Hell Drivers

Dir: Cy Endfield, 1957. Starring: Stanley Baker, Herbert Lom, Peggy Cummins, Patrick McGoohan. Classics.
Hell Drivers

Much can be said in the realm of cinema for the undeniable attraction of masculinity for the sake of masculinity; observing men on the screen without the pretensions of heroics or unfathomable depth. Portraying men as these yearning, overly sympathetic balls of clay that can be molded into polite and admirable human beings with some ostentatious goal or task is a bit tired and unrealistic and done all too often. When you isolate the male, especially during the time that this film was made, you come out with primal displays of machismo that are oddly reassuring simply because they can be expected. Underneath the plot of this well-crafted, yet simple British film, is just that; men amongst men trying to downplay their competitive advances with each other using a speedometer, fights and a few witty remarks.

In the lead we find the handsome Stanley Baker (Zulu, The Guns of the Navarone) as Joe “Tom' Yately—an ex-con running from the past yet trying to get to a question mark of a future with haste. Through word of a dead friend he's learned about a company of truck drivers that operates in a bizarre way; should the speedometer for your vehicle drop to the speed limit (on a ballast top loader carrying tons of granite), you're fired. Men are expected to make above average drop offs to the granite yard and in return make a handsome salary.

Being the new man who says little about where he's from or where he's going, Tom finds it difficult to assimilate into “honest living.” For starters, there's the leader of the pack, Red (Patrick McGoohan), who not only sets an example in terms of driving but whose devil-may-care operations leave others in a constant state of fear and admiration. Then there's Lucy, the attractive secretary of the company who unabashedly pursues him and enjoys being treated as the only girl in town worth pursuing. Finally, there's Gino (Herbert Lom)—a cultured Italian set on making enough money to return to his country and taking Lucy (Peggy Cummins), his supposed girlfriend, along with him. Gino happens to be the only man who genuinely befriends Tom, and their camaraderie is perhaps one of the most honest displays of friendship that comes to mind. Not a friendship where you're indebted to each other because one of you saved the other on the battlefield or raised money in a crisis; the friend who understands you and helps you fight the little battles while urging you to stand up for yourself and get even when it counts.

As if matters couldn't get more out of control for Tom, who is desperately trying to make his past wrongs right, he learns that the company and some of its employ are using the trucks in a racket that has gotten men killed...and will do so again.

Stanley Baker is rightfully seen as Britain's answer to the incorrigible tough guy, on par with the likes of Charles Bronson. True, there is a sensibility that is far from the American portrayal of a man with a complex but easily accepted group of morals, but he is no doubt the kind of actor who pulls off a brilliant display of the man's man. Peggy Cummins is perfect as the woman who is not your typical vixen; the over-confident ice queen who always gets what she wants and tramples on the oblivious male. Here she exemplifies the cat-like coyness that is only found in the battle of the sexes—a blend of desire and tenderness that never quite reaches desperation and a forwardness that is admirable in its own right. Herbert Lom's Gino is the most refreshing aspect of the film, and if a hero of sorts is to be found anywhere in the plot it is most certainly him. McGoohan's villainous brute is nasty, but threating only because we are well-acquainted with bullies, however this too is a relief because it is always comforting to know who you are supposed to hate.

As stated before, Hell Drivers is not a movie about heroics or the far-reaches of the human condition and it is extremely enjoyable due to this. As is the case with many British productions during the era, the black and white photography is complementary to the story, clean, and a pleasure to behold. The music is similar to that found in your typical caper or thriller and is not anything to rave about, but it does aid in the thrilling chase sequences. The film is surprisingly not what you'd expect from Endfield, whose adventurous features such as Zulu or Sands of the Kalahari, exemplify the exact opposite of the sentiment found here. In many of his features men are defined not by their actions alone, but the overwhelmingly “important” tasks they are attached to. In short, this makes Hell Drivers an odd but often overlooked choice in his work that has yet to be released officially in the U.S. Though not exactly a typical gear-head movie, Hell Drivers is a wonderful mix of metal, speed, masculinity and complicated romance that is splendid based on its accessibility and the talents therein.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jan 23, 2014 5:06pm
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