All too real tragedy on Interstate 5 in Northern California’s Glenn County Thursday afternoon received an element of diabolical mystery as information emerged that a southbound Fed Ex semi may have already  been in flames before it jumped the highway median, side-swiped a Nissan and ran head-on into a northbound busload of prospective enrollees to Humboldt State. The drivers of the truck and bus were killed, along with 5 students and 2 chaperones from the Los Angeles area. The driver and passenger of the Nissan were the source of the latest information, upon their discharge from a local hospital.

Investigations continue (it is feared that the equivalent of the ‘black box’ on the Fed Ex truck was destroyed by the heat), but a classic British film (available on FilmOn’s fee VoD service) that examines the archetypal fear, pressure and desperation mixed with the thrill-seeking allure that remains at the core of deadline drivers for hire could provide some clues.

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Hell Drivers (1957) was directed by American ex-pat Cy Endfield, who would go on to make the iconic Zulu in 1964. As in that film, his lead actor is Welshman and Burton-buddy Stanley Baker, who plays reluctant hero Tom Yately,  an ex-con eager for a new beginning who employs his considerable former skills and guile as a getaway driver in an attempt to make the grade with the shady Hawlett Trucking Company. Standing, and more often swerving, in his way is Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner, Silver Streak), his white-lining competitor AND foreman.

Baker fully displays the unique mixture of Hulk-like menace and insightful sensitivity that had elevated him from pure ‘heavy’ roles, while McGoohan is utterly, entertainingly over-the-top, a teeth-grinding contemporary update on Richard III that also could easily have laid the groundwork for both the Keitel and Cage’s Bad Lieutenants.

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With all that, there is still room for Herbert Lom, who here plays against usual flamboyant scene-stealing roles (such as Napoleon in War and Peace, Commissioner Dreyfus in the Pink Panther films) as world-weary immigrant Gino Rossi, and nevertheless steals scenes. Add to this a supporting cast that includes Sid James (from FilmOn VoD’s Carry On Abroad), Peggy Cummins (Gun Crazy), Jill Ireland (Spock’s former fling on the original Star Trek, numerous films with husband Charles Bronson including  FilmOn VoD’s Cold Sweat), Gordon Jackson (The Great Escape, FilmOn VoD’s The Ipcress File), David McCallum (also Great Escape, Man From U.N.C.L.E.), and a young Sean Connery (four years before VoD’s The Frightened City and five before Dr. No).

Endfield’s driving scenarios are hair-raising (especially from our ‘drive-on-the-right-side’ perspective) and must have been quite effective in the day. At times Hell Drivers seems a potential Crash, 50 years in advance, without the Academy Award but with a better cast, acting, plot, and point to the script.

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