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Backdraft (film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed byRon Howard
Written byGregory Widen
Produced by
CinematographyMikael Salomon
Edited by
Music byHans Zimmer
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • May 24, 1991 (1991-05-24)
Running time
137 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$40 million[1]
Box office$152.4 million[2]

Backdraft is a 1991 American action thriller film directed by Ron Howard and written by Gregory Widen. Starring Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay, Donald Sutherland, Robert De Niro, Jason Gedrick, and J. T. Walsh, it follows Chicago firefighters on the trail of a serial arsonist.

It was released on May 24, 1991 to favorable reviews, and grossed $152.4 million worldwide.[2][3] It received three Academy Award nominations Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, and Best Visual Effects. It also inspired a special effects attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood, which opened in 1992 and closed in 2010. It was followed by the sequel Backdraft 2 in 2019, with Baldwin and Sutherland reprising their roles.


Two firefighters of Engine 17 of the Chicago Fire Department are brothers. Lt. Stephen "Bull" McCaffrey, the elder, is experienced, while Brian has labored in his brother's shadow. Brian returns to firefighting after several other careers falter, 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. Adcox grows concerned about Stephen's unorthodox methods and disregard for safety procedures, as does Stephen's wife Helen, who separated from Stephen to protect herself and their son Sean from the risks he was taking.

Inspector Donald "Shadow" Rimgale, a dedicated arson investigator and veteran firefighter, is called in because some recent explosive fires resemble those set by pyromaniac Ronald Bartel, who has been imprisoned for years. Brian transfers to become Rimgale's assistant after an argument with Stephen. Rimgale manipulates Bartel's obsession with fire to ensure his annual parole application is rejected. It is revealed during an investigation that Chicago City Council alderman Marty Swayzak has supported fire department budget cuts. Contractors paid him off to shut down firehouses so they could be converted into community centers, with the contractors receiving contracts for the construction. Brian rekindles 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, despite Adcox's advice to wait for backup. Brian's friend and fellow trainee, Tim Krizminski, opens a door, triggering a backdraft. His face is burned beyond recognition and he barely survives. Adcox and Brian both condemn Stephen for what happened. Rimgale and Brian go to Swayzak's home to confront him after learning of his connection to the three backdraft victims (Alan Seagrave, Donald Cosgrove, and Jeffery Holcomb) and they interrupt a masked man about to set the place on fire. The man attacks them with a flashlight but is burned on his shoulder 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 revisit Bartel, who 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 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. On their way to the fire their truck crashes after dodging a taxi. Stephen confronts Adcox about the backdrafts during a multiple-alarm fire at a chemical plant. Adcox admits that he set the fires to kill Swayzak's associates because Swayzak benefitted from firefighters' deaths and closed down firehouses. 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's advice to let go of him and loses his grip on the catwalk. Stephen lands on the lower catwalk, but Adcox dies when he falls into the fire. Brian bravely battles the fire, allowing two firefighters to reach Stephen and carry him to safety. Stephen dies with Brian by his side on the way to the hospital, with his final request being that Brian not reveal Adcox to be the perpetrator.

After the funeral for Stephen and Adcox, 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, destroying Swayzak's mayoral ambitions.

Brian continues as a firefighter, carrying on his family's firefighting tradition despite the loss of his father and brother.



Before filming began, the main actors went out on calls with real Chicago firefighters, and also went to the Chicago Fire Academy to learn how to conduct themselves like the firefighters in the film.

Filming in Chicago began on July 23, 1990 and wrapped on December 8. 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]


Robert Downey Jr., Brad Pitt and Keanu Reeves also auditioned for the role of Brian McCaffrey.[6]


Firefighting professionals have noted that most of the film's structure fires scenes differ considerably from reality:

The pictures of firefighters searching in movies like Backdraft do not show what it is like to search in a fire. Firefighters are shown advancing through fully involved structure fires while not wearing the complete complement 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.[7]

"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".[8]

Fire investigation professionals have also dismissed the investigative methods shown in the movie as unscientific—in particular, the portrayal of fire as a living entity.[9]


Backdraft was scored by Hans Zimmer, and features two songs by Bruce Hornsby: "The Show Goes On" (which was previously released on his album Scenes from the Southside), and the new song "Set Me in Motion". Zimmer's score was pared to about 30 minutes for release on the soundtrack album, which also features both Hornsby songs. The soundtrack was issued by Milan Records on May 14, 1991. The track "Fighting 17th" was used as the main theme for RTÉ’s Six Nations Championship coverage in Ireland.[10] "Show Me Your Firetruck" was used as the theme for the Fuji TV series Iron Chef.


Home media[edit]

The film has been released in many formats, first on VHS, then DVD. In 2006, a two-disc DVD Anniversary Edition was issued.[11] On January 4, 2011 Universal Pictures released a Blu-ray 'Anniversary Edition' with many of the features ported from the previous DVD release, including four featurettes, 43 minutes of deleted scenes, a three-minute Ron Howard introduction, and trailers.[12] It was released for the first time as a two-disc Ultra HD Blu-ray package on May 4, 2019.[13]


Box office[edit]

Backdraft grossed $77,868,585 in the US (ranking 14th in box-office for 1991), and $74,500,000 in other markets.[14][2]

Critical response[edit]

Backdraft was praised for its special effects and performances, while much criticism was reserved for the story.[15][16][17][18] It holds a 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 64 reviews, with an average rating of 6.2/10. The consensus reads, "It's not particularly deep, but Backdraft is a strong action movie with exceptional special effects."[19] Film critics Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune[20] and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film positive reviews.[21]

Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A" on an A+ to F scale.[22]


The film received three nominations at the 64th Academy Awards for Sound, Sound Effects Editing, and Visual Effects.[23]

Other media[edit]


In March 2018, it was announced that Universal had tapped Spanish director Gonzalo López-Gallego to direct the sequel with William Baldwin reprising his role.[24] The film, titled Backdraft 2, was released direct-to-video on May 14, 2019.[25]

Theme park attraction[edit]


  1. ^ "AFI|Catalog". catalog.afi.com.
  2. ^ a b c "Backdraft (1991)". Box Office Mojo. 1991-08-06. Retrieved 2015-04-12.
  3. ^ "Fire/Firefighter Movies at the Box Office". Box Office Mojo. Archived from the original on 2012-08-01. Retrieved 2012-07-08.
  4. ^ "Backdraft (1991) - History". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Archived from the original on 2023-10-26. Retrieved 2023-10-26.
  5. ^ Henrikson, Christopher (1991-06-14). "Burning Down the House". EW.com. Archived from the original on 2012-10-21. Retrieved 2012-07-08.
  6. ^ ""Before they were stars", Robert Downey Jr, Keanu Reeves, and Brad Pitt audition for 1991 movie "Backdraft", WATCH". News Nation English.
  7. ^ Ron Garner (2004). Fire Chief. iUniverse. p. 62. ISBN 9780595769896. Retrieved 4 July 2013.
  8. ^ Jerry E. Lindsay: "A Firefighter's Story", pp. 52-53.
  9. ^ "Fire Investigations and "The Scientific Method - Change is Good!"". HGExperts.com. Archived from the original on 2015-04-12. Retrieved 2015-04-12.
  10. ^ Backdraft soundtrack. Allmusic.
  11. ^ Backdraft: Anniversary Edition (1991) | Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 29, 2006)
  12. ^ Backdraft Blu-ray | United States | Anniversary Edition | Universal Studios | 1991 | 137 min | Rated R | Jan 04, 2011
  13. ^ Backdraft 4K Blu-ray | United States | 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital HD Universal Studios | 1991 | 137 min | Rated R | May 07, 2019
  14. ^ Fox, David J. (1991-05-29). "'Backdraft' Burns 'Hawk's' Wings at the Box Office". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 2012-11-02. Retrieved 2010-10-03.
  15. ^ "Backdraft Reviews". Metacritic.
  16. ^ Maslin, Janet (1991-05-24). "Review/Film; 'Backdraft,' Firefighting Spectacular". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
  17. ^ "Backdraft". Variety. 1990-12-31. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
  18. ^ "Backdraft". Entertainment Weekly. 1991-05-31. Archived from the original on 2010-01-10. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
  19. ^ "Backdraft (1991)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved November 19, 2023.
  20. ^ "'Backdraft' A Spectacle Graced By Fine Acting". Gene Siskel. 1991-05-24. Retrieved 2017-09-19.
  21. ^ "Backdraft (1991)". Roger Ebert. 1991-05-24. Retrieved 2017-09-19.
  22. ^ "CinemaScore". cinemascore.com.
  23. ^ "The 64th Academy Awards (1992) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-10-22.
  24. ^ "'Backdraft' sequel set to begin filming". FireRescue1. 2018-03-28.
  25. ^ Prange, Stephanie (12 March 2019). "'Backdraft 2' to Fire Up on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital May 14 From Universal". Media Play News. JCH Media Inc. Retrieved 18 May 2019.

External links[edit]