Rewind: Fire-Fighting Films Mine Drama From Real Danger

Moviemakers used natural fear of fire to terrify, now adapt to post-9-11 reality.

Cinema mines drama from danger. Protagonists are placed in some kind of peril that makes the audience cringe in their seats and chew on nails, subconsciously placing themselves in the situation, even if it’s something (like say, being attacked by aliens) they haven’t personally experienced. However, if that danger is something more realistic and commonplace (like a mugging, or being trapped on a speeding bus … OK, stuck in a stalled elevator), odds are a percentage of the filled seats will have had firsthand experience with said danger.

“Ladder 49″ is the latest in a surprisingly not-long list of movies dealing with the dangers of that most primal element, fire. Considering how much fear of fire is a part of our lives, you’d think there would be more films exploiting that phobia. Maybe it was budget constraints or a lack of special effects capabilities that kept more filmmakers from putting out blazes onscreen.

The first attempt to center a movie around an out-of-control blaze was 1937′s “In Old Chicago,” the apocryphal tale of the fire that destroyed much of that city in 1871. A completely fictionalized account, the movie told of the feuding O’Leary brothers, who must come together to save Old Chicago when their mother’s cow kicks over a lamp and sets the whole city ablaze. Melodrama aside, the movie featured spectacular effects that drove the budget of the movie to a then-astronomical $1.8 million.

Two years later, the all-time quintessential chick flick set another major U.S. city on fire. Atlanta burned to the ground in the 1939 Civil War epic, “Gone With the Wind.” While the movie won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects, the fire scenes weren’t really an effect; they were real. The filmmakers actually burned 40 acres filled with old sets from other movies. Flames shot 500 feet into the air over the studio lot, and it took 5,000 gallons of water to extinguish the blaze.

Both Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of “Rebecca” (1940) and any of the film versions of Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” (the first being the very unfaithful 1934 translation) climax with the metaphorical razing of the mansions/prisons their titular heroines inhabit. Oh, the passion of a woman is a dangerous flint!

One of the movies’ most memorable fires didn’t require dangerous effects. The 1942 Disney film, “Bambi” tugged more tears than any other cartoon in history when Bambi’s mother is killed by hunters. But the harrowing forest-fire scene, gorgeously rendered by Disney’s animators, scared the bejeezus out of kids and adults alike.

Decades later, cinematic pyromania reached new heights with 1974′s “The Towering Inferno.” It was the era of the disaster film, and Irwin Allen was the king of the genre. After making audiences fear airplanes in “Airport” and cruise ships in “The Poseidon Adventure,” Allen selected the world’s tallest (fictional) building, the Glass Tower, as the setting for his next spectacular. Corporate greed leads to cheap wiring, leads to power surges and paint-soaked rags in a closet (never a good idea) sparking a fire that takes a cast of hundreds to extinguish, led by alpha males Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. Aside from some fairly exciting stunts, the movie is also noted for O.J. Simpson’s most dramatic performance. OK, second most dramatic. The film’s cautionary undertones about man’s hubris and the potential dangers of constructing a building so tall carry an entirely new weight today.

It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when people thought casting Drew Barrymore as a bad girl was going against type. But she was still mostly known as the little angel from “E.T.” when she starred as the “Firestarter” in the 1984 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. The film is your standard “mutants trying to escape from the government agency that created them and wants to use them for evil purposes” story, and it says so much about Hollywood that this is a standard plot.

Ron Howard’s “Backdraft” (1991) was the first movie to delve into the psychological underpinnings of the firefighter. While the story (about two battling fireman brothers trying to catch an arsonist) was rather pedestrian and riddled with technical gaffes, the movie’s fire scenes were groundbreaking, but quickly anachronistic. These days, digital effects mean actors and stuntmen don’t even have to singe an eyebrow, as all fire can be computer generated in post-production. This is no doubt a happy turn of events for Chris Evans, the actor who’s playing Johnny Storm, a.k.a. the Human Torch, in next year’s “Fantastic Four” movie.

In this post-9-11 world, effects are taking a back seat to the men and women who battle those blazes. Those indelible images of New York City firemen rushing into the World Trade Center and never coming out can’t help but resonate even when we’re viewing the most trivial piece of entertainment that contains a fire scene. Watching “The Towering Inferno” is no longer a campy pleasure. Like the TV shows “Rescue Me” and “Third Watch,” “Ladder 49″ attempts to humanize these knighted icons, making their sacrifices all the more meaningful. And these days, those images pack more of a punch than any soundstage blaze or digital explosion can.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Ladder 49.”

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