With wildfires possibly at the worst level they’ve ever been in the U.S. this summer, it may have movie producers looking back to a forgotten film genre: The forest fire movie. While we still have occasional firefighting movies (especially on TV), fighting a forest fire is a whole other beast that’s always been a challenge to film. It’s probably why there hasn’t been a huge amount of them made over the years without having a million stunt doubles on hand and stock footage of real wildfires. The wildfire movie genre itself started out with a serious face and somehow ended up becoming a backdrop to ridiculous plots. It may explain why the genre died out within the last 15 years.
But the movies aren’t quite done with natural disasters in film. With “The Impossible” being one of the scariest ever made just a couple of years ago by taking on tsunamis, can a new movie about wildfires scare just as many people? Also, can one be made without it being an extreme insurance risk for a studio?
The Earliest Wildfire Movie with Big-Name Stars
In 1952, a wildfire movie called “Red Skies of Montana” was more or less the first movie to take on these types of fires on an epic scale. Starring Richard Widmark and Jeffrey Hunter, Widmark plays the leader of a team of smokejumpers who fly over forest fires and sometimes parachute in to put out those fires in otherwise inaccessible areas. Something goes tragically wrong when Widmark’s character parachutes into a wildfire happening in a remote region of Montana. His smokejumper crew dies in the fire, and he feels endless guilt and responsibility for it, despite not being his fault.
As you might have guessed, the rest of the plot is Widmark’s character attempting to redeem his soul by fighting an even worse wildfire later. It was a movie that wasn’t about to be made again any time soon, even though they didn’t place the actors right in harm’s way. Most of the fire footage was filmed in advance and used as stock footage. Nevertheless, the production was a bit troubled due to a prior cast dealing with injuries while filming in real, rugged territory.
You can officially designate this wildfire movie the only one ever made that made the wildfire the center of the story rather than just a backdrop to a more contrived plot.
It wasn’t until the 1970s when the wildfire movie made a comeback and picked up on the idea that the story of a fire itself just wasn’t interesting enough without having convicts or someone else on the run getting trapped in the fire.
The Destruction of the Wildfire Movie Genre
During the 1970s, disaster movies were huge, and it didn’t matter if they were in the movie houses or on TV. Thanks to shows like “Emergency!” (the direct progenitor of “Chicago Fire” today), interest in fighting fires went into the stratosphere. Despite “Emergency!” not taking on forest fires often, they always made their emergencies the center of attention in an episode. When the TV movie “Fire!” was made in 1977, it was right in the middle of the “Emergency!” boom and disaster flicks in movies that ranged from fires in skyscrapers to floods. It also started a very bad idea: An on-the-run convict starts a forest fire that soon threatens a local Oregon community.
Steven Spielberg was one of the few who had a much more meaningful plot around the sideline story of fighting wildfires and smokejumpers. 1989’s “Always” might not be Spielberg’s best film as a remake to the death and body-switching story of “A Guy Named Joe.” Nevertheless, the final quarter of the movie depicting the rescue of firefighters by plane through Holly Hunter’s character, Dorinda, is generally riveting in that Spielberg way.
It’s the movie “Firestorm” from 1998 that might have been the death knell for wildfire movies, at least for a while. With perhaps some of the best wildfire scenes done up to the time, it simply had to go with the convicts on the run plot to water the movie down. Having Howie Long as the star also didn’t give it huge star power, hence becoming a modest dud at the box office.
Since then, there hasn’t been a movie like it made, and you have to wonder how many scripts are on Hollywood’s Black List with wildfires as a plot device. Perhaps movies about sinkholes will come first since we have yet to see any elaborate film taking on this new nightmare.
The wildfire movie, however, needs a renaissance, especially since you can count on wildfires becoming our worst fear as real communities deal with them. A convict or other uninteresting character on the run shouldn’t even be considered in order to drive the point home that wildfires are now well within highly populated areas.