Original theatrical poster
|Directed by||Andrew V. McLaglen|
|Produced by||Robert Arthur|
|Written by||Clair Huffaker|
|Music by||Leonard Rosenman|
|Cinematography||William H. Clothier|
|Edited by||Folmar Blangsted|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$3.75 million (US/ Canada rentals)|
Hellfighters is a 1968 American action film starring John Wayne and featuring Katharine Ross, Bruce Cabot, Jim Hutton, Jay C. Flippen and Vera Miles. The film, directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, is about a group of oil well firefighters, based loosely on the life of Red Adair. Adair, "Boots" Hansen, and "Coots" Matthews, served as technical advisers on the film.
Hellfighters was for the most part negatively received.
Chance Buckman is the head of a Houston–based oil well firefighting outfit. With a team that includes Joe Horn, Greg Parker, and George Harris, Chance travels around the world putting out blazes at well heads from industrial accident, explosion or terrorist attack. Chance enjoys the thrills, but longs for ex-wife Madelyn. She divorced him 20 years earlier, taking their daughter Letitia with her, because Madelyn could not bear to see her husband risk his life. Though they love each other, Madelyn could not deal with her terror that Chance might burn to death in a fire.
While extinguishing a burning wellhead, Chance suffers a near-fatal accident when he is crushed by a bulldozer blade. Against his wishes, his daughter Letitia (Tish) visits him in the hospital, summoned by his old friend and former firefighting partner Jack Lomax. She also pursues Greg Parker to a well fire in Louisiana. (Greg has a notorious reputation for using fires to pick up women. Generally, any woman he takes to a fire ends up in bed with him.) In the case of Buckman's spitfire of a daughter, however, after considerable initial friction Greg and Tish fall in love and marry five days after their first meeting. In spite of Greg's reputation, Buckman comes to trust his daughter's choice and accepts Greg into the family. Madelyn, projecting her own fears onto her daughter, though gracious is rather less accepting, despite her liking for Greg.
Greg suspects that his new father-in-law is growing increasingly protective of him after the marriage in an effort to protect his daughter from heartbreak should her new husband be harmed or killed. Tish wishes to see the fires that her husband and father fight, something that neither man encourages. Her father relents and allows her to accompany Greg into the field.
Chance, trying to re-unite with his ex-wife, leaves The Buckman Company to accept an executive position with his old friend Jack Lomax on the board of directors for Lomax Oil as a way to win her back. Chance gives his company to his son-in-law as a "wedding present", although Greg's pride forces him to tell Buckman he "doesn't want any gifts" and that he will "pay twice what it's worth." Greg and Tish begin traveling the world to put out oil fires. Soon the older couple announce that they will remarry, to the delight of Tish. Madelyn is happy to see her husband in a safe job, but before too long Chance becomes bored with corporate life and longs to be back in the field. As Jack Lomax earlier told Tish, "Your father is the best there is at what he does. No man can walk away from that."
Greg encounters problems with a fire in Venezuela: five oil wells in a tight line burning all at once, further compounded by guerrillas who are trying to undermine the operation. He asks Chance to return and help fight the fire. He does so without hesitation. Chance goes to Venezuela, unaware that Madelyn and Tish have followed him to Caracas. Madelyn declares "This is it for me," in the sense that it will either make or break her ability to deal with the fires once and for all, fully aware that her relationship with Chance is on the line. She uses her influence with the President of Venezuela to get herself and Tish to the oilfield where the fire is burning.
The team puts out the fires with the help of the Venezuelan Army while under attack by rebel P-40 Tomahawk fighters that strafe the oilfield. Madelyn explodes in anger at what she perceives as the Venezuelans' inability to protect the team from the unexpected air raid, railing at the Venezuelan army and civil officials for allowing the guerrillas to get close enough to attack. Chance pulls her away during her tirade. She snaps, "Damned if I understand your attitude!", to which he replies, "It's very simple — you'll do." When Greg asks Tish for her take on it, she just says, "I think we ought to get her a tin hat," referring to the bright red hardhats with The Buckman Company logo worn by the Hellfighters.
- John Wayne as Chance Buckman
- Katharine Ross as Tish Buckman
- Jim Hutton as Greg Parker
- Vera Miles as Madelyn Buckman
- Jay C. Flippen as Jack Lomax
- Bruce Cabot as Joe Horn
- Barbara Stuart as Irene Foster
- Edward Faulkner as George Harris
- Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as Hernando (Houseboy) (uncredited)
- Edmund Hashim as Colonel Valdez
- Alberto Morin as General Lopez
- Howard Finch as Ed 'Cal' Calhoun
- Valentin de Vargas as Amal Bokru
- Frances Fong as Madame Loo
- Alan Caillou as Harry York
- John Alderson as Jim Hatch
Red Adair had been fighting fires since 1946. He was well known in the industry but became more generally known in 1962 after extinguishing a Sahara Desert gas well fire called "devil's cigarette lighter". Clair Huffaker wrote an original script which was bought by Universal in February 1967. Robert Arthur was assigned to produce. John Wayne agreed to star in November 1967. 
Wayne made the film after The Green Berets. It reteamed him with Andrew McLaglen, with whom Wayne had made McLintock! (1963), and Jim Hutton, who had been in The Green Berets.
Much of the filming took place in Houston, Texas and the surrounding area; headquarters for Red Adair Co. Inc.
During filming, a catering truck crashed into Wayne's trailer while the star was in it. However he was not injured.
Hellfighters received mostly negative reviews, garnering a 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times described the film as a "slow moving, talkative, badly plotted bore". A. H. Weiler of The New York Times wrote that John Wayne made "actionful, if not stirringly meaningful, child's play of exotic disasters" and remarked that "the unrestrained cast and director maintain a welcome sense of humor".
- "Big Rental Films of 1969", Variety, January 7, 1970 p 15
- Martin, Douglas (7 April 2010). "Coots Matthews, Cantankerous Hellfighter, Dies at 86". New York Times. Retrieved 18 April 2017.
- "30 Years of Tackling Oil Disasters: Red Adair: a 'Hellfighter' With Flair". Los Angeles Times. 1 May 1977. p. 23.
- Martin, Betty (20 Feb 1967). "Petula to Play in 'Finian's Rainbow'". Los Angeles Times. p. d25.
- Martin, Betty (29 Nov 1967). "'Hellfighters' for Wayne". Los Angeles Times. p. c29.
- Holleran, Scott (23 May 2007). "Interview: Director Andrew V. McLaglen". boxofficemojo.com. Retrieved 13 March 2016.
- Browning, Norma Lee (13 Apr 1969). "Here Come The Duke". Chicago Tribune. p. k20.
- "Wayne Avoids Injury in Truck Crash". Los Angeles Times. 25 May 1968. p. 19.
- "Hellfighters (1968)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2008-08-10.
- Ebert, Robert (1968-12-27). "Hellfighters". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2008-08-10.
- Weiler, A. H. (February 6, 1969). "Hellfighters (1968)". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-10.
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