Classic Cars on Film: Hell Drivers

Don’t think that all 1950s Brit films are twee and feelgood. No musical numbers or smiles are showcased in this example; 1957’s Hell Drivers defines ‘gritty’…

Many of us have endured sitting through a major two-hour film that features some of the world’s most expensive machinery driven by the finest stunt professionals in Hollywood – and finding the experience akin to paint drying. Alternatively, there is a 1957 black-and-white British production that was directed by a victim of the House Un-American Activities Committee, starred Kew-built Dodge 100 ‘parrot-nose’ tippers – and is utterly enthralling. The film is, of course, Hell Drivers, which marked a breakthrough for Stanley Baker whom we previously encountered scowling at Anthony Steel in Checkpoint.

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The Rank Organisation regarded its Welsh contract artist as a useful villain, and the actor had to battle for the role of Tom Yateley, a guilt-ridden ex-con who takes a job with Hawletts, Britain’s worst haulage operator:

The original story by John Kruse was based on his own experiences of driving tar lorries for the council, and he co-wrote the script with Cy Endfield. The director assembled a utterly incredible cast; William Hartnel (Doctor Who) was Cartley, the seedy, de-mob suit-wearing manager, Peggy Cummins was his secretary Lucy, while Patrick McGoohan played C ‘Red’ Redman, the psychotic road foreman.

The denizens of the local transport café included Sidney James in a non-comic role, Herbert Lom, Gordon Jackson, George Murcell, Wensley Pithey and the ubiquitous Alfie Bass. David McCallum was cast as Jimmy, Tom’s brother, there is a cameo from Jill Ireland serving egg and chips, and one of the other drivers, Johnny Kates, was played by a 26-year-old Sean Connery. The last-named has only a few scenes, but is so commanding that it remains a mystery why Rank did not sign him to a contract.

Much of the picture was shot in Buckinghamshire. The Pull In café was a set, but the title sequence took place on the B470, although the ‘short cut’ was located at Truleigh Hill in West Sussex. Some views of Hawletts’ Yard were in fact the Ford Aerodrome.

The Dodges were mainly borrowed from local firms – Drinkwater is believed to have supplied several units – while the camera was famously undercranked to give the tippers the illusion of speed. However, throughout the picture the viewer is continually reminded of the challenges faced by the crew.

In January 1957 you would have been very wise to avoid the roads near Langley, as camera operator Reg Johnson once noted: ‘I used to mount the Vista Vision camera into the camera car and chase along Buckinghamshire lanes at well over 70mph to get the back-projection plates and Stanley Baker’s action scenes for the exciting chases in the film. I used to cross my fingers and hope the assistant director had warned traffic approaching in the opposite direction.’

Hell Drivers does indeed give the impression of a bleak, dangerous existence, with drifters and no-hopers keeping their jobs by adhering to a bonus system that encourages them to take insane risks.

The Kruse story has a police car crashing while pursuing the lorries, but the film is very unusual for the period in having no detective-inspector sweep up in a Wolseley. The drivers’ world is a rural wasteland, their routine one of work, boarding house, café – and occasionally menacing the locals at a village hall dance.

Rank promoted the film with the following advice to cinema managers: ‘Hell Drivers is a tough, gripping film that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats. Your publicity should be equally forceful.’ It’s a film noir classic as well as being a rare example of the British road movies. And, beware of lorry No. 13…

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