If you want to define the quintessential British movie tough guy, then look no further than Stanley Baker. Over the course of a full, yet too-brief career (Baker died of a lung cancer at 48) he defined postwar British action and tough guy roles in such films as CRIMINAL, ZULU (which he also produced), HELL IS A CITY, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and ROBBERY, among just a few of his hits. As much of a respected dramatic actor as he was a popular movie star (he played Henry Tudor in Olivier’s RICHARD III and made several acclaimed film with Joseph Losey, including ACCIDENT, written by Harold Pinter), Baker often found himself playing a tough guy with heart - like Cagney, Bogart, or Marvin - types are those who are rough around the edges, but good souls who truly want to be left in peace. But like most tough guys, they find themselves in situations where been pushed too far and have to fight back, and they sure as hell know how to fight when the situation demands it. This, in a nutshell, is Baker’s role in Cy Enfield’s HELL DRIVERS, a guy who finds himself in a situation where it’s a fight for survival, even though it’s the last thing he wants. Of course, none of this is nothing new or really original – even back in 1959, when the film was made – but there’s a fine British grit to HELL DRIVERS that makes it feel just right, and even though it doesn’t hold much in the way of surprises, it’s a solid piece of entertainment that still works, 50 years later.
When I made the Bogart/Cagney comparison to Stanley Baker, it’s not just because he’s in their league, but also because HELL DRIVERS is the kind of picture that Warner Brothers could have made back in their crime drama/social outrage drama heyday of the 1930s. It also takes a page from the likes of Jules Dassin’s THEIVES HIGHWAY to discuss the seedy world of trucking and the exploitation of the drivers – always overworked, always struggling to fill their quota, always in fierce competition with each other – while remaining a tough guy movie all-around. Baker’s character is just out of prison, looking for work, and is sent to a small trucking company (hauling gravel) out in the countryside. He’s without a license, so if he’s caught he’s doubly screwed, and as the new guy he instantly butts heads with most of the other drivers, especially top hauler Patrick McGoohan, who’s also a bit of a psycho. So yeah, the script to HELL DRIVERS was already nothing new back in ’59, and I’m not saying that it’s anything all that special. But presentation is indeed everything in this case, and HELL DRIVERS is certainly a fine example of taking familiar material and making something tasty (if not fresh) out of it.
A large part of this is in the casting, not just with Stanley Baker, although he definitely makes for the right lead needed in a picture like this, but also with a supporting cast that seems like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’ve already mentioned McGoohan (perfectly scummy), but you’ve also got a young Sean Connery, CARRY ON’s Sidney Havers, Herbert Lom as an Italian who’s Baker’s sole friend and confidant (needless to say, he’s toast), and a young David McCallum as Baker’s brother. Thanks to this cast, HELL DRIVERS is a movie with some personality and they all make it very easy to watch even when you know what’s coming. Enfield (who would later direct ZULU), generally a muscular director to begin with, also infuses it with some tight pacing and always keeps it moving (there’s a lot going on within each frame), so it’s easy to get caught up in it all. But at the center of it all is Baker, easy to like and root for, who is the key to HELL DRIVERS’ success. He makes otherwise tired material fresh simply by showing up and caring enough to do a good job, and it’s no surprise this was one of his biggest hits. It gives the British tough guy movie a good name.