Hellfighters (1968)

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He’s not too smart about which fires to walk away from. Chance Buckman (John Wayne) is injured fighting an oil field fire and his assistant Greg (Jim Hutton) brings his boss’ estranged daughter Tish (Katharine Ross) to visit him in hospital – they’ve just got married a mere five days after meeting and Chance isn’t too pleased given Greg’s promiscuous ways. His marriage to Tish’s mom Madelyn (Vera Miles) ended because she couldn’t take the pressure of his work and Tish swears it’ll be different for her.  After seeing Greg get hurt she starts to fray at the edges and play solitaire a lot. When he takes over a gig in Venezuela and the team comes under fire from revolutionaries it’s time for Chance to return and his remarriage to Madelyn is postponed … A fascinating premise derived from the biography of legendary firefighter Red Adair, this moots the potential of examining the process and plumps for the melodrama of being the woman on the sidelines. Ross’ gorgeous sorrowfulness isn’t exploited but there are some good, colourful scenes and a nice barroom brawl to keep Wayne’s donnybrooking fans happy in between the talking shops. Written by Clair Huffaker and directed by Andrew V. McLaglen who had worked with Wayne in McLintock! Wayne got a million dollars to star.

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Crack in the World (1965)

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We all know that two wrongs don’t make a right. So when geothermal scientist Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews) figures that deep-mining magma in the earth’s core which resulted in a fissure in the earth can be remedied – with a nuclear device! you know you’re in for an epic disaster. His colleague Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore) can’t dissuade him from this mega end of days move and their quarrel is emphasised by the woman they have in common Maggie (Janette Scott). She was involved with Ted before she married Stephen, who is concealing the fact that he’s about to die. That gives her desire to have his child an edge to this cracking drama when the two guys knock their very cerebral heads together about what to do. Very impressive staging, shooting and effects lend this tightly constructed doomsday scenario a lot of believability and style. Spain stands in for Tanganyika in a screenplay by Jon Manchip White and Julian Zimet. Directed by Andrew Marton.

When Worlds Collide (1951)

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I’m a sucker for a 50s sci-fi and this is a beauty – gorgeous to look at and filled with everything you expect from the era:  great design (although crucial mattes had to be replaced by less expensive sketches), daft romance, a madman in a wheelchair, a sense of jeopardy – extinction! – and a winning optimism about life outside Earth. Producer George Pal could be considered an auteur in this area and the source material is a couple of novels from the 1930s by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer adapted by Sydney Boehm. Pilot David Randall (Richard Derr) has top secret photographs which he brings from South African astronomer Dr Emery Bronson (Hayden Rorke) to American scientist Dr Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) confirming that the planet is in the path of rogue star Bellus. The world is going to end in 8 months and Hendron goes to the United Nations to let everyone know and pleads for space arks to transport a limited number of humans to the passing planet Zyra which orbits Bellus, realising it is humanity’s only hope. He’s not believed and has to get money from wealthy and disabled industrialist Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt) to build the vehicles but Stanton wants to choose the people instead of just being allocated a seat. Meanwhile Joyce Hendron (Barbara Rush – wahey!) falls for Randall, forgetting about her boyfriend.  Everyone is building rocketships, people are being evacuated and the world is about to end:   who will survive the impact of Zyra as it first approaches Earth and causes volcanoes and crashing buildings?  And who will make it onto the arks in this lottery for survival? Soon as anything, there’s a riot going on. Great fun. Directed by Rudolph Mate.

Juggernaut (1974)

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In 1972 the QE2 was subjected to a bomb hoax and Royal Marines were deployed to deal with the situation:  this is an adaptation of that incident, with writer/producer Richard Alan Simmons (writing under the nom de plume Richard De Koker) moving events to the North Atlantic and a cruise liner tellingly christened Britannic. An Irish-accented man telephones the owner of the line Ian Holm with the information that seven drums of amatol (an explosive) are rigged in the hold. He wants a half million ransom.The seas are too stormy to save the 1200 passengers and while the police led by Anthony Hopkins (whose wife and son are on board) race against time to track the phonecalls, Navy bomb disposal expert Richard Harris and his team including David Hemmings are winched to the ship to try and defuse everything. This came out at the height of the Arab oil crisis and the IRA’s mainland Britain bombing campaign – and – crucially – the disaster movie genre. Yet it has a rare degree of realism and character definition, probably because after the original directors Bryan Forbes and then Don Medford abandoned ship (!) Richard Lester took over and rewrote it with Alan Plater, demonstrating that he is as adept at action/adventure as slapstick comedy, with regular Roy Kinnear along for the ride, supplying some morbidly funny lines as the entertainer while the clock ticks. While Captain Omar Sharif sweats and looks a little red around the eyes, even with Shirley Knight providing his kicks, Harris smokes his pipe and gets on with the job.  He does some really great character work given that most of his acting takes place in quite literally a tiny frame – head and shoulders. The revelation of the bomber’s identity – he’s not foreign – provides some thought-provoking context. Free of contemporary technology and with some telling lines about refugees, this is an unusually watchable genre exercise, driven by something deeper than just explosions and with a really great ending.

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (2016)

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Brace for impact. Lean and trim, that’s not just a descriptor for director Clint Eastwood, it also works for Todd Komarnicki’s adaptation of Captain Chesley Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeffrey Zaslow’s book, Highest Duty, detailing what happened January 15, 2009, when they famously landed US Airways Flight 1549 on NYC’s Hudson River, without a single casualty. The film is structured around the National Transportation Safety Board investigation which started immediately, stranding Sully (Tom Hanks) and Jeff (Aaron Eckhart) at a Marriott without their own clothes and left to ponder if they could indeed have landed the Airbus at alternate airports. We start with a nightmare – Sully’s – one of many all too realistic visions of crashing in uptown Manhattan. For the elephant in the room that this constantly addresses is 9/11 and how clever to do this in the first scene:  it’s what we were all thinking during those first pictures. It’s uppermost in his mind as he is taken to task and tested as a virtual criminal by the NTSB while being hailed as hero on all the talk shows – but he knows Jeff is a funnier interview and compliments him on his jokes to David Letterman. The story is extremely well modulated, waiting quite a long time to show us precisely what happened:  we see bits and pieces, are introduced (slightly) to some passengers and the unfortunate young air traffic controller who thinks he’s been part of an aircraft being downed and are finally prepared for something that we at least have the benefit of knowing ended well, even if in cold choppy waters at the worst time of year. When asked at the public hearing if he could have changed anything, Jeff declares, “it would have happened in July.” One great message here is about trusting human instinct over virtual reality and computer simulations. More humanity is supplied by Sully’s wife Laura Linney, not quite but almost literally phoning in her performance, bringing him back down to earth about their ongoing financial problems, fretting about what could happen if he loses his wings as he might do if found negligent – the airline has a lot riding on the insurance claims being voided. They cave as soon as they hear the inflight recording. But the question remains – how can a flock of geese down a passenger jet? An intrinsic design flaw? I know that I don’t take Airbus flights. There’s a very good joke when Sully goes into an Irish pub and the bartender gives him a Sully – “Grey Goose with a splash of water.” You’ve got to laugh. Kind of! Coming in at a tight 96 minutes, this near-disaster anti-thriller movie is a remarkably calm, paradoxically uplifting story of true heroism and Hanks is typically excellent. Perhaps it would have been too counterintuitive to have cast real-life disaster-prone pilot Harrison Ford?!

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

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A cargo-passenger aeroplane crashes in the Libyan Sahara:  the Sixties iteration of a disaster movie, in all but name. The pilot is James Stewart, the navigator an alcoholic Richard Attenborough and there is among the cast list a man so ill he will die if they’re not rescued soon … Robert Aldrich’s tough movie is really a brilliant set of character studies that never bows to cliche.  Adapted from Elleston Trevor’s novel by Aldrich regular Lukas Heller, it’s a marvellous portrait of people reacting to both pressure and the emergence of a Superman in their midst – a Hitlerian model aeroplane designer (Hardy Kruger) whose plan to resurrect their wreck might just get them out of there as they battle fraying nerves, water depletion and sand storms. In the midst of this we have a military type who goes on a suicidal desert walk (Peter Finch) with Spaniard Carlos (Alex Montoya) who leaves his pet monkey behind, an oil company accountant (Dan Duryea), a quasi-hysterical oil foreman (Ernest Borgnine), a doctor (Christian Marquand), a mean Scot (Ian Bannen), and a nervous soldier (Ronald Fraser). There’s more! But that’s for you to find out in this race against time. That bird ain’t called Phoenix for nothing. How the men deal with each other and their increasing frustration is brilliantly managed by producer-director Aldrich and the performances are knockout. This wasn’t a hit at the time but has since become a major cult film.

1941 (1979)

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Many critics thought this was a total disaster – and not just because it’s about a near-disaster. Steven Spielberg collaborated with the writing Bobs, Gale and Zemeckis (with an assist from John Milius) in a brash, bawdy, out-and-out madcap comic actioner about what nearly went down in 1942 and other more or less contemporaneous incidents – a Japanese invasion of California  including the Great Los Angeles Air Raid, a bombardment of Ellwood oil refinery in Santa Barbara, the Zoot Suit Riots and the US Army putting an anti-aircraft carrier in someone’s back yard (though that went down in Maine.) For those looking for auteurist elements, well that Jap submarine comes across a lone woman swimmer along the Californian coastline … Spielberg sending up (literally, as it happens) the opening scene of Jaws with Susan Backlinie gamely returning to the affray (and Lorraine Gary showing up in the ensemble). We meet a tank crew led by Dan Aykroyd (including Treat Williams, John Candy and Mickey Rourke), a crazy Air Forces pilot ‘Wild Bill’ Kelso (who else but John Belushi), Toshiro Mifune in charge of the submarine hoping to land in Hollywood, Slim Pickens in a neat reference to his role in Dr Strangelove, Bobby DiCicco entering a dance contest in a zoot suit, secretary Nancy Allen is aroused by airplanes and attracts Captain Tim Matheson, while Major General Robert Stack tries to calm the public about imminent attack and is consoled by a screening of Dumbo. There’s more. A lot more! A mixed bag of take it or leave it humour is balanced by incredibly staged setpieces – watch that ferris wheel roll off the pier! See Ned Beatty’s house collapse! – straight from silent movies. Spielberg is better with more tonally consistent humour intrinsic to character and story as we see in the Indiana Jones films or Catch Me If You Can but you can’t deny the spectacular fun here which probably led to the expanded (146m) version becoming a cult item. William Fraker’s cinematography is a thing of wonder while fans of the era’s movies will enjoy the likes of Warren Oates, Perry Lang and Bobs regular Eddie Deezen.

Everest (2015)

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Two things, as Denis Leary used to say, before he became a serious Actor. One:  Titanic had a very good structure (I’m referring to the film, obviously). We all know what happened. We pretty much know how it happened, but in the film’s first half hour we are brought bang up to date with the best technology telling us exactly how everything went down. Literally. So when everyone was faced with the cataclysm, we had already stored all that in our brains and were able to focus on the plight of the victims and not where the hull was, and why, and why the nearest ship didn’t respond to an SOS (bastards.) Two: scholar Hannah Hamad wrote a brilliant book a couple of years ago on postfeminism and paternity in American films in which she basically argues that male protagonists get away with EVERYTHING if they’ve spawned a child.  In other words, fatherhood is a shortcut to signify ACHIEVEMENT. (Motherhood – not so much. This we know.) This is all by way of saying that this problematic supposedly true account of a disaster in which 8 men (bearded fathers all, practically) died, commences with a medical description of what happens to people dying on mountains – cerebral and pulmonary oedema. And freezing to death. So we know what to expect. Until someone just – falls off. This looks probably like it should in reality – unclear, but it’s a movie, and the lack of visual clarity is a hindrance. Characterisation is bulked up with desperate phonecalls home to little wifey, manned by Emily Watson with an Aussie accent, tearful. As you would be, if your entire tour bus died at your hands. And Jason Clarke is the main guy. Problematic again if you don’t like him – did anyone really think he was adequate as the lead in the Planet of the Apes sequel – after James Franco?! As a wise unbearded man says at the beginning of the great adventure, Mountains always have the last word.