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Fire!
(1977)

Director: Earl Bellamy  
Cast:
Ernest Borgnine, Vera Miles, Patty Duke Astin


It's a funny thing when it comes to movies. When any of us decides to watch a movie, it's for one (or more) reasons. Oh, I know that deep down any moviegoer watches a movie for the same base reason, and that is to be entertained. But when it comes to every moviegoing experience, we set ourselves to be entertained in a different way. People tune in to comedies because they want to laugh. Other times people watch horror movies because they want their spirits to be shaken up a little bit. Then there are disaster movies. Why do many people like watching disaster movies? After thinking about it for a long time, I came up with several reasons. One reason is that disaster movies often offer spectacles that most people never experience in real life. Many people have never witnessed an actual earthquake, and would never want to in real life because there would be risk to their lives. Disaster movies offer an outlet to see this sort of thing in a safe environment. Related to this is another reason, that being that many people are drawn to scenes of destruction. Admit it, when you drive past the policeman directing traffic away from a car pile-up, you can't help but momentarily glance at the wrecked vehicles. There is also a third reason why I think people are attracted to disaster movies. While people watch disaster movies, I think that many people imagine themselves with the actors onscreen, and think about what they would do if they found themselves in that situation. If they see that what they would do is done by the movie's characters - and is successful - they will be assured that if they ever get into a bad situation like what's onscreen in real life, they will prevail.

There's another funny thing I would like to bring up, that being related to the topic of disaster movies. I think if you were to talk to the average moviegoer about disaster movies, you would find that many of them think that the genre is somewhat modern, more specifically originating in the 1970s. Actually, I can understand this. When people think of disaster movies, I am confident that their first thoughts are the still-famous disaster movies that came out of that decade, such as the Airport series, as well as other efforts that include Meteor, City On Fire, The Hindenburg, and The Cassandra Crossing, among many others. But if you look at the many decades of Hollywood history, you'll find that disaster movies were made much earlier than the 1970s. One of the first - if not, the first - full-length disaster movies was the 1926 silent movie The Johnstown Flood. A few years later the silent movie Noah's Ark dealt with the biggest flood of all time. There were other water-related disaster movies over the next few years like Titanic: Disaster In The Atlantic and the once thought lost Deluge, where New York was hit by a giant tidal wave. As the next few decades passed, the occasional  movie dealing with disaster was still being made, such as San Francisco (with its earthquake climax), several more movies concerning the sinking of the Titanic, and a variety of others including The Last Voyage (involving a ship that explodes and slowly sinks) and The High And The Mighty, an airplane-themed disaster movie starring none other than John Wayne.

There are even disaster movies being made today, such as 2012 and Daylight. But as I said, it's those 1970s movies that people usually think about when it comes to disaster movies. And if you were to ask those same people who they associate the most with disaster movies, Fireit has to be Irwin Allen. Allen produced some of the most popular theatrical disaster movies ever with efforts such as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. You probably know that, but you may not know that Allen made a number of disaster movies for television as well. In the latter part of the 1970s, a still triumphant Allen made for Warner Brothers three disaster movies for the small screen (though two of them were released to theaters overseas.) One was Flood!, another was Hanging By A Thread, and the third, which I'm reviewing here, was Fire! The title is pretty self-explanatory, though I should point out that this time it's a forest that's burning, not a building. In an isolated area of the Pacific Northwest (the movie was shot in Oregon), a number of characters interact in various ways with each other during a forest fire outbreak. There's a lumber mill owner (Borgnine, A Bullet For Sandoval) who is courting the widowed owner of a wilderness lodge (Miles, Psycho). Meanwhile, a doctor (Alex Cord, Airwolf) visiting the area has a strained relationship with his doctor wife (Astin, The Miracle Worker), and both are thinking of divorce, much to the chagrin of their aged small town doctor friend (Lloyd Nolan, Julia). There's a schoolteacher (Donna Mills, Knots Landing) who loses one of her young students in the woods not long after the fire breaks out. And there are two convicts, one of them (Neville Brand, Laredo) who started the fire as a possible diversion to be used during a planned escape, something his convict friend (Erik Estrada, CHiPS) is also considering.

Ty Hardin (Riptide) and Gene Evans (Support Your Local Sheriff) also show up during the events of the movie, so clearly Fire! can be safely labelled as having an all-star cast, even if the majority of these players would be considered B-level stars. But I am sure that right now, your concern isn't about who's in the cast, because a certain question is burning (heh) in your mind. I know what that question is, and that question is, "Are there any hilarious scenes where people catch on fire and run about screaming while covered in flames?" Let me assure you that does indeed happen in Fire! In fact, it happens during the movie's first ten minutes. Okay, the guy isn't completely covered with flames, but his heated (heh) protesting while lit up definitely generates a few chuckles. Later in the movie, there's a scene with one firefighter character completely covered in flames who falls several dozen feet to the ground from the top of a burning tree, which makes for a cool visual. And later, there's a firefighter who gets pinned under a burning tree that falls on him. So there are definitely a few sadistic thrills to be found in this movie, but Fire! does have some other points of merit. Quite a bit of the location footage shot in Oregon is surpringly well done. Instead of using familiar-looking southern California locations like so many made-for-TV movies did in the '70 that made many of them feel alike, the wilderness here with its tall green trees looks fresher and wilder. It helps give the movie a "big" feel to it at times, enough that you can understand why Warner Brothers decided to release the movie in theaters overseas.

Another way that the movie feels "big" at times is when it shows us the forest ablaze. Before I actually watched the movie, I thought that they would use a lot of stock footage to depict the fire. While there is some stock footage of real forest fires used, there's actually not as much of this as you might think. Most of the time the filmmakers planned and set actual fires in the actual Oregon wilderness. Sometimes it's clear this fire is on a limited scale (like when we don't see fire in the far background as well as in the foreground), but the flames look real big at times and will make you wonder how the special effects department was able to control the various blazes. There are some obvious cost-cutting techniques in the movie (we don't actually see the helicopter hit the ground when it crashes, for example), but they don't hurt the movie that much. Okay, the look of the movie is fine, but what about the direction? Well, I can tell you that veteran TV director Earl Bellamy, thanks in part to a screenplay that jumps from one subplot to another every few minutes or so, keeps things running at a pace brisk enough that boredom never sits in; I watched the movie from start to finish without at any point getting tired or bored enough to want a break. So the movie has that going for it. Neverless, when I reached the end of the movie, there was still a part of me that felt unsatisfied due to a few significant flaws. Take all those characters in the movie, for instance. I felt that there were too many characters spread out through the ninety-eight minute running time. Having to deal with all those characters and motivations, the movie is unable to give many of them a fair shake. After Borgnine's introduction at the beginning, for example, it takes more than a half hour for his character to return. Nolan and Mills' characters barely get an introduction before events cripple them physically or emotionally, forcing them to be put on the sidelines with practically nothing else to do for the rest of the running time.

While I'm speaking about the characters, I'd like to point out another flaw in the screenplay that has to do with them. In just about any disaster movie, the aim is to put the characters in danger fairly early on, and see them have to deal with the disaster for pretty much the rest of the movie. But the screenplay for Fire seems to be trying hard to avoid this. Although the fire starts fairly early in the movie, it takes more than an hour before the majority of the characters find themselves in true danger. Up to this point, it's very hard to get involved with the characters because they are out of harm's way or dealing with the fire very carefully. And when the characters do find themselves in danger, it's not like the movie tries that hard to show they are in a dire situation. In fact, the body count this movie boasts is a mere three victims, even when the fire reaches the small town next to the forest. (Incidentally, pretty much all we see of this burning town is a quick and unconvincing special effects shot of main street ablaze.) Plus, the screenplay inadequately resolves the crisis at the end of the movie. Although the previous few minutes of the movie showed the fire still raging, a character suddenly appears and says, "The fire's under control! It's almost out!", and the movie ends a few seconds later. Naturally, viewers who are wanting to see characters beat the disaster at hand will feel cheated by this ending. I certainly was. Still, while I personally wasn't satisfied overall by Fire!, I do feel that there are some people who will enjoy it. As I said, it moves along at a snappy pace, and while it may be brainlessly written at times, those who are not in the mood to think may welcome this attribute. They may even find the movie's sometimes dopey dialogue and situations make for some unintentional amusement. If they also happen to like disaster movies, 1970s television nostalgia, as well as seeing famous actors make fools out of themselves, even better. So I think this movie is a matter of taste. If you personally find the sound of it appealing despite what I said earlier, I think it's safe for you to give it a look.

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See also: City On Fire, Epicenter, Tycus

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