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.

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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!