Posted by Richard Harland Smith on April 1, 2011
When I was a kid, the best plastic soldier to have — after the Guy with the .45 and Binoculars and the Guy with the M3 — was the Guy with the Flamethrower (pictured above). None of us kids knew anything about combat, mind you, so our preferences were largely based on aesthetics. The Guy with the .45 and Binoculars just looked cool; he looked like a sergeant: tough, battle-tested, ready to drop his exhausted rifle and take down as many of the enemy as he could with his sidearm before he fell. He was Hard Corps. Ditto the Guy with the M3, the submachine gun you see in World War II movies that isn’t the Thompson that Bogey uses in SAHARA (1943) but the “grease gun” that Lee Marvin uses in THE DIRTY DOZEN (1968). For the record, the worst plastic soldier was the sniper molded in the prone position, firing from his belly – he could never get up into formation with the other soldiers, so you tended to park him somewhere on the perimeter and forget about him. Then there were the middling guys, like the Guy with the Radio, who was usually kneeling – but at least he could get in formation. Anyway, I digress. We’re here to talk about the Guy with the Flamethrower. Or more to the point, the flamethrower itself.
Now, before we get into this, I want to offer a disclaimer. I understand that a flamethrower is a weapon of war and one that many men of the military have had to use in combat, the majority of them to their everlasting horror and regret. In writing today, I certainly do not mean to trivialize the combat experience — one in which I have never found myself and one in which I suspect I would, as a film critic, do very poorly — but to acknowledge that depictions of warfare are part of the collective consciousness of nearly every culture that has ever staked a piece of land or traveled abroad to kick someone else off of theirs. Given that understanding, it must be acknowledged as well that the specific implements of warfare hold a fascination for noncombatants. A juvenile fascination, probably, but we rarely have much say as to the things that fascinate us. Though I favor strict gun control, and I think that people who collect guns and/or wear them on their hip where it is legally permissible to do so, are a little koo-koo-kuh-ray-zee, I do not demonize firearms in and of themselves. I don’t own any guns and never will but I did belong to a rifle club in 7th or 8th grade and I enjoyed the discipline and the experience. I have never, for the record, ever used a flamethrower and I do not, may it please the court, ever want to have to… but Lor-dee I do love to see somebody whip one out in a film.
I remember watching John Carpenter’s mighty-mighty THE THING (1982) in college. In a scene fairly early on — I mean, well after things start to go wrong but well before things start to go seriously stupid wrong — Keith David’s character comes charging into an out of control situation involving mutated dogs and tendrils and spew juice and the guy sitting next to me shouted out “CHIIIIIIIIILESWIFDAFLAAAAAAAMETHROWA!” (Translation: “Childs with the flamethrower!”) Seeing a powerful character actor like David, with his menacing mien and bald head with an M2A1-7 flamethrower and an obvious will to use it was very exciting for us. Too bad Keith had to surrender flamethrowery for the most part to star Kurt Russell, who gots all the money shots. Back in the day, we all wished Childs would dominate, we didn’t really care about Kurt Russell, who was just doing his raspy Clint Eastwood thing while Childs felt like a character we’d never really seen before. (Oddly, no other filmmaker ever slapped a flamethrower into Keith David’s hands — seems like a no-brainer to me.) Anyway, now whenever a movie character shoulders one of these babies — and I don’t care if the movie was made in 1944 — I shout inside my skull “CHIIIIIIIIIIIIILESWIFDAFLAAAAAMETHROWA!” Once you make the commitment to do it, it’s really fun. Try it. Try it even when it isn’t appropriate. Shout it out whenever anybody enters a scene in Ang Lee’s classy SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (1995). Shout it out whenever Keith David appears onscreen in Paul Haggis’ monumentally shitty CRASH (2004) but then you’ll just wish you were watching THE THING.
Anyway. The flamethrower has been around for centuries, dating back in one form of another to the Byzantine era. As a kid, I always used to wish I could go back in time to the Alamo with a machinegun and help Davy, Davy Crockett put paid to that bossy britches Antonio López de Santa Anna and his 5,000-man army with their high school band hats and bandoleros and waxed mustaches. As I matured, I grew out of this revisionist fantasy… and wished instead that I could have brought a flamethrower to the Alamo. That would have been something, right? And not entirely out of the realm of possibility. A prototype of the modern day flamethrower was available during the American Civil War and you can find pictures of Union soldiers wearing the units but none were used in fighting. All this to say that to my juvenile mind the flamethrower has long seemed to be the ultimate weapon, unbeatable, the ultimate argument-winner. So it’s kind of a funny thing how often flamethrowers fail their users in the movies. You may recall the case of Tom Skerritt v. ALIEN (1979), in which the actor’s pragmatic deep space trucker chases the eponymous extraterrestrial into the air shafts of the Nostromo, hoping to drive the heretofore pint-sized buggar into the open with a few bursts of his jerry-rigged flamethrower only to learn, much to his chagrin, that fings ain’t wot they usta be. There are other examples. In CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972), humans use flamethrowers to domesticate the simian throng but ultimately the apes outwit the humans and take their flamethrowers away from them (although the guerrilla army — heh heh– uses only Molotov cocktails against the Fascist state in the movie’s big riot setpiece). In THE DEER HUNTER (1978, above left) a flamethrower cannot help Robert DeNiro from being taken captive by the Viet Cong.
Probably the best — and by best I mean worst, most horrific — depiction of flamethrower fail comes in Don Siegel’s HELL IS FOR HEROES (1962). Set in France in 1944, the film follows the efforts of 2nd Company, an infantry squadron charged with taking out a German pillbox near the Siegfrield Line. Directed by Siegel, it’s no surprise this thing is bru-tal. James Coburn plays Henshaw, a corporal and mechanic whose job it is to carry the flamethrower into battle. Late in the film, he joins Steve McQueen and the great character Mike Kellin in a desperate attempt to reach the target, crawling across a live minefield by dark of night. Bringing up the rear, Coburn trips a mine’s pressure prongs and the anti-personnel device explodes, detonating the flamethrower on his back and showering him with thickened gasoline (the father of napalm). As McQueen and Kellin watch in horror, the grotesquely injured but still acutely aware Coburn does the only thing he can do… he rolls onto another landmine and dies in the resulting explosion. The rest of the film is a bloodbath (which includes the most disturbing death scene I’ve ever seen, bar none), which ends with most of 2nd Company dead and Bobby Darin given the order (by commanding officer Fess Parker) to burn out the smoldering pillbox.
Darin is great here. He looks as though he’s about to cry or throw up or both. The film ends as the tendrils from his flame thrower breach the entrance to the pillbox, sucking the remaining oxygen out of the enclosure to suffocate whatever survivors might remain. End scene. End film. I remember seeing this as a kid and being gutted by the movie… but I still wanted a flamethrower. Like I said — juvenile.
There’s a lot of good flamethrower action in science fiction movies. In THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957), a couple of Army guys stationed in the Arctic Circle take on the big bug Butch-and-Sundance style as it lays siege to their outpost. One guy wields a rifle, the other a flamethrower. Neither has any appreciable effect, so the guys ditch their ordnance and sprint for safety. Brave but sensible — I like it! Flamethrowers take out Lynn Lowry and sundry members of George Romero’s THE CRAZIES (1973) and are used to good effect against the title monsters in Fred Dekker’s NIGHT OF THE CREEPS (1986). In Jack Sholder’s unjustly neglected THE HIDDEN (1987), alien cop Kyle MacLachlan inhabits the body of an earthling to trail one of his shapeshifting kinsman who has gone rogue in downtown Los Angeles. The movie ends with MacLachlan charging the villain (who has leapfrogged from character to character and actor to actor throughout the movie) at a political rally, flameroasting the blighter on national television and drawing significantly more than curious looks from Secret Security. I also have to believe the proton packs in GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) were inspired in large part by flamethrower envy. I can’t be the only one!
There’s some pretty good flamethrower action as well in Sergio Martino’s Italo-postapocalyptic putanesca 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983), a ballsy but cash-strapped mashup of John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), George Miller’s THE ROAD WARRIOR (1982) and even countryman Enzo Castellari’s 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS (1982), in which radiation-scarred human survivors of the nuclear holocaust that “baked the Big Apple” (and the rest of the world, it’s worth mentioning) are hunted down by non-radiation-scarred human survivors and their cyborg helpmeets in a systematic cleansing that is less about ethnicity than it is about genetics… given that, as the film begins, no babies have been born in the past fifteen years, which augurs doom for the human race. Most of the film’s posters gave the flamethrower prominent placement in the hands of hunky headbanded hero Michael Sopkiw, which is less a reflection of what actually goes on in the movie (Sopikiw favors a crossbow type gun that shoots what seem to be energy bolts) than a sticky fingery on the part of the distributors, who borrow the image from the poster for James Glickenhaus’s grindhouse classic THE EXTERMINATOR (1980), which was not at all stingy with pyrotechnics.
For my money, though, the ne plus ultra of flameplay belongs to Gordon Douglas’ THEM! (1954), in which James Whitmore (left) and James Arness (right) take on giant ants spawned of atomic testing in their underground lair, peppering the critters with automatic weapon fire from Arness’ Tommy gun and scorching ‘em proper with Whitmore’s M1. (Twenty odd years later, National Guardsmen would scorch Dino DeLaurentiis’ KING KONG with the same model.) The great thing about this scene is that they are doing all of this damage on the say-so of lady scientist Joan Weldon, who heretofore had been all cute in her little suit and cap, dutifully deferring to her egghead dad Edmund Gwenn — but when the ants’ nest is discovered, Weldon goes all zero tolerance. “Burn it!” she commands. And Whitmore and Arness actually question her call (“What?!”), as if to say “But they’re just babies!” “I said burn it,” she barks through her gas mask. “Burn everything!” And they do.
James Whitmore is so badass in THEM! He plays a New Mexico State Police patrolman and don’t let the bowtie fool you — he is a stone cold killa, equally adept at firing off rounds from his .38 sidearm or a Thompson submachine gun and laying waste to anything that gets in his way with a military-issue flamethower. You get the sense in this movie that he was born to use this weapon. He wields it again in the film’s climax, set inside the sewer drains of Los Angeles, where the ants have set up a condominium-style hive and into which Whitmore and Arness must go to save a couple of kids who are trapped in an inner chamber. I apologize in advance for the spoiler but I can’t not talk about THEM! without broaching the subject of the death of Whitmore’s character. Taking out the ants that block his exit strategy, Whitmore slips off the flamethrower unit and helps the kids up and into a passageway that will take them to safety (and Arness and the Guard on the opposite side). Climbing up the ladder to make his own egress, he is attacked from behind by a giant ant who has slipped in unnoticed (how does that even happen?) and crushed in the mega-insect’s pincers. I love this movie! I hate this scene! I hate Whitmore’s Ben Peterson dying more than I do King Kong dying. (Oh, and I apologize in retrospect for that spoiler.) There isn’t an occasion of watching this movie for the umpteenth time that I do not want to shout at the screen “Do NOT put the flamethrower down! Those kids can climb a ladder, they’re kids! Ben! BEN! Pick up the flamethrower– pick it up! BEN! At least check before you go up the ladder! Look beh– LOOK BEHIND YOU! BEN!” And so on. But he doesn’t. He never does. Ben dies and Arness, aggrieved to the point of almost showing emotion, sets the full wrath of the National Guard’s Flamethrower Division (okay, I’m making that part up but wouldn’t it be tuff if there were such a division?) against the giant ants, who burn ‘em… burn ‘em up good.
I don’t want to say anything so insensitive as “Flamethrowers are cool!”, because they are both literally and figuratively not, real-world-speaking. But in the fantasy land of make-believe, where wars are fought without meaningful casualties and wounds cause no lasting pain, they really are the bomb.
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