Back Into the Fire 

After nearly 50 years, Missoula’s most famous movie returns

To understand the phenomenon of smoke jumping, and the movie Red Skies of Montana, which was filmed in Missoula nearly 50 years ago, you’ve got to understand the dramatic way in which smokejumping has become the nexus of some of the more crucial themes in the history of western Montana.

The setting is a confident, successful postwar America that believes in technology, is trying to define conservation, trustingly equates nature with resources, and most of all craves daredevil heroes in big Hollywood flicks. The problem, as reported in a Missoula newspaper in 1952 is this: During the years 1905-1930, when the forest firefighters traveled by foot and pack mule, they could make about two and a half miles per hour, and a total of 6.3 million acres of forest burned. From 1931-1940, largely because of trucks and forest roads, the speed of firefighters was increased to about 15 miles per hour, and burned areas amounted to 625,000 acres. From 1941-1950, aircraft and parachutists increased the attack speed of firefighters to 100-160 miles per hour; as a result only 80,000 acres burned.

Deductively speaking, the solution to Montana’s problem—too few men combined with a superabundance of high, inaccessible country to fight fires in—lay in sending in crack teams of men in to snuff out a blaze before it could get out of control. With pilots, paratroopers and soldiers returning to civilian life, and the new Forest Service policy of immediate fire suppression, smokejumpers were a natural. Natural perhaps, but maybe not intuitive, as former fire suppression foreman, project leader for the smokejumpers in Region One and the film’s technical advisor Fred Brauer said: “People thought we were a little crazy, jumping out of a perfectly good airplane—into a fire.”

Red Skies of Montana will be shown this weekend at the Wilma as a fundraiser to help the Museum of Mountain Flying raise the $125,000 necessary to purchase the plane known as the Mann Gulch DC-3. The plane, which delivered the 15 smokejumpers into Mann Gulch on Aug. 5, 1949, is currently in Arkansas where it is being used to haul car parts from Mexico, chicken farming supplies, and probably chickens, too, according to Stan Cohen, president of the Museum of Mountain Flying. The museum purchased one of the few remaining original copies of the movie, which, except for a few runs on classic movie channels, has not been seen on the big screen since it premiered in Missoula in 1952. It was never formatted for video.

According to Cohen the film is “loosely, very loosely” based on the Mann Gulch incident, in which 13 out of the 15 smokejumpers died when the fire they were fighting took an unexpected turn. Richard Widmark stars as the crew chief who, having lost his entire command to a fire he can’t remember the details of, suspects himself of cowardice. So do some of the relatives of the dead, one of whom confronts him—where else—on the fire line, where a pitched battle ensues between the two hot-blooded smokejumpers.

Filming, which was done at Hale Field (near the present day fairgrounds), Fort Missoula, the Nine Mile training base, Pattee Canyon, and various locations around Lolo, ensures local shots galore. Hollywood even built a fake forest on Wagon Mountain to use as a stage for the fire scenes. According to lore, they used burned trees from a previous fire re-blackened and stuck in a stage of cement and plaster, the remains of which exist up there today. Other scenes were shot in California, where an even more spectacular fire sequence was staged, and footage was incorporated from California and New Mexico forest fires that burned that year.

The cast was a big hit in Missoula, with a common comment being that the Hollywood actors looked a lot like the real smokejumpers. Oddly enough, the cast of Red Skies was actually the second choice of the producers, because Hollywood had attempted to film the movie once before, in 1950. But when star Victor Mature “got tangled up in a motorcycle up at Nine Mile camp where he injured his leg, he spent the rest of the shoot entertaining the nurses at St. Pat’s,” says Brauer, who as Forest Service liaison, provided all the personnel, and technical support to lend authenticity to the film. In order to make the movie appear as realistic as possible, the producers purchased genuine logger boots and repeatedly washed the jeans the actors wore so that they looked appropriately faded. Filming was delayed several times in August 1951 when forest fires required the use of Forest Service men and equipment to put out the real fires; Brauer was even called back from California where he was advising the film crew in order to get his own crews out on the fire lines.

Although he believes that the smokejumpers—who originated as professional firefighters delivered by parachute to fight a fire—have turned into professional parachutists who are delivered to fight a fire, Brauer says he still relishes his days in the Forest Service and enjoyed the jumping most of all. “If you’ve got a nagging wife, it’s the only thing to do. When that chute opens, it’s so quiet up there—all you hear is the flapping of the chute, instead of the flapping of a tongue.”

Red Skies of Montana will be shown at the Wilma Theatre Friday, June 2 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, June 3 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets $10; no reserved seating. Call 549-8488.

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