Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.
Where Hellfighters (1968) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert gloats about how great being a professional critic was in his glory days. He writes, “It was a honey of a job to have at that age. I had no office hours; it was understood that I would see the movies and meet the deadlines. I loved getting up from my desk and announcing, ‘I’m going to the movies.’ A lot of my writing was done at night and on the weekends. I saw about half of the movies in theaters with paying audiences, sinking into the gloom to watch John Wayne fighting flaming oil wells in Hellfighters at the Roosevelt, or Pam Grier inventing blaxploitation at the Chicago.”
What Ebert had to say in his review: “Out in front of the Roosevelt Theater there’s a big photo of John Wayne and this quote, attributed to him: ‘I’ve made a lot of action pictures but never one as exciting as this.’ I doubt that Wayne volunteered this information; it sounds more like a studio publicity idea. The fact is, Wayne has made a lot of action pictures, and over the years he has gotten to be about as good at it as anybody. He must have been miserable during the filming of Hellfighters, which is a slow moving, talkative, badly plotted bore.” – from his 1968 review for The Chicago Sun-Times
When praising the young, energetic talent that reignited American art cinema in the late 60s’ so called New Hollywood movement, it’s all too easy to overlook the undeniable virtues of the system those films were bucking against. The John Wayne action epic Hellfighters is a perfect snapshot of Big Studio glut when compared to its more forward-thinking contemporaries like Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate. While these smaller New Hollywood upstarts were pulling influence from still-exciting sources like the French New Wave, the lumbering, old-fashioned Hellfighters more closely resembles instantly outdated modes of entertainment like Earthquake, Airport, and The Towering Inferno. Ebert was right to praise those smaller, more experimental works in his reviews while labeling Hellfighters “a slow moving, talkative, badly plotted bore.” I can’t disagree with a word of that. The dirty secret, though, is that although formally & thematically outdated in the face of smaller, more passionate films being made around them, Old Hollywood ghosts like Hellfighters effortlessly pulled off mesmerizing visual spectacles that were never truly touched by the likes of a Bogdanovich or a Friedkin or a De Palma. Even if its superiority was simply a question of budget, there’s an immense beauty to the costume designs, sets, framing, and rich colors of Hellfighters that could’ve been transcendent if were applied passionately instead of with workmanlike competence.
As with all John Wayne movies, whether or not they’re set in the dusty West, Hellfighters is often classified as a Western. This makes even less sense here than it does with the London-set cop drama Brannigan, since Wayne’s tuxedo’d firefighter lead doesn’t even carry a gun. Loosely based off the real world personality Red Adair, Wayne plays infamous oil field firefighter Chance Buckman (man, I love that stupid name) as he travels across the globe putting out dangerous oil well fires with barrels full of dynamite. Real manly stuff. Based on that description, you might think that the art film version of Hellfighters might be Sorcerer or its predecessor Wages of Fear, but it actually more closely resembles a film from the late 90s. Much like Bruce Willis’s tough guy hero in Armageddon, Chance Buckman is an oil industry legend who bullheadedly infantilizes his adult daughter by attempting to protect her from a twofold danger: the physical danger of his industry & the emotional danger of the womanizing men who work within it. It’s not at all difficult to imagine Michael Bay growing up fond of Hellfighters, thanks to its hyper-masculine self-delusion & over-indulgence in practical effects explosions. The John Wayne film often mirrors Armageddon‘s bullshit romanticization of the hard working men who risk their lives for oil & the worried women who love them, despite the constant danger of loss. Where Armageddon employs this ludicrous narrative & attention to visual craft for a punishingly kinetic live action fantasy, however, Hellfighters is content to lie still & talk its audience to death. It’s an entire movie built around the idea that large spouts of fire look cool. It’s not exactly wrong, just too long to justify that thin of a premise and too lethargic to fully command its audience’s attention, even as beautifully decorated it’s production design can be. If Hellfighters could’ve operated with Michael Bay’s punishing sense of immediacy it might’ve been an all-time classic. At the very least, it could’ve shot John Wayne into space to fist fight an asteroid the size of Texas. There’s pretty much no one who wouldn’t pay to see that.
A large part of what makes Hellfighters feel desperately old-fashioned is its constant glorification of traditionalist masculinity. So many bare knuckle punches are thrown without any real consequence in bar rooms, brothels, gambling holes, and hospitals that they start to register more like a handshake between bros than an act of violence. News reporters are whiny little wimps who can only get in the way while Real Men do the Important Work, the kind that requires muscles & explosives. The women of Hellfighters are wives, daughters, and secretaries, completely extraneous to the plot outside a fresh-from-The Graduate Katherine Ross, whose virtue & emotional well-being Chance Buckman is tasked to protect. The closest the movie comes to passing the Bechdel Test is a single scene where Buckman’s wife & daughter are golfing alone together, but their entire conversation centers on whether or not it’s worth the worry to love an oil field firefighter. Buckman himself is a stoic emotional void, only budging in his rock solid confidence to express annoyed frustration & mild worry with the women in his life who needlessly complicate his profession. Otherwise he just does what he does best: exploding fires into oblivion & unconvincingly delivering oil-themed one-liners like “If you’re coming to me for advice, I’m a dry hole” with a distinct lack of passion.
In the years since the New Hollywood takeover, directors have learned (and have been better funded) to apply Hellfighters‘s workman sense of extravagant spectacle to the energetic narratives that deserve it. Instead of overtalking its virtues between this piece, my initial review, and a subsequent podcast episode, I do believe Michael Bay’s Armageddon is a perfect example o how well that visual craft could be utilized with just a little creative gusto, even while holding onto its idolization of toxic masculinity. Hellfighters was an overlabored, undercooked movie industry dinosaur when compared to the more exciting, artier New Hollywood films that upended its place in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s a film without value. When gazing into the rich color, impeccable costuming, gorgeous sets, and mesmerizing explosions that Hellfighters wastes on a going-through-the-motions John Wayne action epic, there’s an undeniable sense of missed opportunity. The film could’ve been something truly memorable if its better aspects weren’t helmed by a sleepwalking studio system that misread what its audience was interested in seeing. I can’t recommend Hellfighters as an entertaining work to anyone other than the most diligent John Wayne completist imaginable. However, I do think it works as a valuable reminder that there was a lot of untold merit in the bloated studio system that the late 60s broke apart with its scruffy batch of babyface auteurs.
Roger’s Rating (1.5/4, 38%)
Brandon’s Rating (2.5/5, 50%)
Next Lesson: Camelot (1967)