Saved from the B-movie graveyard by taut plotting, tense direction and potent performances, Hell Drivers is a vigorous, violent and enjoyable ride.
Set among the swaggering drivers of a road haulage yard, Cy Enfields's 1957 Hell Drivers is an unusually tough film for its time, which, with its mix of regional, working-class characters, its natural, uncompromising performances and its bleak, black and white aesthetics, shares much in common with the emerging British New Wave cinema of the early 60's.
The setting is an unidentified dead-end semi-rural wasteland, punctuated only by a greasy spoon café, a run-down guesthouse and the tawdry local hop, where the drivers vent their bottled-up aggression on the boyfriends of the local women.
Stanley Baker is impressive as troubled ex-con Joe, haunted by a driving accident that crippled his brother, who drifts into a new job and ends up confronting corruption and murder . The unusually strong cast is led by Patrick McGoohan as Joe's arch-rival Red, and also includes William Hartnell, the actor who originated the first Doctor Who. Herbert Lom, Sid James, David McCallum (later, Illya Kuryakin from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) Wilfred Lawson, Alfie Bass and a pre-Bond Sean Connery. In the film's lead female role Peggy Cummins is Lucy, the tough but finally tender femme-fatale caught in the centre of a whirlwind of testosterone.
Hell Drivers is about lorry drivers whose job transporting supplies is a ruthless, dangerous competition for bragging rights and money. Patrick McGoohan plays the brutal Red, the deadliest of the lot, who drives the fastest truck (enjoy the irony: Number 1/Number 6). Our hero, Tom (Stanley Baker), recently released from prison, lands the jalopy-ish Truck 13 and soon gets it into his head to dethrone Red from the top post. Tom has one friend, Gino (Herbert Lom), who's in love with the slinky company secretary. She tolerates Gino but lusts after Tom, but Tom's too nice a guy to muscle in on his friend Gino, at least, not yet.
They cut wildly across lanes of traffic and barely avoid head-on crashes with other cars, all at decidedly unsafe speeds. Red is the canniest driver and the biggest cheat: he takes a dangerous shortcut through a quarry to shave time off the return trips. And even when another driver arrives at the pick up site before him, he just pushes his truck into his rival's rig until the hapless fool has to back out to make room for Red.
McGoohan's turn as Red in Hell Drivers is one big fun piece of acting. He's all but wearing a sign around his neck that says "Beware of Dog." In every scene he's cruel and savage, an imposing physical presence. There's no doubt he rules the roost in the scene that introduces the character. Tom arrives at the local café where the drivers hang out between runs. Around a long wooden table, he's subjected to hazing by the crew. It's certainly not the "hey man welcome to the gang" friendly-type hazing, either. Then Red emerges from the back and makes a beeline for the new guy. He's menacing and evil. The men don't come to blows but you sense they'll have a spectacular show of fisticuffs later (and they do).
McGoohan's most famous small-screen roles are his two secret agents of course, and Hell Drivers boasts a total of three future spies. Sean Connery's a minor character, appearing in the hazing scene as one of the boys. And David McCallum plays the hero's younger brother. A sweet-natured guy with a crutch little Brother supports Tom even though "Mother" doesn't want anything to do with her wayward son. McCallum's got just the one scene, but it's well-done and plays to his delicate, pretty boy good looks.
But there's no time for home life. This is a rough movie with sharp edges. There's something real sleazy about the whole thing: Red's brutality, the selfish competition and dirty tricks, the depressing industrial setting with its garages and trucks. But wherever there's corruption you need a "clean" man up front to keep the game going. That man, who naturally is in cahoots with Red, is played by the first Doctor Who, William Hartnell. He's younger in this pre-Who role, though still senior, the company man who wears three-piece suits and spectacles. But he's not a nice old man.
The film's best moment though is perhaps the climax. Red aims to kill Tom by running him off the road to his death in the rock quarry. Red's pissed and insists that Hartnell accompany him. There's no end to the amusement of seeing a determined and maniacal McGoohan in the driver's seat, next to an angry but nervous Hartnell in the passenger seat. The suspense is high.
Good and right win in the end. McGoohan and Hartnell end up dead, because they accidentally got in the truck with the bad brakes (the truck's numbers had been switched earlier by the scheming duo). It's good to know that as corrupt and conniving as Bad is, they're still dumber than Good. And the hero, though barely escaping as his truck teeters over the side, lives to see another day.
Hell Drivers is a supremely macho film - a study of male
aggression and rivalry, skill and professional pride. Endfield delivers
the thrills with some jaw-tightening driving sequences, as the fleet of
decrepit trucks compete at breakneck speed along narrow and potholed country
roads to carry off a cheap trophy for hauling gravel around the B roads
of England's green and pleasant land -Pinewood, Denham and Beaconsfield.
Speeding, undertaking and the long lost and forgotten thrills of drink
driving provide a heady antidote to the never ending restrictions of contemporary