Weekend Film Recommendation: Hell Drivers

After featuring the film that gave Stanley Baker his first break (The Cruel Sea) and one he produced and starred in once established (Robbery), this week I suggest that you take a look at the thrilling film that made him a star in 1957: Hell Drivers.

The plot is agreeably simple. Baker plays Tom Yately, a tough but moral ex-con trying to go straight. He takes a job at a trucking firm managed by a ruthless boss (William Hartnell, who effectively plays the villain here, albeit of a different type than in Brighton Rock). The business would give OSHA a coronary. The truckers are assigned to ship gravel from a mine to a worksite many times a day, getting paid more money the more trips they make. They respond by driving like maniacs, at significant risk to themselves and others. And they all compete to topple the domineering, violent and reckless “Red” (Patrick McGoohan) as the top driver of the crew. Meanwhile, Tom befriends a kindly, devout Italian driver named Gino (a spot on Herbert Lom) whose girlfriend (Peggy Cummins) begins to put the moves on him.

The driving scenes in this movie are thrillingly shot by the justly revered Geoffrey Unsworth (For another example of his prowess with a camera, see my review of Unman, Wittering and Zigo). This includes the ultimate driving test from hell for Tom Yatley, in which he is accompanied by a perfectly droll Wilfrid Lawson as the firm’s mechanic. The final confrontation of the film, as Red and Tom have a trucking duel in an abandoned quarry, is particularly well-done and highly satisfying.

Blacklisted writer-director Cy Endfield specialised in male-dominated, melodramatic films, and this is one of his best (He and Baker worked together many times, most famously in the epic Zulu). Other than McGoohan, who is disappointingly one-note here (he got much better later in his career), the men in the cast deliver solid performances.

But the one woman with a big part nearly steals the show. Welsh actress Peggy Cummins, whose disappointingly bland performance in another 1957 film I have commented on here, deserves special mention for being back in top form in Hell Drivers. As in Gun Crazy, she nails the part of the the edgy girl who has fire and sex appeal.

In addition to being entertaining and exciting in its own right, Hell Drivers is fun for fans of British science fiction and spy movies. That’s because it includes a future Dr. Who (Hartnoll), UNCLE agent Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), Prisoner Number 6 (McGoohan), British Secret Service Agent 007 (Sean Connery) and a fellow who turned down the chance to play James Bond (Baker).

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

3 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Hell Drivers”

  1. I like this film, but there’s something weirdly ridiculous about it. It’s like, these people couldn’t really have taken this business –driving truckloads of gravel — so seriously in the real world. Totally worth a watch, though.

    Also in the cast: Alfie Bass, who went on to play Mr Goldberg in “Are You Being Served?”.

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