starred in several made-for-TV movies and made guest appearances in series like Marcus Welby, M.D., The Name of the Game, and Love, American Style. He was perhaps best remembered for playing Ellery Queen in the 1975-76 series. He was still active in television when he died of liver cancer in 1979.

What’s Your Favorite John Wayne War Movie?

What’s your least favorite John Wayne film? Let us know in the comments!

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!

  • Blair Kramer

    Hey… HELLFIGHTERS isn’t much of a film,  but I can certainly tolerate it much more than THE CONQUEROR or THE GREEN BERET!

  • Wayne P.

    The worst for my money (or not!) has definitely gotta be The Conqueror with Susan Hayward starring (if you call it that) alongside the Duke as, believe it or not, Genghis Khan, in 1956…I was born that year and for the MU fanfare blog post on what was your favorite movie from the year you were born…that was most definitely not it (went with Kubricks The Killing).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=713983697 Gordon S. Jackson

    My favourite is, and proably always will be “Red River” with honourable mention to “Rio Bravo” and its pseudo-remake “El Dorado.”

  • SoonerAlfie

    First, I am not a fan of John Wayne, the actor.  I am a fan of John Wayne, the man.  I always saw the man in the movies and believed that he was more a presence, a “star,” up on that screen rather than an actor.  When could one forget that he was John Wayne in a movie….in a role that he was so deep into that the viewer could forget that he was “The Duke?

    I’ve always enjoyed his movies … but the worst one, for me, would have to have been “The Conqueror,” a 1956 film produced by Howard Hughes and starring John Wayne as the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. (Wonder what The Duke had to say as makeup people transformed him every day?)  I was also a big fan of Susan Hayward. 

    This less-than-stellar movie has also left behind a tragic mystery — a high percentage of those people making the movie in that A-Test desert died through the years of cancer.

    • MsKJK

      I do not particularly like ANY of the movies JW was in that were produced by Howard Hughes! And The Conqueror & Jet Pilot hit the top of the dislike list.

  • dog888k

    Re the making of The Conquerer out in the radiated desert: a movie magazine I read once (so consider the source) said that Dick Powell had several truck loads of dirt from the site hauled to Hollywood and dumped onto a soundstage for some indoor shots of the outdoors, and no one knew where the soil finally went. So, somewhere around LA maybe the bomb test site dirt may still be. 

  • Dibosusie

    I live in Casper, Wy  where “Hellfighters” was filmed and got to spend a day on the set.  Always a John Wayne fan (encouraged by my parents while I was growing up) and was so fascinated and treated so great by Mr. Wayne and all the others (Katherine Ross was “to herself” mostly, but not in a way that made me feel rejected or any negative way)——My husband worked for a fella that knew Red Adair (in the replacing and/or repairing oil field equipment) and that made me more interested in the storyline.  My husband isn’t as “into it” as I am, but watches it with me without any negative remarks every now and then.  (I naturally had to have the movie since I got to be out on the set for that day.   I’m thankful I got to be around when his movies were a part of my world. His charisma was unique and so special.     

  • http://twitter.com/Bryankr Bryan Ruffin

    I am a die hard “Duke” fan, but, I have to say that Hellfighters was, by no means a good movie.  I think the only one that might be worse would have to be his portrayal of Ganges  Khan ( I hope I spelled that right!). That was really bad! Never should have touched that one.

  • Frank1168

    Must be Kahn, the Mongolian. How he could do this is beyond me. Must have needed the pay check.

  • William Grove

    Rio Lobo, without a doubt, followed by El Dorado. Unnecessary remakes of the great film, Rio Bravo.

  • Frank1168

    Most people feel the Duke’s best were the “Searchers” and his last film “The Shootist.”

    • Arthur_G

       I liked El Dorado, The War Wagon, Big Jake and Rio Bravo a lot.

  • http://awesomesauciness.wordpress.com/ CJ

    I love “Hellfighters” so much I inadvertently bought TWO copies of it!

  • ndebrabant

    I believe that was Barbara Stuart, not Gloria. I love this movie.

    • Rick29

      Yes, it was indeed Barbara Stuart! Thanks for the typo correction.

  • Gwork

    I totally disagree with the negativity, I am disappointed in Katherine Ross’ comments.  Its ironic but she stands out more in this movie than the Granduate where she was overshadowed by Ann Bancroft.  In the Hellfighters it was a simple plot but myself being in the oil business thoroughly enjoyed it especially from the educational standpoint.  I found great effort was made in several instances to make the viewer aware of just how dangerous job this was.  The usual Hollywood drama but that’s OK.  I agree Vera Miles might have been better utilized.  She was one of my favourites and a very beautiful lady.   

  • Retex1836

    The beginning of the film, as well as the Louisiana and S.E. asian fires,  were filmed in in the Goose Creek oil field in what is now Baytown Texas.  An early version of Hellfighters had a sign at the beginning of the film that said “Kelly Oil Field, Goose Creek, Texas”.  The Goose Creek field was a place where one could easily find derricks next to onshore and just offshore wells.  While in high school, we would wade  out through the swamps to see the movie sight.  Watching the fires go off at night was impressive.  Those who had the opportunity to meet John Wayne during filming still mention his courtesy and lack of arrogance toward his fans.  Whether you liked the movie or not, Red Adair and Boots and Coots deserved having John Wayne highlight their work.  It might not be John Wayne’s best film, but I still enjoy it.

    • MsKJK

      Thank you for defending an enjoyable movie starring the Duke. I enjoy watching it just because I have always liked all of the cast.

  • GaryVidmar

    At the time Wayne made THE HELLFIGHTERS, his movie star legacy still ensured a good boxoffice, while the GREEN BERETS grounded his reputation for delusional right-wing politicking.  It was common knowledge that everyone else in his films of this period were either decorative ingenues or pals.  I’m waiting for the new German blu-ray of HELLFIGHTERS as I write this.  I remember seeing it theatrically, recalling it as one of Universal’s fairly rare stereophonic releases of the time.   

  • Striff

    I love JW, and can watch all of his movies over and over. The one that bothers me is “The Conquerer”. It’s a little ridiculous seeing him as a Manchurian and speaking like a cowboy. But I still love him, there will never be another to fill his shoes. He really took to heart his parts in his movies. He made them real. Long live the DUKE!

  • rodahaco

    I didn’t mind Hellfighters… it’s ok. Yes, there were far better films. Definitly a step(or more) up from The Conquerer and Jet Pilot or The Spoilers.

    • Wayne P.

      What didnt you like about The Spoilers?  Its got one of the greatest honky tonk fights in studio age film history between the Duke and Randolph Scotts character and Marlene Dietrich was great as per usual…

      • rodahaco

        I didn’t think the chemistry was great and it was a 3rd or 4th remake of the story. In fairness it was still early in the Duke’s career as a major star and I agree it was a rippin’ good fight. Just a matter of taste I guess.

  • Richard Lehmann

    Barbarian and The Geisha

  • CarterCE

    Most of us probably remember seeing the real life Paul “Red” Adair in the American Express credit card commercial he did a number of years after “Hell Fighters” had hit the big screen.

  • Arthur_G

     I bought it in a 12 dollar package with three of his other movies. I didn’t think it was a bad film. The worst one was the one that may have cost him his life, the Conqueror.

  • dog888k

    A Duke movie that never gets discussed is Circus World, from the early 60s.  My family went to see it one time around Christmas, and all I remember about CW is that Rita Hayworth was the costar. A Duke flick I didn’t like when I was maybe 15 and a rebel and had been hearing that He was making slapped together flicks to pay off the bills from The Alamo.  Anyone is invited to type something about Circus World.     

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/UUXTNPTT3M3YLN5QS2WHIJ4RQE Rubeosky

    Certainly not one of the Duke’s best films but by no means the worst.  

  • Bcsanig

    I think the worst one he made was Barbarian and the Giesha, I think even The Conqueror is way better then that one. 

  • cbt

    Barbarian and the Geisha comes to mind as an incredibly mis-cast role for the Duke.  He had a couple of others that were stinkers as well!!

  • Sam Fletcher

    As third-generation “oilfield trash” who covered the oil industry as a reporter for 30-plus years, I thought “The Hellfighters” was a silly film without a lick of reality in it, from the opening scene in which a roughneck causes a well fire when his hardhat shattered an uncovered lightbulb. Even in the 1960s when I first saw the film as a kid, I knew that was a phony scene, although not as bad as a later scene with an obvously light-weight blowout preventer prop is jiggled around by the high-pressure of a “blowing” well. Later as a reporter I frequently interviewed the real “Hellfighters,” “Red” Adair, “Coots” Matthews, and “Boots” Hansen. Adair was about half the height of Wayne but many times a bigger man. He got his start in the well-control business (and first gained fame) by crawling under the floor of a blowing rig within inches of the wellbore to observe its condition and sketch the location of debris so the well could be exposed and capped. If the well had ignited while he was under there, they’d never found a trace of him. Adair, Matthews, Hansen, and the rest of their crews were among the bravest guys I’ve ever known. Adair was so well known in the international oil patch that he was the unnamed subject of a popular joke about a Texan who dies and goes to heaven and is shown by St. Peter an introductory slide show of all of heaven’s wonders. Trouble is, the Texan reacts to every scene by describing something better in Texas. Irked, St. Peter flips up a photo of the fires of hell. “Is there anything like that in Texas?” he asks. “No,” says the Texan, “but there’s an ol’ boy down in Houston who can put that out.”

    One of the worst things about “The Hellfighters,” by the way, was Katherine Ross’s performance.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lance-Liebl-Sr/1510776796 Lance Liebl Sr.

    As a child, Hellfighters became one of my favorite movies. Stop looking at every film through the eyes of an adult, but thru the eyes of a young boy who’s looking at adventure and danger. And remember when I was a child in the 60′s, we didn’t have all the special effects movies have today (the new Judge Dredd for example)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lance-Liebl-Sr/1510776796 Lance Liebl Sr.

    JW as a Manchurian in the Conqueror was definitely the worst

  • dog888k

    Don’t forget Duke playing the Roman centurion at the cross of Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told.  Hearing Duke in his Dukest voice say “Surely this man was the Son of God” is a memorable moment in an atom bomb of a movie.    

  • Linda Johnson from Pratt,Ks.

    John Wayne is and will always be my favorite actor. I love all of his movies,he never made a bad one. And the ones he made with Maurine O’Hara (which by the way is one of my favorite female actresses) were GREAT!!!!!!!!!!

  • landofkirk@yahoo.com

    I love the movie.

  • Cara

    Actually, as a Texan who was familiar with Red Adair’s work, I found the movie kind of interesting, especially when it showed how oil rig fires were tamed. I won’t get into my least favorite or favorite John Wayne movies. Things could get political, and I’ve noticed that when politics are raised, responses have been known to turn rabid. I will say that The Conqueror from 1956 has to rate among his worst movies. It represents all that was wrong with the 50s casting maneuvers. John Wayne was NOT Genghis Khan, and whoever talked him into this role did not serve him well.

    His character in the Searchers is among his best roles.

    • Scott

      I’d throw McQ and Brannigan in there too as his worst?

  • Scott

    Bruce Cabot was also in other JW movies, like one of his biggest early days movies. Cabot playing the opposing gunslinger. Who did the research on this piece? Cabot played in about 10 movies with the Duke!

  • 10 mile road bar

    The move was filmed in Casper, Wyoming. I remember watching them film the move.

  • Nancy H

    Hellfighters is how oil well fires were fought. I found it an interesting movie. I guess if you don’t work in or around the oil patch, it might seem surreal, but it isn’t.