Backdraft (film)

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Backdraft poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRon Howard
Produced by
Written byGregory Widen
Music byHans Zimmer
CinematographyMikael Salomon
Edited by
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • May 24, 1991 (1991-05-24) (United States)
Running time
137 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$75 million[1]
Box office$152.3 million

Backdraft is a 1991 American drama 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, Robert De Niro, Jason Gedrick and J. T. Walsh. It is about Chicago firefighters on the trail of a serial arsonist.

The film grossed $77.9 million domestically and $74.5 million in foreign markets, for a total gross of $152.4 million, making it the highest-grossing film about firefighters until I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry in 2007.[2][3] The film received three Academy Award nominations.


Two firefighters of Engine 17 of the Chicago Fire Department are brothers. Lt. Stephen "Bull" McCaffrey, the elder, is experienced, while Brian has labored under his brother's shadow his entire life. Brian returns to firefighting after a number of other career falters, though Stephen has doubts that Brian is fit to be a firefighter. In 1971, Brian witnessed the death of their firefighting father, Captain Dennis McCaffrey, while accompanying him on a call.

The longest serving of all the men at Engine 17, John "Axe" Adcox, served under the McCaffreys' father, 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. Swayzak hopes to be elected mayor, but has supported fire department budget cuts. Many of the rank and file firemen believe the cuts are endangering firefighters' lives.

Fire Department Captain Donald "Shadow" Rimgale is a dedicated arson investigator and veteran firefighter. He is called in, because a number of recent fires resemble the results of pyromaniac Ronald Bartel, who has been imprisoned for years. Brian is reassigned as his assistant after a falling out with Stephen. Rimgale manipulates Bartel's obsession with fire to ensure Bartel's annual parole application is rejected. 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. Brian also begins a relationship with Jennifer Vaitkus, an aide to Swayzak.

When Engine 17 answers a call in a high-rise, 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 trainee, Tim Krizminski, opens a door creating a backdraft. His face is burned beyond recognition, and he barely survives. Adcox and Brian both blame Tim's condition on Stephen's reckless tactics.

Rimgale and Brian go to Swayzak's home to confront him, but interrupt a masked man about to set the place on fire. The latter attacks them with a flashlight, but is burned on his back by an electrical socket. Rimgale saves Brian and Swayzak from the house, but is injured in an explosion. In his hospital bed, Rimgale tells Brian to visit Ronald again. Ronald helps Brian realize that only a firefighter would be so careful as to not let backdraft fires rage out of control.

Brian suspects Stephen, but later spots a burn in the shape of an electrical socket on Adcox's back, and reveals his suspicions to his brother just before an alarm. When Brian realizes Adcox has heard their exchange, he jumps aboard Truck 46 after borrowing some turnout gear. 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. Stephen refuses Adcox' advice to let go of him, but Stephen loses his grip on the catwalk. Adcox is killed, but Stephen, although seriously injured, survives. Stephen dies with Brian by his side on the way to the hospital, his final request being that Brian not reveal that Adcox was behind the fires until after Adcox receives a fitting burial.

After Stephen and Adcox's funeral, Brian and Rimgale, with the help of the police, interrupt Swayzak at a press conference. Rimgale questions Swayzak on a fake manpower study that led to the deaths of several firemen, including Stephen and Adcox. They also state that Swayzak engineered the downsizing of the Chicago Fire Department. This effectively destroys Swayzak's mayoral ambitions. Brian continues as a firefighter despite the loss of his father and brother.



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.[4]


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 Backdraft do not really show what it is like to search in a fire. Firefighters are shown advancing through fully involved structure fires while not wearing the complete compliment of protective gear (Nomex hoods, radios, PASS devices). Most scenes display firefighting without the use of SCBA [self contained breathing apparatus]. 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.[5]

"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".[6]

Furthermore, fire investigation professionals have dismissed the investigative methods shown in the movie as unscientific, in particular the portrayal of fire as a living entity.[7]

Theme park attraction[edit]


Critical reception[edit]

Praise for Backdraft was directed to the special effects and performances, while much criticism was reserved for the story being poorly rendered.[8][9][10][11] The film currently holds a 74% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus "It's not particularly deep, but Backdraft is a strong action movie with exceptional special effects." Film critics Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune [12] and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film a positive review.[13]

Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A" on an A+ to F scale.[14]

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.[15][16]


The film received three Academy Award nominations (Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects and Best Sound - Gary Summers, Randy Thom, Gary Rydstrom and Glenn Williams).[17]


In March 2018, it was announced that Universal has tapped Spanish director Gonzalo López-Gallego to direct the sequel with William Baldwin set to reprise his role. [18] If this sequel is, in fact made, it will represent one of the longest periods between a first movie and it's sequel.


  1. ^ "Backdraft | PowerGrid". 1991-05-24. Retrieved 2015-04-12.
  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. ^ Henrikson, Christopher (1991-06-14). "Burning Down the House". Retrieved 2012-07-08.
  5. ^ Ron Garner (2004). Fire Chief. iUniverse. p. 62. ISBN 9780595769896. Retrieved 4 July 2013.
  6. ^ Jerry E. Lindsay: "A Firefighter's Story", pp. 52-53.
  7. ^ "Fire Investigations and "The Scientific Method - Change is Good!"". Archived from the original on 2015-04-12. Retrieved 2015-04-12.
  8. ^ "Backdraft Reviews". Metacritic.
  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' A Spectacle Graced By Fine Acting". Gene Siskel. 1991-05-24. Retrieved 2017-09-19.
  13. ^ "Backdraft (1991)". Roger Ebert. 1991-05-24. Retrieved 2017-09-19.
  14. ^ "CinemaScore".
  15. ^ Fox, David J. (1991-05-29). "'Backdraft' Burns 'Hawk's' Wings at the Box Office". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-10-03.
  16. ^ "Backdraft (1991)". Box Office Mojo. 1991-08-06. Retrieved 2015-04-12.
  17. ^ "The 64th Academy Awards (1992) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-10-22.
  18. ^ "'Backdraft' sequel set to begin filming".

External links[edit]