HELLFIGHTERS , a 1968 workout for Universal Studio’s pyrotechnics specialists, is based on the career of legendary wildass oil-blaze firefighter Red Adair. Wayne plays the Red-based hero, with sidekick Jim Hutton (resurrected from his gory death in The Green Berets) pitching woo at Katherine Ross to draw the ‘young crowd’.
Fresh off The Graduate, and not shy of opinions, the 28-year-old Ross not only clashed with the 61-year old star over Vietnam, she told the press the movie was “the biggest piece of crap I’ve ever done.” (she would later lend her selectivity acumen to The Swarm, The Betsy, The Legacy and 49 episodes of The Colbys). Vera Miles, only nine years older but playing Ross’s mother, felt compelled to chime in at the interviewer “Well, it’s not the biggest piece of crap I’VE ever done.”
Flimsy as can be, it was trounced by reviewers not inclined to cut Wayne any slack in the year of The Green Berets, but with his name on the marquee it did singe the #23 spot of the years moneymakers, lighting off $11,600,000
Directed with little elan by Andrew V. McLaglen, who’d given Ross her first movie role, three quick years earlier in his by-far best movie, Shenandoah. William H. Clothier’s cinematography captures the oil-well blazes in their roaring splendor, and Leonard Rosenman starts it off with a decently macho score. 121 minutes is overlong for this grab-a-check number, which found jobs for Duke drinking pals Bruce Cabot, Jay C. Flippen, Edward Faulkner and Valentin de Vargas.