Plot: Chance Buckman (John Wayne) is the man in charge of an elite squad of men who battle oil well fires, some of the most dangerous, volatile fires around, but he always keeps his cool. He and his crew are never off the clock and have to be ready to go all over the world, as few can do this kind of work, let alone with the kind of precision and success of Buckman’s group. But when he is injured by a bulldozer accident, Buckman lands in the hospital, where his daughter Tish (Katharine Ross) visits. The two have an estranged relationship and while she’s around, Buckman’s right hand man Greg (Jim Hutton) takes an interest in her. Now the once cohesive squad has a rift over Greg’s pursuit of Buckman’s daughter, so can the group still operate as one or will this cause enough distraction to derail the entire company?
Entertainment Value: If you’ve ever wanted to see John Wayne run over by a bulldozer, you’re in luck here. Hellfighters is loosely based on real life events and that is reflected in the scenes that deal with the actual fire set pieces. The attention to detail and realism is remarkable and those sequences are impressive, so you can tell care was taken to get those elements right. I don’t know if someone was run down by a bulldozer, but that is one of the wilder moments in this one, though of course, not even a bulldozer can keep John Wayne down. As believable as the fire fights are here, the rest of the movie falls into a lot of tough guy talk and mostly wooden performances, driven by a stilted, though often enjoyable narrative. I think those elements add some cheese to the experience, which I had fun with and honestly, you kind of know what you’re in for with Wayne’s films from this period. The set pieces are well crafted, the machismo runs wild, there’s some light romance, and of course John Wayne is John Wayne. I’d think those who appreciate The Duke would find some entertainment here, as well as anyone who loves bulldozers on the loose.
I know, I know. I’ve already talked about John Wayne vs. The Bulldozer a lot in this review, but come on, that is just epic stuff. The machine runs him over in dramatic fashion, in an attention grabbing moment that remains memorable. It is just a few seconds, but the suddenness is quite effective. Wayne’s performance is just what you might expect, which is likely good news for his fans, even if it is unlikely to win over new recruits to his side. I like the slow, wooden macho routine, as it has a lot of charm and humor to me, but I can see how it wouldn’t land for everyone. In any event, this is right in line with his usual efforts from this time period, so at least he keeps things consistent in Hellfighters. The cast here also includes Katharine Ross, Jim Hutton, Bruce Cabot, Vera Miles, and Edward Faulkner.