If I’m honest I was never thinking that I would ever be talking about Hellfighters (1968). I put off watching it as it’s not the standard Duke film that I really want to watch. Looking at the stills, John Wayne as a fireman just doesn’t fit for me. Ok he’s a specialist fireman here who puts out oil-fires, not your average fire when you think about. However as I sat down it did shout to me that there could be some real action going on here, all this fire could lead to something. Then you have to consider that the Duke was probably in his late fifties-early sixties, he’s playing a role that really is too old for him, this is before Brannigan (1975) and McQ (1974) when he takes on the detective role which you can see he’s too old for. Either I’m being ageist or a realist?
I think what made me stay with Hellfighters was the fact he was surrounded by equally old actors. It’s a film that tries to reach a younger audience with too few young faces (Katharine Ross and Jim Hutton) on-screen. So the draw to the film was also a big detractor, all those actors such as Bruce Cabot, Jay C. Flippen and Vera Miles all actors who have been in previous Wayne films. I’m guessing the younger ones were signed onto the film for the bigger commercial draw, or you wouldn’t look twice at Wayne putting a fire out, which would other wise would be part of a long line of people passing buckets of water back and forth in the Wild West.
I can’t really be that positive about this film, there isn’t much to be positive about, the cast is too old for a film that is full of so much potential energy. If the role of oil-baron Chance Buckman was played by a younger man it would probably have drawn a bigger audience, but then you would have forgotten the film even quicker. Another factor is the director Andrew V. McLaglen son a Victor McLaglen who grew up around these actors is more easily forgiven for working with these actors, reliable and box-office draws. He had also directed a number or John Wayne westerns that helped ensure his position in film history so I can forgive them all for that.
I guess I can’t get over this fact of how the age of the majority of the cast can reduce your attention to a film, the believability was reduced as a result. You could say its one of a number of films of that time. Older stars who are still “bankable” and working and placing them with younger actors. I just can’t see these older man in reality fighting such strong fires. Hellfighters does allow us to see the actors outside of the west for which most of them are known best.
In a time when all these classic films are being remade (not saying this is a classic) I could see this re-made with a more age-appropriate cast. But then is there such a private company that fights oil-fires and still drills for it themselves. Its pure fantasy otherwise, but completely possible in the world of Hollywood. So if any screen-writers, executives are reading this, here’s one on me.