Cy Endfield was an American director, but, embattled by the communist witch-hunts in the 1950s, he retreated to the UK to continue directing and avoid the blacklist. And British cinema is forever in his debt for perennial bank holiday favourite, Zulu. It’s a well-worn classic because it’s brilliant. Endfield knew how to wrestle gritty performances with bold action and a stripped back narrative. Before they went off to war at Rorke’s Drift, Endfield and actor Stanley Baker brought the same no-nonsense qualities to Hell Drivers, tearing up the nice, quiet, leafy roads of Buckinghamshire in brutal fashion with trucks full of ballast.
Baker plays Tom, an ex-con drifter who takes a job driving for William Hartnell’s dodgy company. His drivers are paid a bonus for doing the most runs in a day, fired for doing the least. There are no rules. The trucks and any damage or fines are entirely the driver’s responsibility, so they all put the hammer down and push each other, no more so than lead driver and foreman, Red (Patrick McGoohan). Tom needs the job, but also needs to keep going straight and he is quickly alienated by the other drivers. All except kind-hearted Gino (Herbert Lom).
Ostensibly a thriller, Hell Drivers really wants to be a Western. The drivers make their own rules and there is only the briefest glimpse of local bobbies, who are no threat. The company is like a ranch, able to do what they like in the dark days before the railroad comes (the M1 in this case). And with Peggy Cummins’ conflicted Lucy playing fast and loose with Gino’s naivety while trying to tempt Tom, it has shades of Noir. So, a British Noir Western set in Surrey. Scoff all you want! It works, even before they’re in the trucks.
The driving footage is extraordinary and nerve-shredding. Throaty engines, spewing smoke, loaded with gravel and charging along at impossible speed. It’s thrilling stuff; Wages of Fear meets Fast and Furious. Predating John Frankenheimer’s revolutionary camera work on Grand Prix, it lives in John D. Guthridge’s editing and is sold by a superb cast. As with any of the classic car chases you remember, it's the white knuckles and gritted teeth of the drivers that convince, more so than the camera tricks. Hell Drivers works very hard to wring tension out of thrilling chases; Hartnell demands drivers that push 50mph, round the clock. In truth, these old trucks would struggle to get near that pace, but this isn’t realism, it’s hard as nails action. There is a grain of truth in the pressure that drivers were under to bend the rules and ignore the law, which would have been limited at the time.
In some ways, Hell Drivers is a routine release by Pinewood Studios. It’s testament to the incredible efficiency of their production methods and being able to take advantage of a cast of stalwarts. Peggy Cummins does well in a film fuelled on testosterone, but the screenplay gives her a pivotal role. The drivers include Gordon Jackson (The Professionals), Sid James (pre-Carry On) and chameleon-like Herbert Lom, excellent as always, and very different to his role on The Ladykillers just two years earlier. A rather cheerful Sean Connery makes his presence felt in an early role before he’d snatch Bond from Danger Man Patrick McGoohan, but here, he is in the latter’s shadow. As Red, McGoohan is fierce. He was a superb and somewhat underrated actor and he’s on blistering form. It takes a big man to stand up to him.
It's Welshman Stanley Baker who'll take on McGoohan's bully. Baker’s highest profile role was probably in Endfield’s Zulu, with Michael Caine. He wasn’t blessed with as long or as illustrious a career as that of his co-stars, which in retrospect is entirely unfair. Nevertheless, he’s deservedly one of Britain’s best-loved actors, known for playing tough guys with a heart of gold, not dissimilar to Gary Cooper. Tom in Hell Drivers is no different and the film is able to rest its weight on Baker's broad shoulders.
British cinema has a lot to be proud of, but action isn’t the first genre you’d associate with it. Hell Drivers is one of a rare breed and it has dated little, even if it is a film of its time. It is highly recommended.
The contrast and detail in this new 4K transfer is superb. It isn't a film of shadowy interiors, but typical outdoors wet and muddy England and yet is bright and consistent throughout. It glistens and shines with detail and perfectly balanced contrast.
Apart from the new transfer to Blu-Ray, this is an identical release to Network’s 2008 limited edition. It’s worth upgrading if you already have the DVD just for the HD. As for the features, aside from the commentary, it’s all archive stuff. While you might prefer a more modern retrospective on the film itself, these make the disc more like a time-capsule and a valuable tribute to Stanley Baker. It really captures the time at which the film was originally released.
Commentary with Sound Assistant Harry Fairbairn and journalist Andrew Robertson. - Harry and Andrew are an easy listen and have loads of detail about the time and place the film was made. They work well together in a conversational manner, so there are few awkward pauses. Their affection for the Pinewood years is infectious.
Look in on Hell Drivers (13m) - Original piece, typical of the time that takes a tour of the set, interviews the crew and also, real truck drivers, to get their take on how feasible the story is.
The Stanley Baker Story: Gentle Tough Guy (16m) - A bit stagey and quite brief, but this interview with Stanley Baker is great. He was a gentleman with a varied career, which this has a quick retrospective of, at least to the 1960s when it was originally done.
Full Screen Ahead 26m - This is a wonderful look at Pinewood in its prime. At the time, it must have been like an extended trailer with random interviews and a brief look at upcoming releases (including Rod Steiger in the superb Across the Bridge). Peggy Cummins pops up and there’s a clip of Patrick McGoohan in High Tide at Noon demonstrating again his versatility.
Image Gallery 6m - Some great posters here, full of wonderful artwork. And, for once, the film itself isn’t far off the dynamic imagery.
Comic Strip Gallery 1m - A fun oddity from a time when it was quite routine to do brief comic adaptations of movies.
Who Killed Lamb? 65m - TV movie from 1974 with Stanley Baker. It’s very dated, but worth a watch. Also stars Peter Sallis.
Danger Man: Loyalty Always Pays 49m - This is great fun! An episode from the classic TV series starring Patrick McGoohan. It was this role that had him lined up for playing James Bond. He would have been very different to Sean Connery’s natural presence, but you have to wonder; what would he have been like? He was such an accomplished actor, with an icy charisma, perfect for Bond.
Plaque Unveiling 1m - No audio, but charming, if brief footage of Stanley Baker returning home.
Stanley Baker Interview 5m - Another quick interview with Baker from the time.
Return to the Rhondda 37m - This is an eccentric and rather sombre inclusion from 1965, looking at the community of Rhondda valley. It does briefly feature Stanley Baker amongst others.
A gritty British gem from the director of Zulu in a gleaming new transfer from Network.