Directed By: Earl Bellamy
Starring: Ernest Borgnine, Vera Miles, Patty Duke
Tag line: "Another burning sensation from the producer of The Towering Inferno"
Trivia: This made-for-television movie was released theatrically overseas
The '70s was the decade of the disaster movie, not only on the big screen (Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno) but the small one as well. As a kid, I watched a number of made-for-television disaster flicks, including The Savage Bees, Smash-Up on Interstate 5, and this film, Fire!, about an out-of-control fire and the Oregon community it terrorizes.
While a group of convicts is out working in a forest, one of them intentionally starts a small fire, in the hopes of slipping away during the ensuing chaos. Pitching in to help, the remaining convicts believe they’ve put the fire out, and head back to the prison. Unfortunately, their efforts weren’t complete, and before long, a blaze is burning out of control, threatening the nearby town of Silverton and all who live there. With the help of a brave few, including Sam Brisbane (Ernest Borgnine), owner of the lumber yard, and Drs. Alex (Alex Cord) and Peggy Wilson (Patty Duke), the firefighters do all they can to contain the fire and rescue those trapped behind the ever-growing wall of flames.
There aren’t many people living in Silverton, and in typical disaster-movie fashion, we’re introduced to almost all of them. Sam Brisbane has been trying for years to hook up with widow Martha Wagner (Vera Miles), who’s unwilling to commit. Alex and Peggy Wilson, both of whom work in the medical field, are getting a divorce because they can’t agree on where to live (he wants to do research in NY and she wants to teach medicine in L.A.). There’s old Doc Bennett (Lloyd Nolan), the kind of small-town doctor you only find in the movies, who wrecks his car on a back road when he swerves to miss a bear, and Bill Clay (James W. Gavin), the helicopter pilot who’s just found out he’s been offered a lucrative new job, only to celebrate by getting tangled up with yet another forest fire. To top it off, the local teacher, Harriett (Donna Mills), takes her class on a picnic in the woods, spots the fire, and decides to bolt, but not before young Judy (Michelle Stacy) goes wandering off, giving the film its first bit of drama. This early build-up, where we learn all we can about the various characters, is pretty standard stuff, and even gets a little schmaltzy on occasion (Dan Harder, the fire chief played by Gene Evans, pauses at one point to release a baby bunny he rescued). But these scenes are nonetheless serviceable, and work well as an introduction to the citizens of Silverton.
Unfortunately, Fire! is too much character development, and not enough action. The attempt to rescue Judy lacks any real excitement, and the firefighting sequences are nothing more than shot after shot of guys shoveling dirt on the blaze. There are a few tense moments, and a cool stunt or two (one volunteer falls from a tall tree, completely engulfed in flames), but it isn’t until the fire starts reaching populated areas that things get thrilling, and by the time that happens, there’s not a whole lot of movie left! While Fire! is certainly far from the worst of the ‘70s disaster flicks, It’s not nearly intense enough to rank among the best.