For a long time, the only way to see Red Skies of Montana (1952), Montana’s titular contribution to wildfire movies, partly filmed in Missoula and starring Richard Widmark and Richard Crenna in his screen debut, was at the occasional fundraising revival at the Wilma. Now it’s available on VHS and DVD and you can meditate on conflagration in the privacy of your air-conditioned home. You might also consider these other fiery titles, most of which are better than Howie Long’s atrocious Firestorm (1998).
The Naked Jungle (1954)
Charlton Heston plays a South American plantation owner who must contend with twin threats to his tropical paradise: marauding army ants and a strong-willed mail-order bride played by the fetching Eleanor Parker. Heston isn’t thrilled that she’s been married once before—at one point he refers to her as “another man’s leavings”—and he eventually sets fire to the plantation in a fit of impotent pique.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
The first scene filmed for this deathless epic was the burning of the Atlanta Depot—actually 40 acres of old sets put to the torch on the MGM backlot, unbeknownst to alarmed Culver City residents. It was a pragmatic choice to film the blaze first, since the entire project might have been scrapped had anything gone seriously wrong. Using all seven Technicolor cameras then in existence, crews filmed two hours of fire footage at a price tag of $25,000 in 1938 dollars. Some 250 professional and volunteer firefighters stood at the ready in case the blaze got out of hand. Tickets for the Dec. 15, 1939 premiere cost 40 times the usual price, so wags might jest that Atlanta got burned twice, or actually three times.
Die Nibelungen (1924)
The Huns might have been great horsemen and pillagers, but apparently they were
no great firefighters. In Kriemhild’s Revenge, the sprawling second half of Expressionist director Fritz Lang’s take on the Nibelungen epic, Attila the Hun’s built-to-scale fortress is consumed during a battle filmed with 500 Russian extras on the outskirts of Berlin. A truly monumental onscreen blaze.
John Wayne’s ultra-macho Hellfighters character, Chance Buckman, was inspired by famous real-life oil-rig firefighter Red Adair, who later helped extinguish the burning wells of the first Gulf War. The movie itself isn’t that great. Wayne’s co-star Katherine Ross, who clashed constantly with Wayne over his outspoken stance on the Vietnam war, told reporters at the time it was the biggest piece of crap she’d ever done. Asked to comment on Ross’s statement, co-star Vera Miles replied, “Well, it’s not the biggest piece of crap I’ve ever done!”
The Towering Inferno (1974)
Between The Towering Inferno and numerous knockoffs like the made-for-TV Terror on the 40th Floor, 1974 was a banner year for fire-disaster movies. The Towering Inferno was adapted from two novels, The Tower and The Glass Inferno, rights to which had been purchased separately by rival studios Fox and Warner Brothers. Rather than mount competing productions, the two studios pooled their resources to make one big blazing box-office bonanza: Fox took American ticket receipts and Warner Brothers got the profits from the rest of the world. Inferno also introduced the “diagonal billing” system, by which both Steve McQueen and Paul Newman got top billing depending whether you read the title credit from left to right or top to bottom.
Turk 182! (1985)
When firefighter Terry Lynch (Robert Urich) is denied medical compensation for injuries received during an off-duty rescue, little brother Jimmy (Timothy Hutton) takes his campaign for justice to the streets, implicating corrupt Mayor Tyler by spray-painting “Tyler Knew, Turk 182!” all over the city while the police race to find the culprit. The movie drags a little, despite its good intentions. Also stars Police Academy and “Sex and the City” hottie Kim Cattrall.
Stars Kurt Russell and Alec Baldwin as feuding Chicago firefighter brothers (following in the footsteps of their firefighter father) who must work together to solve a string of arson attacks. Lots of great firefighting scenes, but also lots of unnecessary subplot. After reading the script, co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh reportedly told director Ron Howard she wished she was the fire because the fire had the best part. The soundtrack was later recycled by the Japanese cooking show “Iron Chef.”
Aficionados report that this “adult” answer to Backdraft almost manages to have a plot and star Jenna Jameson gets a big crying scene to display her acting skill, but the whole premise makes me think of the Logjammin’ discussion in The Big Lebowski:
Maude Lebowski: “You can imagine where it goes from there.”