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Sandwiched in between the critical beating John Wayne took for The Green Berets and a bunch of westerns culminating in his Oscar performance for True Grit is this little known film he did about a group of men fighting oil fires, a truly dangerous profession. The Hellfighters has the look and feel of a Wayne family effort with it being produced by Batjac and having in its cast Wayne regulars like Edward Faulkner and Bruce Cabot. I wonder where son Patrick was.
A little over 20 years after Hellfighters came out, the person that Wayne's character was based on, Red Adair came into prominence when he took on the Herculean task of putting out all those oil fires that Saddam Hussein started in Kuwait when he fled that country. Turns out the biggest assignment Adair had was way in his future in 1968.
I'm sure Red Adair must have been flattered all to heck when the biggest box office draw in cinema history was portraying a facsimile of him on the screen. Who knows though maybe Red Adair's real story and real name on the screen might be good entertainment. Might be a great subject for a film now, what with all the new computer generated special effects that could be used.
Though the film is based on Adair's exploits, it is first and foremost a John Wayne film. He's not Red Adair on the screen, it's the Duke that all of us have come to know. Wayne and his cast put together a nice action filled film with a minor subplot about his family life. Vera Miles plays his estranged wife, Katharine Ross his daughter, and Jim Hutton a protégé Wayne is grooming to take over his company.
This was Wayne's third film with Vera Miles and twice before he didn't wind up with her, either in The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Third time the charm.
Hellfighters also is an example of Wayne's well known generosity to his fellow players. When he liked you he was the best friend you could have. Jay C. Flippen who plays an oil executive lost a leg to diabetes a year or two before. Wayne gave him that extra pay day by casting him in Hellfighters in a wheelchair. I could cite a lot of other examples of him helping people by doing that in other films.
Hellfighters is an enjoyable two hours of Wayne in modern dress, battling the elements like he did in The High and the Mighty and Island in the Sky instead of bad guys. There is one sequence where he and his crew were battling an oil fire in Venezuela with some rebels shooting at them. Since it's the Duke, you kind of expect him to pick up a rifle and blow them all away.
Though Hellfighters is a good, not a great film, I'd still like to see the real Red Adair story on screen.
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