Red Skies of Montana

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Red Skies of Montana
Directed by Joseph M. Newman
Produced by Samuel G. Engel
Screenplay by Art Cohn
Story by Harry Kleiner
George R. Stewart
Starring Richard Widmark
Constance Smith
Jeffrey Hunter
Richard Boone
Music by Sol Kaplan
Cinematography Charles G. Clarke
Edited by William Reynolds
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date
February 1952
Running time
99 min.
Country United States
Language English
Box office $1.25 million (US rentals)[1]

Red Skies of Montana is a 1952 adventure drama in which Richard Widmark stars as a smokejumper who attempts to save his crew while being overrun by a forest fire, not only to preserve their lives, but to redeem himself after being the only survivor of a previous disaster.

The film was loosely based on the August 1949 Mann Gulch fire,[2] and filmed on location in Technicolor with the cooperation of the United States Forest Service.

Bugle Mountain (also known as "Bugle Peak"), located in the Scapegoat Wilderness near Lincoln, Montana, gave its name to the fictional setting of the forest fire in the Selway National Forest shown during the first 30 minutes of the film.


Cliff Mason, a veteran foreman of the Forest Service's smokejumper unit, is called out with a crew on a fire, despite the fact that they have not rested in three days. Accompanied by R. A. "Pop" Miller and four other men, Cliff leaves the smokejumper base at Missoula, Montana to parachute into a nearly inaccessible area of Bugle Peak. Hours later, at base, superintendent Richard "Dick" Dryer becomes worried because Cliff is not answering radio calls. The next day, after the fire crowns, Dick flies by helicopter into the area and is stunned to find only Cliff, in shock and wandering through the devastated region. Cliff is rushed to the hospital, where he gradually recovers, although he cannot remember how he got separated from his men, or why he was the only one to survive.

Upon his return home, Cliff is greeted by Pop's son Ed, who is also a smokejumper. Ed expresses genuine concern for Cliff, but Cliff, sensitive about his lack of memory and worried that he might be responsible for his crew's deaths, becomes antagonistic. A board of review conducts a hearing into the matter, and Cliff grows increasingly defensive after several grueling days of repetitious questioning. Cliff's paranoia grows that he might be thought a coward who deserted his men despite the assurances of his devoted wife Peg and Dick, who lets him return to work only as supervisor of training. Ed continues to grill Cliff, asking him how he might have come to be in the protected rock slide area that was the only possible place of survival when the bodies of his crew were found on an exposed ridge across the valley. Ed's suspicions escalate and Cliff reacts even more bitterly. One night, an emergency crew is called out to repair downed transmission lines, and when Cliff's longtime friend Boise Peterson is shocked by a live wire, Cliff saves him. Ed pointedly remarks that it was not necessary for Cliff to prove his bravery. Cliff is cleared by the board of review but confides to Peg that he is plagued by doubts about his courage. Later, Dick shows Ed a watch, mistakenly sent to another man's family, that Ed recognizes as his father's. Upset again, Ed confronts Cliff with the watch, and jogs his memory.

Cliff recalls that when the fire began to race along the treetops, all of them had reached the rockslide where he urged them to lie down in the crevices. However a burning snag fell on the rockslide and the crew continued running. Cliff attempted to stop Pop, pulling off his watch and ID tag as they grappled, but Pop knocked him into a crevice that protected Cliff from the worst of the fire. Ed furiously accuses Cliff of deserting his men and goes AWOL, parachuting from a private airplane onto Bugle Peak, where he finds Pop's identification bracelet on the ridge, not on the rockslide, where Cliff says he saw Pop last. Believing he has obtained proof that Cliff abandoned his men on the ridge, Ed returns to base, only to discover that Cliff and another team of men have been sent to fight a fire in Carson Canyon. Confronting Dick with the ID tag, Ed accuses Cliff of killing his father, and Dick fires him from the smokejumper unit for going AWOL on a personal grudge. In Carson Canyon, Cliff's crew brings the fire under control but weather conditions threaten a re-burn, prompting Cliff to request more men and equipment.

Ed joins the smokejumper reinforcements without authorization and at Carson Canyon tracks down Cliff, scouting the fire that now has them trapped. After losing his head and trying to kill Cliff with the axe end of his Pulaski, Ed breaks his leg when he tumbles down a slope as they fight. Cliff returns to the crew's anchor point to organize the men, sending three with heavier equipment to bring in Ed. Cliff orders the others to dig foxholes, knowing that burying themselves and allowing the fire to pass over them is their only hope for survival. The men protest but grudgingly comply when Cliff insists. Ed is surprised to discover that Cliff is responsible for his rescue, and when he is brought back to the anchor point, the crew panics and starts to flee. Ed sees Cliff knock down Boise to quell the panic and realizes Cliff was telling the truth about Bugle Peak. After the fire has passed, all of the smokejumpers have survived and Ed, reconciling with Cliff, sheepishly grins and asks for a cigarette, inspiring Boise to do the same. When Dick realizes the entire crew has survived, he reinforces Cliff's men from the air as an even larger ground force with bulldozers swings into action.



  • Active pre-production of the picture did not begin until July 1950, but after a slow start, the picture began production in Missoula in September, with Louis King directing and with Victor Mature, Jean Peters and John Lund as the stars. Due to injuries suffered by Mature and Lund, and the likelihood of bad weather, the project was "put off till spring."[3] The production was soon abandoned, however, and in April 1951, it was reported that the screenplay was going to be completely rewritten, and that Glenn Ford was going to be the picture's star.
  • According to a news item in the July 6, 1951 edition of the Hollywood Reporter, footage of a forest fire in the Gila National Forest, New Mexico was filmed by a special camera crew for use in the film.
  • A one-hour television adaptation, entitled Smoke Jumpers, for The 20th Century Fox Hour was broadcast in November 1956. The telefilm was directed by Albert S. Rogell and starred Dan Duryea, Dean Jagger and Joan Leslie.
  • The aircraft utilized for the film's smokejumping scenes (NC8419) was a Ford Trimotor 5-AT-C actually used by the United States Forest Service in its operations.[4] The aircraft served with the USFS from June 5, 1951 to August 4, 1959, when it crashed and burned while landing at the Moose Creek spike camp airstrip in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Idaho, 50 miles west of Missoula, killing two smokejumpers and a Nez Perce National Forest supervisor.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 'Top Box-Office Hits of 1952', Variety, January 7, 1953
  2. ^ Maclean, Norman. Young Men and Fire. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1972. p.155 ISBN 0-226-50062-4
  3. ^ Wasp, Snow Help Cancel Picture Work Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 11 Sep 1950: 26
  4. ^ National Smokejumpers Association (2003). Smokerjumpers. Paducah, Kentucky: Turner Publishing Company. ISBN 1-56311-854-8., p. 80
  5. ^ National Smokejumpers Association (1997). "Missed Flight - Ralph Johnston, RDD '63" (PDF). The Static Line. 4–2 (April). Retrieved 2013-09-06.

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