Hellfighters is a 1968 movie telling the fictional story of an oil well fire fighting company and their prowess in putting out fires, loosely based on the exploits of Red Adair (who helped assist in the production of the film). John Wayne
, in what is probably one of his best performances, plays Chance Buckman, the owner of the Houston-based Buckman Company, which puts out oil well fires anywhere in the world.
The movie opens with an accident at an oil well which causes it to explode into flames. Buckman's secretary is busy rounding up everyone in the company. Chance is on the company plane with his friend Jack Lomax on the way to the Bahamas for a celebration and gambling for New Years; George arrives by company helicopter, and Joe is called on the radiotelephone in his car. Greg Parker (Jim Hutton
), Chance's second in command and known for being a lothario who invites women to the oil fires in order to bed them, has to be tracked down to the hotel room in Mexico city of his current paramour.
The team arrives at the fire in Louisiana, where a Houston television station is filming the attempt to put out the fire. When the reporter for the station attempts to interview Chance after the fire is put out, he causes an accident which injures Chance. Concern that he might not survive cause Joe and Greg to arrange to have Chance's daughter, Tish (Catherine Ross), flown in to see him.
Chance recovers, but is so stubborn the doctors have to keep him under sedation for a week to keep him from leaving the hospital too soon. Meanwhile Greg takes the call when another fire breaks out, and Tish wants to come along since she won't be able to see her father for a week. The entire company, including Greg, realizing Chance wouldn't like it if Tish went (based on Greg's extracurricular activities with women he invites to view fires) tells her not to come (without telling her why). She feigns an excuse of seeing a friend of hers only a hundred miles from the Fire. Tish then uses this excuse to rent a car and drive to the fire.
When Chance is fully recovered, Tish goes to see Chance in the hospital and admits that she went to see a fire with Greg. Chance calls Greg into the room and cold-cocks him, sputtering about Greg inviting women to a fire and what he does, while handicapped in trying not to tell Tish why he's upset. Greg, slumped on the floor, then informs chance that he and Tish got married the night before, and, as Tish admits, if they hadn't seen "this lovely Cajun church, we might have waited."
Chance and Greg have to meet Madeline (Vera Miles), Tish's mother and Chance's estranged ex-wife, who divorced Chance when Tish was about five, because she saw Jack Lomax break his back in a fire and end up in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and she couldn't live with the possibility of the same thing happening to Chance. Chance and Madeline come to the realization that Tish isn't Madeline, she has a lot of her father's qualities too, including being able to stand the idea of the danger Greg is involved in. Plus, Greg and Tish are adults, there's nothing they can do about it.
After another serious fire where Greg is almost killed, Chance decides to fold his company and take a job on the Board of Directors of the Lomax Oil Company, and there's a position there for Greg, too. Greg can't stand the idea of working in an office, and after inviting Tish into the meeting, they offer to buy the company from Chance. Chance says they can have it as a wedding present. Chance goes on to be a director at Lomax Oil, where they discuss such important issues as what color to paint the restrooms in the company's 1,400 gas stations.
Madeline comes back to Chance now that he is no longer fighting fires. They decide to remarry, when a terrible fire in Venezuela that Greg is fighting explodes into a huge multi-well disaster, which may be beyond Greg's capacity to fight. Madeline admits that she understands that Chance has to go to the fire, but admits this will be the deciding point: according to Tish, this is the worst possible fire he would ever have to fight: 5 simultaneously burning oil wells, and that there never will be a worse one. Either she'll be able to stand it, or she'll break up with him again.
The final fire in the movie involves Chance and Greg attempting to put out a huge fire while simultaneously battling Venezuelan Army incompetence and rebel fighters.
The movie is also one of a very tiny number of films of the 1960s where a major character is handicapped, specifically wheelchair-bound.
This film includes examples of:
- Action Prologue: At the first oil fire, the field supervisor is explaining to the television crew what the oil fire fighting team is doing, including how the special red suits are not to "look stylish" but because only the men in the red suits give orders; everyone follows their instructions. He explains that the explosives used to kill the fire must be placed exactly, the reporter asks him what happens if they aren't. "There won't be enough of them left to pick up."
- Bar Brawl: An Australian roughneck crew that will have to assist Chance's team is enjoying the ambiance of Madam Loo's establishment. The team's manager argues with Chance when he says that if they keep drinking that heavily they'll be too sloshed to be useful, the manager says that they drink as they see fit. Chance starts a fight by cold-cocking him, saying, "Just one thing. There's one boss!"
- Everyone Meets Everyone: As noted above, at the beginning, Chance's secretary has to contact all of the team members, who are on the company plane, in a car, helicopter, and even shacked up with a girl in a hotel in Mexico City.
- Exploding Barrels: The fire is put out by placing explosives into oil barrels, wrapped in asbestos (yes, it was that far back they used asbestos blankets), and soaked with water to keep from overheating, moved by crane, until the barrel is in the correct place to be blown up, extinguishing the fire.
- General Failure: The general from the Venezuelan Army has provided troops because of potential rebel attacks, and states (humorously) that if the rebels do get through to shoot at them, "you will have my sincere apology." Later, when the rebels do get through and almost kill Chance and Greg, Chance says to finish closing the well, "because they hang you for murder here." Later, when they meet again with the general, he meekly admits he's sorry and he practically wants to cut his own throat for what happened. Chance says, "A couple of hours ago I'd have given you the knife." Later, the rebels get through a second time, and this time Madeline chews out the general for his incompetence.
- Good Parents: Despite Madeline and Chance being estranged because of what he does for a living, they both did everything they could to see that Tish grew up right. Jack Lomax tells Tish how Chance had watched over her from a far, and that he "had to stop Chance from flying in half the Mayo Clinic" when Tish got the flu as a child.
- He Didn't Make It: While Chance is in the hospital unconscious, Joe has Greg fly up to Jackson Hole, Wyoming where Tish is skiing, so she can be brought back to see Chance, but Joe can't bring himself to use the word "die," as he explains to Jack why they sent Greg to get her. "Suppose Chance... suppose... suppose he... suppose it doesn't look like he's gonna make it? At least he'd get to see his daughter." Greg, on the other hand, is not so delicate. When Greg meets Tish at the airport, she says she isn't sure if she should go (since she hasn't seen her father in many years), Greg makes it explicit: "What difference does that make? He's your father. He might die. Would you board the plane, please?"
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Madam Loo, who runs a geisha house in Malaysia where Chance's crew is fighting a sour well (one emitting poisonous gas). While Greg - who turns down the affections of one of the girls who knows him, after telling her he's married - told Tish (who obviously wasn't invited) that the place is a bar and gambling joint, the affections of the women there make it clear that there's more than booze flowing there. Madam Loo tells Chance that she likes him anyway, and he shouldn't think that the only reason she shows him affection is because he smuggles American Cigarettes to her.
- Handicapped Badass: Jack Lomax owns a major oil company which he started when he ended up in a wheelchair for life after he broke his back in a fire. When Chance and Greg are getting ready to put out the final fire of the movie in Venezuela, they offer Jack the opportunity to push the plunger on the detonator.
- Kill It with Fire: Inverted; they kill the fires by using explosives to blow them up, eviscerating all the oxygen and causing the fire to extinguish itself.
- Meet Cute: Greg brings a woman picked up on the plane from Mexico City along to the fire. She even admits it was crazy for her to stop off instead of continuing on to Denver. Her seeing the fire and him deciding to go to his trailer for a rest after working on the fire for a while, cause her to follow him to his trailer.
- Not What It Looks Like: Tish is at an oil fire in Venezuela with Greg when she hears that Chance and Madeline are going to remarry. She hangs up the phone, and sits down, excited, and tells the oilworkers there, "My father is finally going to marry my mother, isn't that great?" One of the men, who has no idea that she means they're getting remarried, says, "That must be very nice." and everyone else there, realizing the guy has completely misunderstood what she meant, break up in laughter.
- Too Dumb to Live: The TV reporter at the first fire has to be told twice to move his TV truck back (it's too close to the fire) and is interrupted mid-interview as the truck has to roll back because it's overheating. After he tries to run to Chance and have an interview with him after he's put out the fire, a bulldozer, trying to avoid the reporter, swerves and hits Chance, injuring him. The reporter then asks Greg how Chance is going to be. Greg is so disgusted, he cold-cocks the reporter.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: The several workmen in the prologue, who accidentally caused the first oil fire. They are last seen running off into the night, still on fire. After the opening credits end, the film completely forgets about them and never says whether they survived.