Directed by: Earl Bellamy
Starring: Ernest Borgnine, Vera Miles, Eric Estrada, Donna Mills, Alex Cord, Patty Duke, Lloyd Nolan
I like fire movies. Too few of them here at DMW – gotta do something about that.
So, let’s continue with the works of Irwin Allen. Fire! was shot, I believe, back to back with Flood! but wasn’t released until a year later. Both films were directed by the same man, Earl Bellamy, but Fire! is by far the most entertaining. The plotting is tighter, the acting is (mostly) better, and it offers more action than its waterlogged sibling.
For starters, Fire! sets a brisk pace from the beginning. A group of convicts from the local prison are working in the forest. Among them is Eric Estrada as a handsome convict who’s thinking about escaping, on account of his being innocent ‘n’ all. An older, uglier convict starts a fire, but instead of making a run for it during the ensuing chaos, Estrada stays and helps putting the fire out.
Unfortunately, the convicts don’t do a very thorough job, and after they leave the woods start smoldering again. A pretty young teacher (Donna Mills) is out on an excursion nearby with a group of children and spots the fire. She gets the kids in the bus and drives them to safety at a nearby vacation lodge, but suffers a breakdown because one of the children, little Judy, had wandered off into the forest and was left behind.
The owner of the lodge is a widow (Vera Miles) who is being courted by lumber mill owner Ernest Borgnine. While the local fire department do what they can to fight the rapidly spreading fire that is headed for town, Borgnine and a young doctor (Alex Cord) head into the flaming woods to find the missing child.
The fire is spreading too fast to contain and the fire department needs backup. Volunteers from the prison, among them Eric Estrada, are brought in to help out. Estrada finally sees his chance to escape and runs away into the forest. It turns out he’s really a good guy, though, when he stops at a crashed helicopter to help the injured pilot, thus losing his chance to get away.
As the fire closes in on the lodge, where the school children and women are stranded, Ernest and Dr Alex Cord come to the rescue with heavy trucks and a bulldozer. On the way back, a burning tree falls across the road, and Ernest dies a heroic death when his car plunges into a ravine.
Overall, Fire! is a pretty fun watch. It doesn’t waste too much time on setup and soap operatics, and lives up to its title by offering generous amounts of fire action. The fire sequences look pretty good for a 70’s TV movie, and unlike the flooding in Flood! the whole thing is actually somewhat believable.
That’s not to say that Fire! doesn’t feature its share of the absurd and/or silly. On more than one occasion, accidents and deaths are staged in such a way as to make you chuckle rather than shiver. As in Flood!, director Bellamy seems to have some problems with continuity, as the transitions from day to night and back again are quite jarring. The ending is hands down one of the most ridiculous I’ve seen: after an hour and a half of raging fires, a random guy enters the building where the survivors are gathered and exclaims “The fire is under control!” Cue flashbacks of Ernest Borgnine moments and roll credits. What? It’s like the screenwriter suddenly realized he was all out of paper.
There were certainly no Academy Awards won, but who doesn’t like Ernest Borgnine? The acting is decent, though I can’t get over Alex Cord’s way of growling his lines in a strangely stilted way, and the two most prominent child actors are absolutely horrible.
Fire! earns extra points for a) killing off the hero, and b) a great death sequence where a firefighter climbs up a burning tree to saw off the upper half, only to plunge to his death after cathing on fire (check out the trailer below for a shot from this scene). Made me remember why I like these films so much…
By no means a masterpiece, Fire! is well worth watching for genre fans, and delivers an entertaining mix of disaster movie thrills and low-budget cheese.
I did enjoy (in a snarky fashion) how Bellamy tried to make it seem as if this growing forest fire is sneaking up on the little girl who has wandered away from the rest of her class and its single chaperon (not that’s some brilliant planning right there). …AND how the chaperon (Donna Mills) seems to have a freaking stroke from her over-the-top hysteria, but recovers completely after a fitful nap on the sofa. …AND the scene in which Vera Miles has to talk the idiot kid into working the doorknob. …AND the scene in which Lloyd Nolan flips his car instead of simply applying the brakes. …AND the finale, which rubs our noses in Vera Miles’ mourning misery just before the soundtrack bursts into a rousing, joyous theme for the end credits. Yikes.
Some people prefer Flood! for its tighter cast and plotting; only the Roddy McDowell scene seems out of place in that one, but Fire! is all over the map, with characters running back and forth and to and fro, working out their li’l subplots. And yes, continuity is all over the map as well: the little girl winds up in a ravine with a bruise on her forehead, and while he can figure out what happened, it still feels like a scene’s missing; further, I’m curious from which western that train depot shot was cribbed (it’s painfully obvious that it’s old footage) when Estrada goes to make his getaway.
(While they’re hardly good effects, Flood! has some miniature destruction, but Fire! is stuck with stunt work and controlled blazes. Neither one of ’em has the budget to fulfill their promises.)
Norman Katkov also wrote Cave In!, along with other Irwin Allen goofies like The Return of Captain Nemo and the outrageous Viva Knievel!
After this, but before the incredibly weak Cave In!, Irwin Allen got ambitious with two disaster miniseries, Hanging by a Thread and my personal favorite, The Night the Bridge Fell Down starring the late Leslie Nielsen. They weren’t any more spectacular or action-packed (Hanging by a Thread is a blatant ripoff of the 76-minute ABC Movie of the Week Skyway to Death padded out to three-plus hours with flashbacks and some crime-drama nonsense, and Night the Bridge Fell Down is a mishmash of Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno elements likewise almost doubled in length with flashbacks), but they have fun casts and are fine campy bad-movie time-killers if you’re into that sort of thing.
(Warners Archive finally got Night the Bridge Fell Down fixed; I wouldn’t buy a copy from eBay or Amazon because it might be from the damaged pressings, but Warners Archive purchases should be okay.)
Ugh, I’m an idiot.
“(not that’s some brilliant planning right there)” should be “(NOW that’s some…” and “while he can figure out what happened” should be “while WE can figure out what happened.”
Happenstance, thank you for the excellent summary of all those ridiculous details that help make this one so amusing to watch. Particularly the door-knob scene is a howler (along with Lloyd Nolan’s crash).
I have both Hanging by a Thread and The Night the Bridge Fell Down on my must-see list. 🙂