Backdraft (film)

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Backdraft poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Ron Howard
Produced by Richard B. Lewis
John Watson
Pen Densham
Written by Gregory Widen
Starring Kurt Russell
William Baldwin
Scott Glenn
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Rebecca De Mornay
Donald Sutherland
Robert De Niro
Music by Hans Zimmer
Cinematography Mikael Salomon
Editing by Daniel P. Hanley
Mike Hill
Studio Imagine Entertainment
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • May 24, 1991 (1991-05-24)
Running time 132 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $75 million[1]
Box office $152,368,585

Backdraft is a 1991 action thriller film directed by Ron Howard and written by Gregory Widen. The film stars Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay, Donald Sutherland, and Robert De Niro. Jason Gedrick and J. T. Walsh co-star. The story is about firefighters in Chicago on the trail of a serial arsonist who sets fires with a fictional chemical substance, trychtichlorate.

The film grossed $77,868,585 domestically and $74,500,000 in foreign markets, for a total gross of $152,368,585, making it the highest grossing film ever made about firefighters.[2][3] The film received three Academy Awards nominations.

The film's theme, "Show Me Your Firetruck", by Hans Zimmer is also used as the theme for the U.S. broadcast of the hit Japanese cooking show Iron Chef.[4]


This film focuses on the firefighters of Engine 17 of the Chicago Fire Department, two of whom are brothers. The older, Lt. Stephen "Bull" McCaffrey, is an experienced firefighter. The younger, Brian, has labored under his brother's shadow all his life, and witnessed the death of his father, Dennis, who was also a firefighter.

After a long absence with no communication, Brian returns to firefighting after a number of other careers falter, though Stephen has doubts that Brian is fit to be a firefighter.

The longest serving of all the men at Engine 17, John "Axe" Adcox, served under the McCaffreys' father in the department and was like an uncle to the boys when their father died. He attacks fires head on, but is concerned about Stephen's unorthodox methods and disregard for safety procedures. Helen McCaffrey is Stephen's estranged wife and the mother of their son, Sean. Helen has grown fearful of Stephen's dedication to firefighting and the risks he takes. While they are still in love, she separated from Stephen to protect herself and Sean.

Martin Swayzak is an alderman on the Chicago City Council. He hopes to be elected mayor, but has had to make a number of budget cuts to the fire department. Many of the firemen believe that the cuts are endangering firefighters' lives, multiple firefighters having already died in the year before the film began. Jennifer Vaitkus is Brian's ex-girlfriend and works in Swayzak's office. Her loyalties are torn between her job and Brian.

Donald "Shadow" Rimgale is a dedicated arson investigator. He is called in because a number of recent fires appear to be like fires committed by arsonist Ronald Bartel, who has been imprisoned for many years. Rimgale manipulates Bartel's obsession with fire to ensure Bartel's annual parole application is rejected. Brian consults Bartel for advice in order to determine the missing link in the recent arsons.

It is revealed during an investigation that Swayzak was paid off by contractors to shut down firehouses so they could be converted into community centers, with the contractors receiving contracts for the construction.

When 17 answers a call in a highrise, Stephen urges them to move in quickly to take out the fire despite Adcox's advice to wait for back-up. Brian's friend and fellow "probationary fireman" trainee Tim Krizminski, under Stephen's wing, accidentally opens a door only to be met by a backdraft. His face is burned beyond recognition, but he survives. Adcox and Brian both blame Tim's condition on Stephen's reckless tactics.

Stephen confronts Adcox about the deadly backdrafts during a multiple-alarm fire at a chemical plant. Adcox admits that he set the fires to kill associates of Swayzak because Swayzak was benefiting from the deaths of firefighters. When an explosion destroys the catwalk they are on, Stephen grabs Adcox's hand while hanging on to the remains of the catwalk. Adcox requests Stephen let go of him, but Stephen insists on saving him as a member of his team. However, Stephen loses his grip on the catwalk. Adcox is killed and Stephen is mortally wounded. Brian, having been injured by Adcox, rushes to help other firefighters reach his brother. Stephen dies on the way to the hospital with Brian at his side, his final request being that Brian not reveal that Adcox was behind the fires.

After Stephen and Adcox's funeral, Brian and Rimgale, with the help of the police, interrupt a Swayzak press conference. Rimgale questions Swayzak on a fake manpower study that led to the deaths of several firemen, including Stephen and Adcox, effectively killing Swayzak's mayoral ambitions.

Brian decides to continue as a firefighter despite the loss of his father and brother.


Actor Role Character Rank
Kurt Russell Lt. Stephen "Bull" McCaffrey/Capt. Dennis McCaffrey Chicago Fire Department Engine 17
William Baldwin Candidate Firefighter (later Fire Investigator) Brian McCaffrey CFD Engine 17, CFD Bureau of Fire Investigation
Robert De Niro Fire Inspector Donald "Shadow" Rimgale CFD B.F.I.
Scott Glenn Senior Firefighter John "Axe" Adcox CFD Engine 17
Jennifer Jason Leigh Jennifer Vaitkus Alderman Swayzak's Assistant
Rebecca De Mornay Helen McCaffrey
Donald Sutherland Ronald Bartel
Jason Gedrick Candidate Firefighter Tim Krizminski CFD Truck 46
J. T. Walsh Alderman Martin Swayzak Chicago City Council's Office
Anthony Mockus, Sr. Battalion Chief John Fitzgerald CFD 25th Battalion
Cedric Young Firefighter (later Captain) Grindle CFD Engine 17
Juan Ramirez Firefighter Ray Santos CFD Truck 46
Mark Wheeler Capt. Pengelly CFD Truck 46
Jack McGee Firefighter/Engineer Schmidt CFD Engine 17
Kevin Casey Firefighter Nightengale CFD Truck 46
Carlos Sanz Candidate


According to the article in Entertainment Weekly, rubber cement from Petronio Shoe Products was used to create some of the fire effects. Industrial Light & Magic created many of the visual effects.[5]


Fire fighting professionals have noted that most real structure fires differ from what is shown in the movie by having smoke conditions that obscure vision inside the building almost completely.

The pictures of firefighters searching in movies like Back Draft do not really show what it is like to search in a fire. Realism in our case would make a very bad movie because the fact is that in almost every fire the smoke conditions completely obscure all vision.[6]

"The movie ... came pretty close at times, but it also suffered from the very same, all too common shortcomings that any visual presentation was bound to encounter (...) Smoke, steam and other miscellaneous factors usually combine to obscure almost everything that is taking place".[7]

Furthermore, fire investigation professionals have dismissed the methods shown in the movie as unscientific, in particular the portrayal of fire as a living entity.[8]

Theme park attraction[edit]


Critical reception[edit]

Backdraft received a positive reception from critics.[9][10][11] The film currently holds a 73% 'Fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus "It's not particularly deep, but Backdraft is a strong action movie with exceptional special effects."[12]

Box office[edit]

The film grossed $77,868,585 in the US (ranking 14th in box-office for 1991), and $74,500,000 in foreign markets.[13][14]


The film received three Academy Award nominations (Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects and Best Sound - Gary Summers, Randy Thom, Gary Rydstrom and Glenn Williams).[15] It also received two nominations at the first annual MTV Movie Awards.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

The 1995 movie Backfire! is a spoof of Backdraft.


  1. ^ Box Office Information for Backdraft. The Wrap. Retrieved April 4, 2013.
  2. ^ "Backdraft (1991)". Box Office Mojo. 1991-08-06. Retrieved 2012-07-08. 
  3. ^ "Fire/Firefighter Movies at the Box Office". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2012-07-08. 
  4. ^ "Iron Chef". BBC. 30 June 2000. 
  5. ^ Henrikson, Christopher (1991-06-14). "Burning Down the House". Retrieved 2012-07-08. 
  6. ^ Ron Garner (2004). Fire Chief. iUniverse. p. 62. Retrieved 4 July 2013. 
  7. ^ Jerry E. Lindsay: "A Firefighter's Story", pp. 52-53.
  8. ^ Robert L Rowe, Pyrocop, Inc.: Fire Investigations and “The Scientific Method - Change is Good!”
  9. ^ Maslin, Janet (1991-05-24). "Review/Film; 'Backdraft,' Firefighting Spectacular". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-10-02. 
  10. ^ "Backdraft". Variety. 1990-12-31. Retrieved 2010-10-02. 
  11. ^ "Backdraft". Entertainment Weekly. 1991-05-31. Retrieved 2010-10-02. 
  12. ^ Backdraft at Rotten Tomatoes
  13. ^ Fox, David J. (1991-05-29). "'Backdraft' Burns 'Hawk's' Wings at the Box Office". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-10-03. 
  14. ^ "Backdraft at on Box-Office Mojo". 
  15. ^ "The 64th Academy Awards (1992) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-10-22. 

External links[edit]