The 7 best firefighting movies of all time
Can you guess the No. 1 fire movie for firefighters? (Spoiler alert: It’s not ‘Backdraft’)
There are dozens of films about firefighters and firefighting, including many documentaries, silent movies and comedies. In other words, as long as movies have been made, firefighting has been one of the subjects.
And so, it’s that time again – time to take a stab at discussing films about firefighters and firefighting.
Our original list from 2016 featured the top six films. And now we’re adding another great movie to the list: “Only the Brave.”
Here’s our list of the seven best firefighting movies of all time:
7. “Ladder 49”
“Ladder 49” details the life of rookie firefighter Jack Morrison as he rises through the ranks in his department. His personal dilemmas unfold as he becomes trapped in the worst blaze of his career. FireRescue1 contributor Jason Zigmont offers commentary about the movie from a firefighting and technical perspective: “The technical advisors did a good job with the scenes. I was impressed to hear a PAR check.”
6. “Fire! Trapped on the 37th Floor”
Even for a TV movie, this one gets our vote. The movie is based on true events that occurred in May 1988 when the Los Angeles First Interstate Bank building caught fire. At the time it was the tallest building in the city. Smoke alarms were not working properly, which allowed the fire to grow until it was uncontrollable.
5. “Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232”
Another movie based on a true story, “The Rescue of Flight 232” is based on United Airlines Flight 232 from Denver to Chicago. The flight crashed during an emergency landing in 1989. Even though the focus isn’t entirely on firefighters responding to the situation, the perspective from the ground rescue workers is noteworthy.
We’d be remiss not to include “Backdraft.” You may be surprised it doesn’t rank higher on the list, but because people constantly ask if a firefighter’s job is like “Backdraft,” it gets docked a few points. “You go, we go.”
This is a movie about Chance Buckman, head of an oilfield firefighting outfit, and his professional and personal ebbs and flows. Full disclosure: You’ll either love this movie or hate it. In fact, when the movie first came out, Roger Ebert said it was a “slow moving, talkative, badly plotted bore." But we think it’s a pretty great fire-based movie. John Wayne, who plays Buckman, will always get our vote.
2. “Only the Brave”
“Only the Brave” is a well-made picture depicting the lives of the Granite Mountain Hotshots that perished during the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. Although I am not a wildland firefighter by trade, I believe this film brings home the true nature of the work our brothers and sisters perform in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) and forests of America. Although we already know the ending, their journey is worth your time.
1. “The Towering Inferno”
“The Towering Inferno,” in our opinion, is the best firefighting/disaster movie out there (even if it’s the most unrealistic fire movie on the list). Steve McQueen … Paul Newman … Faye Dunaway. Need we say more?
Bonus: There is one additional movie I have to mention – “Fahrenheit 451.” Two films were made of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian depiction of post second civil war firemen where instead of extinguishing fires, firemen burn books that have been deemed wrong literature by the government. By destroying the banned books, history can be rewritten as illustrated by the fireman’s rules where Ben Franklin remains the original firefighter: “Benjamin Franklin's rules: 1) answer the alarm swiftly, 2) start the fire swiftly, 3) burn everything, 4) report back to firehouse immediately, 5) stand alert for other alarms.”
More fire movies and documentaries
Let’s now consider some other firefighting films that didn’t make the list.
There is “Always,” Steven Spielberg’s homage to the aerial firefighters who fly into the flames. Starring Richard Dreyfus, Holly Hunter and John Goodman, “Always” is a reboot of the World War II-era film “A Guy Named Joe,” which starred Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne and Van Johnson. In the original film, the story was about fighter pilots, but the plot is the same, as are the names of the characters.
At one time, one of the most expensive motion pictures ever made was “In Old Chicago.” Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, the movie depicted the O’Leary family and the Great Chicago Fire. I remember watching this film as kid on a Sunday afternoon (in the time before cable) – steamers and hand-pumpers galore. I think the steam fire engines had the same draw for me as steam locomotives.
I’m not sure how well “The Guys” was received, but I can state unequivocally that anyone who has worked in a firehouse will recognize all the character types. Based on the experiences of a writer who assisted an FDNY captain in drafting the eulogies of the firefighters that his company lost on September 11, “The Guys” is a moving tribute to all the members of the FDNY. I was fortunate enough to see the original off-Broadway production and the film. It has no special effects and no screaming fire engines. Just raw emotion. Do yourself a favor and see this picture.
There are also excellent documentaries that make for great viewing and some education:
- “A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY”
- “Firehouse USA: Boston”
- “Triangle Fire”
- “Man Alive: The Bronx Is Burning”
There are too many to list and too many to judge. This is just a short list for a rainy afternoon.
How did we do? Are we missing your favorite firefighting film? What movie do you think should earn the No. 1 spot?
This article, originally published on June 2, 2016, has been updated.