Going through such a drastic procedure clearly didn't slow him down, but it certainly made the star appreciate what he had. Why mess with productions that would only threaten his health again? Instead, he stuck with what he knew. And of those 20 movies, I can name several which are in my top 10 Duke movies. One that isn't? That's easy, 1968's Hellfighters. I don't remember how old I was when I saw my first John Wayne movie, but I know I was young, and in the years since, I've seen just about every single one. Hellfighters was one of the few I hadn't, and to be honest, I don't know why. I never intentionally avoided it, but I never sought it out either. I'm glad I saw it to check it off the list, but it's not one of Wayne's better efforts.
John Wayne plays Chance Buckman, the owner of a company that puts out oil well fires. Buckman's exploits are based loosely on real life firefighter Red Adair, but reading up about Adair, it looks like the only thing the movie and his life have in common is that they were both actually oil well firefighters. It's about there the similarities diverge in a big way. In terms of pure visual entertainment and spectacle, I'm hard-pressed to think of too many things more exciting to watch than an epic, blazing oil well fire. These scenes are the high points of the movie. But somehow and for some reason, the story is dumbed down and filtered to the point where it could be any dangerous profession. So instead of 2 hours of fighting oil well fires, we get unnecessary family drama.
Chance Buckman (Wayne) loves what he does and he's damn good at it. With his company based out of Houston, Buckman travels the world with his team putting out, extinguishing and saving oil wells that burst into flames during drilling. It's incredibly dangerous work, but with years of practice and know-how, Chance has got it down to an art. But after one accident that hospitalizes him, his estranged daughter, Tish (Katharine Ross), comes to see him and ends up marrying Chance's right-hand man, Greg Parker (Jim Hutton). As if his job wasn't worrisome enough, Chance is now worrying about his daughter and son-in-law, not to mention his divorced wife, Madelyn (Vera Miles), who returns after years away.
It almost pains me to right that specific of a plot description for a movie about oil well firefighters. And that's the unfortunate part. With a profession like this, you would think it nearly impossible to make a dull movie about it, but director Andrew V. McLaglen succeeds in a big way. The minute the story heads away from the fire scenes, Hellfighters is downright dull. I'll admit some of the family background is needed to show the effects the job has on the firefighter and their families, but a little goes a long way here. Ross especially seems to get a kick out of showing up at these dangerous sites, seemingly oblivious to that danger. Wayne and Hutton spend much of the movie yelling at her to get down or get back. Her character is annoying and not in a cutesy way.
These romantic scenes are at times painful to watch. Wayne worked with Vera Miles in several pictures, but never with a romantic dynamic between them. As divorcees, they have little chemistry together, and it seems an odd choice to make 60-year old Wayne a heartthrob with this part. As annoying as the Hutton/Ross love plotline can be, at least it's somewhat believable. Not so with an older Wayne and a 39-year old Miles. Still, Wayne is the Duke, and he does make the most of his part, instilling some humor and 'Never say die!' spirit into it. Hutton is wasted as Chance's right hand man which is disappointing because as was the case with The Green Berets, he's got good chemistry with Wayne.
I'm not able to find clips available of the oil well scenes, but they're a sight to behold with a feeling of 'I know I shouldn't look, but I must!' throughout. Now whether McLaglen filmed actual oil well fires or created his own for the sake of the movie, I don't know, but these are some remarkable sequences. Making them that much cooler, Wayne and Hutton look to do at least some of their own stunts nearby the flaming wells. Wayne's team includes Bruce Cabot and Edward Faulkner as on-site help, with old friend and partner Jay C. Flippen left behind back at the office. It's too bad more couldn't have been done with the team because I found them much more interesting. Two solid hours of fighting oil fires probably isn't feasible, but cut the movie by 30 minutes, and maybe we're onto something.
All I can say is I wish this was a better movie. There's only so many John Wayne movies out there so when I see one that doesn't live up to its potential, I feel like I'm missing out. Hellfighters has a lot of potential but never lives up to it. Lots of great sequences are there with a solid cast, but it never clicks together. The story drifts along filling in the blanks between fires before the necessary, not at all surprising ending. Worthwhile for the oil well fire sequences, but other than that, steer clear.
Hellfighters <----fan-made trailer (1968): **/****