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Updated: December 24, 2021

Ernest Borgnine in Fire! (1977)

Directed by: Earl Bellamy

Starring: Ernest Borgnine, Vera Miles, Eric Estrada, Donna Mills, Alex Cord, Patty Duke, Lloyd Nolan

So, let's continue with the works of Irwin Allen. Fire! was shot, I believe, back to back with Flood! But wasn't released until a year later. Both films were directed by the same man, Earl Bellamy, but Fire! Is by far the most entertaining. The plotting is tighter, the acting is (mostly) better, and it offers more action than its waterlogged sibling.

For starters, Fire! sets a brisk pace from the beginning. A group of convicts from the local prison are working in the forest. Among them is Eric Estrada as a handsome convict who's thinking about escaping, on account of his being innocent ‘n' all. An older, uglier convict starts a fire, but instead of making a run for it during the ensuing chaos, Estrada stays and helps putting the fire out.

Unfortunately, the convicts don't do a very thorough job, and after they leave the woods start smoldering again. A pretty young teacher (Donna Mills) is out on an excursion nearby with a group of children and spots the fire. She gets the kids in the bus and drives them to safety at a nearby vacation lodge, but suffers a breakdown because one of the children, little Judy, had wandered off into the forest and was left behind.

The owner of the lodge is a widow (Vera Miles) who is being courted by lumber mill owner Ernest Borgnine. While the local fire department do what they can to fight the rapidly spreading fire that is headed for town, Borgnine and a young doctor (Alex Cord) head into the flaming woods to find the missing child.

The fire is spreading too fast to contain and the fire department needs backup. Volunteers from the prison, among them Eric Estrada, are brought in to help out. Estrada finally sees his chance to escape and runs away into the forest. It turns out he's really a good guy, though, when he stops at a crashed helicopter to help the injured pilot, thus losing his chance to get away.

As the fire closes in on the lodge, where the school children and women are stranded, Ernest and Dr Alex Cord come to the rescue with heavy trucks and a bulldozer. On the way back, a burning tree falls across the road, and Ernest dies a heroic death when his car plunges into a ravine.

Overall, Fire! is a pretty fun watch. It doesn't waste too much time on setup and soap operatics, and lives up to its title by offering generous amounts of fire action. The fire sequences look pretty good for a 70's TV movie, and unlike the flooding in Flood! the whole thing is actually somewhat believable.

That's not to say that Fire! doesn't feature its share of the absurd and/or silly. On more than one occasion, accidents and deaths are staged in such a way as to make you chuckle rather than shiver. As in Flood!, director Bellamy seems to have some problems with continuity, as the transitions from day to night and back again are quite jarring. The ending is hands down one of the most ridiculous I've seen: after an hour and a half of raging fires, a random guy enters the building where the survivors are gathered and exclaims "The fire is under control!" Cue flashbacks of Ernest Borgnine moments and roll credits. What? It's like the screenwriter suddenly realized he was all out of paper.

There were certainly no Academy Awards won, but who doesn't like Ernest Borgnine? The acting is decent, though I can't get over Alex Cord's way of growling his lines in a strangely stilted way, and the two most prominent child actors are absolutely horrible.

Fire! earns extra points for a) killing off the hero, and b) a great death sequence where a firefighter climbs up a burning tree to saw off the upper half, only to plunge to his death after cathing on fire (check out the trailer below for a shot from this scene). Made me remember why I like these films so much…

By no means a masterpiece, Fire! is well worth watching for genre fans, and delivers an entertaining mix of disaster movie thrills and low-budget cheese.

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