Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The John Wayne Movie That Katharine Ross Called "the Biggest Piece of Crap I've Ever Done"

Here are some interesting tidbits about Katharine Ross's title quote. She made it during the production of Hellfighters (1968), which is not the kind of publicity favored by movie studios. She had only made a handful of films at that time, though one of them was The Graduate (1967)--so perhaps Hellfighters was her worst film to date. However, Ms. Ross later made some pretty crappy movies like The Swarm, The Betsy, and The Legacy (all produced in 1978). If she had dubbed Hellfighters the "crappiest" after that trio, then that would have meant something!

Sandwiched between two of John Wayne's best known films--The Green Berets and True Grit--Hellfighters owes more to the former (without the politics) than the latter. In fact, two of the Duke's fellow Berets, Jim Hutton and Bruce Cabot, team up with him again in Hellfighters. This time, the trio are fighting oil fires for money. Wayne plays Chance Buckman, whose Houston-based company's motto is: "Around the clock. Around the world." Their clients are oil well owners, who buy insurance just in case one of their wells turns into a tower of spewing flames. When that happens, the phone rings (answered by the ever-efficient Barbara Stuart) and our guys take off in their helicopter to put out the fire.

Ross--she didn't like the movie.
That's no easy task, of course, and the film's best scenes show Buckman's well-rehearsed crew managing the flames before they blow them out with nitroglycerin. I don't know about you, but handling nitro in the vicinity of a raging fire is not my idea of a promising occupation. This opinion was apparently shared by Madelyn Buckman (Vera Miles), Chance's ex-wife, who left him and took their young daughter Tish. However, when Chance undergoes a life-threatening surgery, his right-hand man Greg (Hutton) sends for the now-adult estranged daughter (Katharine Ross).

Not only does Tish reconnect with her father, she also marries Greg. Their daughter's wedding reunites Chance and Madelyn, who have never stopped loving one another. Chance retires from the oil firefighting business and take a boardroom job (resulting in an entertaining scene where the board discusses the virtues of various bathroom colors for their gas stations). Can Chance live without the adrenalin rush or will Madelyn be forced to leave him again? Will Tish be able to continue coping with Greg's risky occupation? And what about those South American guerrilla fighters trying to blow up the wells where Greg's team is working?

Despite its unusual topic, Hellfighters is a formula movie, the kind that dominated much of Wayne's later career (e.g., McQ, Big Jake, The Train Robbers). It's way too long at 118 minutes and, after the second oil well fire, the action scenes become redundant. Its worst crime, though, is wasting Vera Miles in a small and thankless role.

Ad from the Red Adair Company's web site.
Hellfighters is loosely based on the life of Paul "Red" Adair, who founded his oil firefighting company in 1959. Adair gained fame in 1962 when his company doused the flames of a Sahara Desert oil well fire that had burned for over five months. Adair, who was one of several consultants on the making of Hellfighters, died in 2004. A company bearing his name still provides services for "wild well control, oil well fires, and blowouts."

While Wayne and Ross went on to memorable roles (in, respectively, True Grit and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), Jim Hutton moved from the big screen to the small screen. He starred in several made-for-TV movies and made guest appearances in series like Marcus Welby, M.D., The Name of the Game, and Love, American Style. He was perhaps best remembered for playing Ellery Queen in the 1975-76 series. He was still active in television when he died of liver cancer in 1979.


  1. Great review, and this movie is one of my favorite John Wayne films! I have to dig it out and watch the big piece of crap again to see if Katherine Ross was totally nuts!

  2. True. "The Hellfighters" isn't a very good movie, but I think Ms. Ross is a little harsh. After all, it does have a nice role for Jay C. Flippen, and when it's on TV it makes me feel like a kid again.

  3. Good look at the film Rick but like most of Wayne's films at this point in his career (with a few exceptions like THE SHOOTIST, THE COWBOYS and RIO LOBO) I find this film a bore, pretty much on the level of a TV movie. The script is plain fantasy just like his character's name (Chance Buckman). It's about one notch above THE GREEN BERETS, one of the worst films in Wayne's filmography.

    1. No TV movie could ever have the memorable oil fire scenes as this does.

  4. Rick, I don't recall seeing "Hellfighters" but with your extremely colorful article title I had to leave a comment. As you mentioned, that would be quite a frightening occupation. I have such respect for all firefighters.

  5. Yes, quite an eye-grabber of a post title! THE HELLFIGHTERS is definitely not Ms. Ross' worst movie, not by a long shot. It's a fun enough time waster, with some good action and featuring the typical John Wayne stock company. I actually enjoy a lot of those late-era Wayne films, good unpretentious meat and potatoes stuff with a few notable exceptions. I'll take THE HELLFIGHTERS any day over THE GREEN BERETS, which is a rare Duke slog for me.

    IMO, Ross' career highpoint is the TV western CONAGHER, co-starring her husband, the estimable Sam Elliot.

    Thanks for the entertaining spotlight on this little-discussed film, Rick!

  6. I love the classic film, THE HELLFIGHTERS. Full of loud action with a splash of comedy.. It is also nice that father and daughter reunite.

  7. Katherine Ross is silly . . . I love this film. Granted, I didn't have to make it, but it's one I watch over and over again when I'm looking for a little action, a little romance, a little John Wayne (who is just like my grandfather, so I love him) and a little Jim Hutton who I also adore. A movie doesn't have to be profound to be a good watch, and this one is definitely the latter.

  8. Well it's not Academy Award material but Katharine Ross was too harsh. Perhaps it's easy to watch now because of the many actors who are no longer with us. For me it's very nostalgic.

  9. Well, at the time this may have seemed like a piece of crap, but Ms. Ross had no idea what kind of films were on the horizon when she said that.