Permit a movie dork this faulty syllogism: Fire is light, and movies are the capture of light using chemistry, so movies are fire, too, right? After the sun (which is basically a huge campfire in space), fire is mankind’s source of mood-lighting. Big fires for scaring away cave bears, smaller ones for telling stories and playing intimate games of spin-the-femur over the cracking of marrow bones and the sizzle of entrails roasting on a spit. Or just plain staring into the flames and embers—never a bad way to pass an evening.
In its role in modern cinematic storytelling, fire still exerts a powerful effect. Fires and explosions in the movies draw and rivet the eye like nothing else, excepting maybe nipples. Fire is versatile: It can be cast as a force, a character, a metaphor, as a bit-part player or in a humorous cameo. Most importantly, it almost always looks gorgeous, in color and black and white, even when it stands for something as horrifying as genocide. The following is a summary of just a few outstanding movie fires—not the Backdraft or the Towering Inferno kind, although those are wonderful too, but fires that work their movie magic in subtler ways.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981): Not only is this one of my all-time favorite movies, it also boasts three of my favorite movie fires: (1) the blaze that consumes Marion Ravenwood’s watering hole high in the Himalayas, (2) the rivers of flaming gasoline threatening Indiana Jones as he battles his way onto the Flying Wing, and (3) the raging conflagration that ensues when the Ark of the Covenant is opened, which melts two Nazi goons, explodes the head of French archaeologist, and sweeps an entire company of goose-stepping sausage-eaters up to the Final Judgement. Absolutely amazing.
The Naked Jungle (Byron Haskin, 1954): A South American plantation owner (Charlton Heston) must contend with the twin threats to his hard-won tropical paradise posed by a marauding horde of soldier ants and a strong-willed proxy wife played by the fetching Eleanor Parker. Heston isn’t thrilled to learn that his bride has been married before (at one point he refers to her as “another man’s leavings”!), but changes his mind shortly before destroying his entire plantation to save it from the ants. He eventually succeeds by flooding his land, but not before emptying the villa of most of its furniture to burn as fuel on a defensive fireline. The fire scenes are scanty, but they have the cleansing effect of burning through the mounting delirium that characterizes this movie. Remember, too, that this is 1954—the fire might be a stand-in for the actual, erm, love act. Then again, so might the gushing floodwaters.
The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983): Firestarter might seem like the logical choice of Stephen King novels adapted for the screen in any discussion of movie fires, but the fire premonition in this underrated 1983 chiller beats that hands down. It’s startling enough when Johnny (Christopher Walken) suddenly wakes up in his clinic bed and grabs the nurse’s arm, but the terrifying vision that follows is enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck leap right out of their follicles.
Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924): Again, two great blazes for one low price! In Siegfried, the first half of this Teutonic epic brought to the screen by Fritz Lang, the titular hero tries to hook up his friend Gunther with the treacherous Brunhild. To get to her, however, Siegfried and Gunther have to contend with the lake of fire—beautifully depicted with vintage matte photography—that surrounds her Icelandic fortress. I’ll take dated, 1920s-era special effects like this over modern computer-generated ones any day of the week because, in addition to requiring imagination, resourcefulness and a pioneering spirit to produce, they also create fantastic spaces of dreamy artifice that hyper-real digital graphics just can’t match. In part two, Kriemhild’s Revenge, the built-to-scale fortress of Attila the Hun is consumed in an enormous blaze during a battle filmed with 500 Russian extras on the outskirts of Berlin.
Archangel (Guy Maddin, 1990): I love this movie for about a thousand reasons, but Archangel merits a mention here simply because it uses one of my favorite fire motifs: flames bursting through a map, photograph or something else (in this instance, shots of hands folded in quiet pacifist prayer) to show that all hell is about to break loose. Like the beginning of the TV show Bonanza. Nobody uses this effect much in the movies anymore, but I can’t get enough of it, and the high-contrast black and white of the film, coupled with a cheesy fire sound effect, make this low-budget specimen worth at least 20 exploding Hollywood stunt cars.
Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, George Cukor, et. al., 1939): It’s been too long since I’ve seen the movie, but the fire that destroys Atlanta while Scarlett O’ Hara (Vivien Leigh) makes her escape should be right up there on anyone’s list of extraordinary movie fires. Honorary mention: Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, both by Terrence Malick.
Godzilla [vs. anybody]: I’ve been spending a lot of time making dioramas and miniature structures lately (long story, that), but all the while I’m working on them, I also fantasize about destroying them when I’m done. I love watching miniature sets get whaled on by fire-breathing movie colossi, and the real fix for this particular jones is, of course, almost any Japanese monster movie. There’s a formula for adjusting film speed to scale to make the scaled–down destruction look a little more realistic, but the effect rarely succeeds a hundred percent. Which, as you might have gathered, is just fine with me.