ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Hell Drivers (1957) Blu Ray (Network)
Stanley Baker plays Tom Yately, a man just out of prison who approaches Hawlett’s Trucking Company to get work as a driver. He has a quick meeting with the company’s snippy boss Cartley (William Hartnell) who runs through the rather harsh terms and conditions which basically amount to forcing his employees to break the speed limit to meet daily targets; fail to meet them and you’re out.
After a rather hair-raising driving test with Ed (Wilfrid Lawson), Tom gets his job and is assigned truck number 13 “for luck” - or so says the company’s secretary Lucy (Peggy Cummins). He starts to get to know the other drivers, who gather each night at a cafe called “The Pull-Inn”. He soon befriends an Italian immigrant co-worker named Gino (Herbert Lom) who is dating Lucy. The latter however takes a clear fancy to our handsome protagonist, as does the cafe-owner’s daughter Jill (Jill Ireland). Unfortunately the other drivers, ring-led by the facially-scarred, cutthroat foreman “Red” (Patrick McGoohan) adopt a rather less cordial attitude. Red is the fastest of all of the drivers, regularly managing 18 runs per day. Since nobody can beat him he challenges them all by offering a gold cigarette case to whoever manages to do so.
When Tom starts his job proper he begins to learn about the underhanded tactics that Red uses to guard his position at the top of the leagues. With Gino’s help he tries a few underhanded tactics of his own so as to win that coveted gold case, with the intention of selling it and moving on somewhere better. However, Red isn’t someone who concedes easily and has a few other dirty tricks up his sleeve, as well as the support of most of the other men.
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Hell Drivers was one of numerous films that American director Cy Endfield made in Britain following his exile during the McCarthy era. As an action flick it certainly entertains, but is undeniably rather dated. The central truck “races” as they cluster dangerously close together amid the precariously-weaving British rural “B” road network make good use of POV and low angle shots, but are filmed in an obviously under-cranked manner (making them look sped-up). The occasional fist fights are similarly “of their time” as they feature some rather obviously pulled punches.
On the other hand, the social commentary that looks at the dog-eat-dog world of work that pervades the British underclass - as enforced by the inherently corrupt persons higher up in society’s food chain - is just as relevant in today’s world of zero hours contracts and aggressively timed and quota’d work shifts. It’s a working class world portrayed in a resolutely rough-and-ready, unromantic, classically British Social Realist manner. It’s violent and gritty stuff, where its main characters end up steeped in grime and even having to wipe a little blood from their lips on occasion. The dialogue scenes and interactions between the characters are coarse and believable with a mixture of boorish camaraderie and bitter, seething rivalry.
At the centre of this maelstrom are the great performances and vividly-drawn characterisations of Stanley Baker’s Tom and Patrick McGoohan’s Red. Baker plays an archetypal “decent man whose life has taken a wrong turn” kind of character, but does so with a certain modest everyman likability and rugged charm. His character Tom is tough all right, but does have a certain vulnerability and a genuine wish to redeem himself in the eyes of others following his prison stretch. There are some small moments of poignancy that anchor the drama with a sense of emotional depth, such as when he uses a table that doubles as Gino’s Catholic altar to block the door so as to keep out a bunch of soused truckers who are spoiling for a fight; when some objects on it fall over he is seen gently rectifying their position. An even more dramatically weighty moment comes later on when he visits his brother and mother while they are working in a corner shop - highlighting the heartbreaking difficulty he has in reconciling with his devastated family. Red is a rather more basic sociopathic thug, but is played with an undeniably intimidating air of malice by McGoohan. He’s a classical bully who rules through fear, and his scenes with Baker (whose character initially struggles to even look him in those permanently steely eyes) are all-too-believably edgy.
Hell Drivers is also notable for featuring an uncanny number of actors who went on to considerable fame afterwards. The film turned Welshman Stanley Baker from an up-and-coming actor into a fully-fledged star, and he remained one until his premature death from lung cancer in 1976, at the age of 48 (just shortly after he was awarded a knighthood). Herbert Lom became best known for playing Inspector Clouseau’s long-suffering boss Dreyfus in the Pink Panther films, and remained a prolific character actor working internationally in both big and small budget films (including numerous horror flicks) until the early 1990s. Patrick McGoohan became famous for playing the main protagonists in the popular 1960s TV serials Danger Man and The Prisoner, before going on to a range of prominent roles in big-screen successes such as Silver Streak (1976), Scanners (1981) and Braveheart (1995). William Hartnell went on to become the first incarnation of Doctor Who from 1963 to 1966. Sidney James turned towards more comedic roles and became a regular fixture in the cast of the innuendo-laden Carry On film series (his first name was abbreviated to Sid during these later appearances). Jill Ireland found her fame as the real-life Mrs. Charles Bronson from 1968 until her death in 1990, and also regularly played the onscreen love interest in his films. Her previous husband was David McCallum (playing Tom’s crippled younger brother here), who became best known for playing Illya Kuryakin in the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E during the 1960s. Gordon Jackson’s career hit its heights during the 1970s with major recurring roles in two British TV series: Upstairs, Downstairs and The Professionals. Last but not least is Sean Connery, here in a peripheral part as one of the truckers. You are probably aware that his iconic role as James Bond made him into a star, but you might not know that both Stanley Baker and Patrick McGoohan were amongst the actors who had turned it down.
Despite its somewhat dated action filming and depictions of women, Hell Drivers stands as an intelligent and energetic piece of British cinema.
Runtime: 108 mins
Dir: Cy Endfield
Script: John Cruse, Cy Endfield
Starring: Stanley Baker, Herbert Lom, Peggy Cummins, Patrick McGoohan, William Hartnell, Wilfrid Lawson, Sidney James, Jill Ireland, Alfie Bass, Gordon Jackson, David McCallum, Sean Connery
A well-restored picture, where much delight can be found in picking out the grimy visuals and now-nostalgic details.
The mono sound is fine - nothing outstanding but nothing bad either.
A lot of extras here. Firstly, we get an enclosed booklet with an essay by Dave Rolinson, Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Hull. It takes a look at the film’s critical reception at the time, as well as a lengthy analysis of its star Stanley Baker, its themes, its importance in the context of post-war British cinema, the career of director Cy Endfield (from his blacklist-induced Hollywood exile to his eclectic career hats which also included performing magic tricks and inventing various gadgets) and more. Well worth the time to read.
On the disc itself are the following:
Audio Commentary by sound assistant Harry Fairbairn and journalist Andrew Robertson
A relatively light and laid-back commentary between the pair, who discuss the various walk-on cast members and continuity errors. They also reveal that a lot of the road scenes were shot in the back lanes around Pinewood, and that the behaviour of the truckers here was based on genuine revelations from interviews of real drivers. In those days it was apparently quite easy for them to get away with all sorts of rule breaking as the roads weren’t well-policed.
Look In on Hell Drivers
A contemporary documentary about the film, interspersed some interview footage with some real-like truckers at a cafe who discuss how close to reality the film is, and then some more with the film’s cast and crew. Unfortunately the audio recording/restoration quality is poor, making it difficult to hear what they they have to say at times. Even so, it’s worth watching for a revealing look into the film’s research of the milieu.
The Stanley Baker Story
Another contemporary documentary which (as the title suggests) features a studio interview with actor Stanley Baker looking at his various roles, including clips from Hell Drivers and some of his other films. Some of the questions he is asked seem a little strange in retrospect, e.g. “is it true that British actresses have no sex appeal?” but it’s still an enjoyable glimpse into why he was so popular at the time.
Full Screen Ahead
An HD restoration of a contemporary documentary taking a tour of Pinewood Studios. Again, some clips from Hell Drivers and other films from the time are featured. While the programme itself is in black and white (as with all British television from this era), there are some film clips which use restored colour footage.
Comic Strip Gallery
The story illustrated via a newspaper comic strip from the period.
Who Killed Lamb?
This 65-minute made-for-TV murder mystery set in Oxford features Stanley Baker as Detective Inspector Jamieson, who is investigating the murder of a local businessman in his own living room. It was made in 1974 (just a couple of years before Baker’s premature demise), and as with most British made-for-TV films of this period it’s rather flatly shot, keeps any sordid aspects of the story firmly offscreen and features some rather hammy supporting performances. Still, the mystery thickens rather satisfyingly and Baker gives a suitably commanding performance. It also has some curiosities from the era, including the mutton chop sideburns that most of the characters sport, and the sight of Baker’s character hurriedly consuming a Wimpy meal in the back of a police car as he rushes to an interview (Wimpy was a popular fast food chain in Britain before McDonalds arrived and subsequently cornered the market. Incidentally, their fare made the much-maligned American chain seem like a Michelin-starred restaurant by comparison.)
Danger Man: Loyalty Always Pays
An episode of the TV spy serial that made Patrick McGoohan into a star. The British intelligence agency receives a message from an operative in a former Crown colony in Africa claiming that the country’s minister of defence has brokered secret arms treaty with China. John Drake (McGoohan) must break into his office safe to retrieve incriminating documentation. However, first he needs to get Major Barrington (Nigel Stock), the minister’s intensely loyal head of security, to help him. It’s easy to see why McGoohan’s John Drake gripped audiences back in the day; he’s charmingly suave and fox cunning at the same time, and makes some great proto-Bond use of various gadgets. Stock is also fun as one of those stuffy Brit military types.
Some film footage of Stanley Baker unveiling a commemorative plaque at his birthplace in Ferndale, Wales.
Stanley Baker Interview
An interview with the actor from the 1960s. The interviewer admits that he is afraid the roughhouse actor (whose early life included a preoccupation with boxing) might “clock” him if he asks him a question he doesn’t like - but Baker responds by saying that he’s actually quite a gentle person. We also hear the actor reveal that he would be keen to take up directing in the future, something that never came to fruition during his lifetime.
Return to the Rhondda
Another archive documentary which features residents of Wales’s Rhondda valley, including actors Donald Houston and Stanley Baker, looking at their birthplace from the coal mining period right up to what was then present day. The approach taken is unusually lyrical, making this one of the highlights amongst a wholly wonderful collection of extras.
An excellent, nostalgic Blu Ray from Network, featuring a range of extras that is easily as satisfying as the film itself.