RED SKIES OF MONTANA lit up matinee-goers in 1952, with Richard Widmark leading a team of smoke jumpers into tackling Big Sky forest fires. Harry Kleiner’s screenplay was loosely based on George R. Stewart’s Newman’s well-reviewed 1948 novel “Fire” and 1949s tragic Mann Gulch inferno which trapped & killed 13 firefighters. Directed by Joseph H. Newman, it’s predictable in the human interest department, but works decently as an adventure pic, with some impressive pyrotechnics arranged for the blaze-battling sequences.
When his team is wiped out after being trapped by a mountainside fire, foreman and sole survivor ‘Cliff Mason’ (Widmark) is unable to remember exactly what happened. Though wracked by guilt, he goes back to lead a new group, even while a friend and fellow firefighter (Jeffrey Hunter), whose father died in the fire, blames him. When a new fire calls the team into action, skills will be tested and scores settled.
As the project developed it underwent six title changes and various stars dropped out along the way (Dana Andrews, Victor Mature, Glenn Ford, Linda Darnell, Jean Peters) before Widmark and Hunter got the assignment. It was busy year for Widmark, on view in O.Henry’s Full House, My Pal Gus and Don’t Bother To Knock, and Hunter was getting the build-up treatment from Fox. They’re fine, and once you get past Sol Kaplan’s corny hoo-rah score and some stentorian narration that lets us know these guys are “the parachute shock corps of the Forest Service”, things move along at a steady clip. It was filmed in Montana, near Missoula, and around Lake Arrowhead in California. Some background footage from a New Mexican fire was integrated with 20th’s time-honored, technician-arranged fury, with effective sound effects of trees exploding in impressively wild whooshes of flame.You don’t watch this type of movie because you’re truly interested in the back-at-base arguments.
Not to be outdone by Fox, that same year Paramount put John Payne into The Blazing Forest with John Payne and Warner’s had Kirk Douglas logging The Big Trees, but Widmark & crew tapped them out for tickets, with a gross of $3,500,000, 106th place in long-gone ’52.
With Richard Boone, Constance Smith (attractive, troubled Irish import: her life became a whirlpool of tragedy) and raft of young actors who’d have successful careers: Warren Stevens, James Griffith, Parley Baer, Richard Crenna, Lawrence Dobkin, Gregory Walcott (debut), Charles Bronson and Henry Kulky. Veteran Joe Sawyer plays Hunter’s pop. 99 minutes.