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Jack Acies: Ladder 49: A Bond Forged in Flame

Jack Acies, Last Alarm: Aboard Ladder 49

The Big One

Ladder 49 (2004)

Director Jay Russell * Writer Lewis Colick

SYNOPSIS: Career of Baltimore Firefighter as retold in flashbacks from The Last Alarm.

Dramatis Personae:

Joaquin Phoenix .... Jack Morrison
John Travolta .... Captain Mike Kennedy
Jacinda Barrett .... Linda Morrison
Robert Lewis .... Ed Reilly
Brooke Hamlin .... Katie Morrison
Spencer Berglund .... Nicky Morrison
Leslie Lyles .... Roseleen Morrison
Robert Keiper .... Kevin Morrison
Robert McKay .... Battalion Chief
Mark Yant .... Lt. Yant
John Lumia .... Fire captain
Robert O'Neill .... Father Hogan
Reverend J. Kevin Farmer .... Chaplain
Sean Pratt .... Bartender
Michael Mack .... Truck Officer
Paul M. Novak Jr. .... Radio Dispatcher
William Goodwin .... Fire Chief
"I sing of brave men and bold deeds." -- Virgil The The Aenid.

It's hard to present an heroic tale to a culture which takes no stock in heroism. What makes heroes? Why do they do what they do? What makes them rush into a burning building when everyone else is running out? Ladder 49 would answer these questions.

An old warehouse is a blaze and Baltimore City Ladder 49 rolls out to the rescue. As FF Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) is helping a trapped victim into the harness which will lower the victim to safety Morrison falls into the pit of the fire. The story of his career is told in flashbacks as he struggles to regain consciousness and fight his way to safety.

The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse
The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse

The intensity of the old factory fire instantaneously brings to mind the 9 - 11 tragedy in which according to statistics released by the government 383 firefighters died. More likely the figure is understated by over 300%. Setting the film in Baltimore, a rival port of the larger city 200 miles to the North, the film makers strove to avoid the never spoken of political implications of the 9 - 11 disaster.

In a flash, we meet the lads from Engine 33 and its co-quartered companion company Ladder 49 in the old industrial City of Baltimore. Originally assigned to the Pumper, Engine 33, Morrison endures the scud work and lively hijinx of Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) and the motley crew of experienced firefighters. Captain Kennedy takes Jack under his wing to make him the best firefighter in the city.

Baltimore is a good stand in for New York City. Both have similar patterns of European immigration and internal relocation from the deep South. There is a certain similarity in speech patterns and both were to some extent or another violently against the Union cause in the Civil War.

The Baltimore Fire House boils over with childish pranks but there is a comraderie that grows into an extended family which includes the wives and the children. Firefighters don't outwardly speak of the blood-stripe or say, as they do in The Army, "You profit when your buddy buys the farm," but a loss does catapult Morrison into the Hook and Ladder which in Baltimore doubles as a rescue team. Captain Kennedy soon to be promoted to Chief warns Morrison that "in Hook and Ladder you can't follow the hose out of the fire." Morrison turns down an offer to serve in the comparative safety of a Chief's Aide.

FDNY: An Illustrated History of the Fire Department of New York
FDNY: An Illustrated History of the Fire Department of New York

Birth of the Bravest: A History of the New York Fire Department From 1609 To 1887
Birth of the Bravest: A History of the New York Fire Department From 1609 To 1887
In following the career of Joaquin Phoenix's character, Jack Morrison, Ladder 49 makes excellent use of jump cuts and transitions which impart the feeling of being there responding, at the fire, with all the accompanying fear and excitement. The alarm gongs out the code for the call box; the adrenal rushes; the firefighters jump down the pole; the truck and the engine race toward the billowing smoke of the fire.

Transitions between present to the past are smoothly executed to humanize the heroes, their lives, their camaraderie, their courage without ignoring their families and the risks that are silently accepted. From the time Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) takes the probie Morrison under his wing, the firemen bond's on and off the job, drinking to extravagant excess against the backdrop of the drama playing out around them of spectacular rescues from buildings aflame.

What makes a hero? Howard Fast in Sparticus said from outward appearance heroes are not demi-gods but pitiably ordinary looking people. Yet it is impossible to explain to an increasingly dominate anti-heroic culture the concept of heroism and the attendant pain and self-sacrifice which attaches to it.

Now trapped into the middle of the inferno, Jack Morrison radioes Chief Kennedy that the rescuer needs to be rescued. A slow cut between Jack's first child's Baptism and the water dripping onto his forehead after his fall into the pit of the fiery hell make an eerie blood curdling parallel. Morrison and his Firefighting comrades fight to within feet of each other. As the building wobbles toward a collapse, a tough decision has to be made. Should firefighters risk more men and equipment in attempting the rescue of one person?

Heart behind the Hero: A Heartwarming and Inspirational Collection of True Firefighter and Paramedic Stories from across America
Heart behind the Hero: A Heartwarming and Inspirational Collection of True Firefighter and Paramedic Stories from across America
Why do heroes act when others cower? In a purely rationalistic profit-driven, mercantile world the correct decision for FF Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) was obvious. Firefighter Morrison should have escaped himself leaving the uncooperative victim behind. Later FF Morrison could have told Chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) that no one was found in the building. That would be dishonest but self-protective.

The scenes of fire and rescue are spectacular in re-creating the flash of flame and chocking smoke. John Travolta falls into a mature role as a supporting actor with ease and polish very different from the Brooklyn teenager who once danced his way to stardom. Travolta carries the part of a man living on the edge where an otherwise frivolous life can become serious and deadly at the sound of a bell.

Richard Harris: Sex, Death and the Movies - An Intimate Biography
Richard Harris: Sex, Death and the Movies - An Intimate Biography

Many who enjoyed the movie compared it favourably with Ron Howard's Backdraft. Backdraft' gushes teary tributes for the profession by thrusting the audience into the center of the maelstrom but misses the character and values of the working-class bravery, brotherhood and family which secure them to The Job and the thrill and exhilaration of fighting flames. Next to Ladder 49, firefighters of Backdraft seem rather stark and impersonal. Yet "Ladder 49" accomplishes the tale of the heroic without foul language, sappy melodrama or syrupy moralizations.

If Baltimore has sufficient numbers of Irish in its Fire Department to support a Bag Pipe Band capable of playing Amazing Grace tolerably well at a funeral to stand in for New York, then Jack Morrison, the main character, is one who stands for all the losses firefighters suffered on 9 - 11- 01, a collage which in face of the caprices of fate celebrates the lives of the fallen.

Backdraft (1991)

Director Ron Howard * Writer Gregory Widen

Synopsis: Two antagonistic firefighter brothers work together against a dangerous arsonist.

Dramatis Personae

Kurt Russell .... Stephen 'Bull' McCaffrey/Dennis McCaffrey
William Baldwin .... Brian McCaffrey
Robert De Niro .... Donald 'Shadow' Rimgale
Donald Sutherland .... Ronald Bartel
Jennifer Jason Leigh .... Jennifer Vaitkus
Scott Glenn .... John 'Axe' Adcox
Rebecca De Mornay .... Helen McCaffrey
Jason Gedrick .... Tim Krizminski
J.T. Walsh .... Alderman Marty Swayzak
Anthony Mockus Sr. .... Chief John Fitzgerald
The film also compares favourable to Towering Inferno from the era of epic disaster films. Said to be based upon two different novels and upon the skyscraper fire at 1 New York Plaza Fire, Towering Inferno next to Ladder 49 simply lacks The Right Stuff. Regrettably though Steve McQueen plays a tolerable Chief Michael O'Hallorhan, the film was so star-studded little attention was played to character and motivations in face of incredible feats amplified by special effects, a spectacular conflagration and an unlikely dénouement.

Towering Inferno (1974)

Directors John Guillermin Irwin Allen * Writers Richard Martin Stern novel The Tower Thomas N. Scortia novel The Glass Inferno Frank M. Robinson novel The Glass Inferno

SYNOPSIS: Well appointed guests are trapped in a conflagration in a glittering, steel and glass tower shoddily constructed.

Dramatis Personae

Steve McQueen .... Chief Michael O'Hallorhan
Paul Newman .... Doug Roberts
William Holden .... James Duncan
Faye Dunaway .... Susan Franklin
Fred Astaire .... Harlee Claiborne
Susan Blakely .... Patty Simmons
Richard Chamberlain .... Roger Simmons
Jennifer Jones .... Lisolette Mueller
O.J. Simpson .... Harry Jernigan
Robert Vaughn .... Sen. Gary Parker
Robert Wagner .... Dan Bigelow
Though well received in the movie houses, Ladder 49 was not much liked by critics from the Establishment Press.

"This is essentially a male weepie about strong, simple men and strong simple women behind them, and as such it's platitudinous rubbish."

Placing the devastating fire in Baltimore as opposed to New York and having one man Jack Morrison stand in for the multitudes of fallen from 9 - 11 eliminated a touchy potential political comment on the concept of heroism. Apart for professed dislike of the Irish which infected every criticism for the film, every critic faltered over the concept of heroism. Indeed as part of the anti-heroic culture, the Establishment critics could not be expected to understand the concept at all.

Much of the criticism of the movie stems from this very simple proposition. Their criticism does not lack a significant political dimension. 9 - 11 is a tough place to feature The Bush unless of course you're going to rewrite the entire script: FDNY fought on even after President Bush publicly fouled himself and ran off somewhere into Canada.

Firemania: A Turbulent Saga of a New York City Firefighter
Firemania: A Turbulent Saga of a New York City Firefighter

If the one loss in the warehouse fire stands for the catastrophic losses of 9 - 11, President Bush, as that shrinking violetta crawled through most of his life particularly in the National Guard, made the rational choice of beating feet while the NYFD and the volunteers who rushed in from outlying areas to render assistance made the irrational and therefore incorrect decision. The critics run from an accusation the movie is careful to skirt.

Recognizing mortality and inevitable regrettable losses, Ladder 49 in avoiding the temptation of an "Hollywood ending," ultimately tributes all firefighters, not necessarily those lost in tragedies of Biblical proportions like 9-11-01.

Jack Acies FP's crime reporter.

Brave: A Story of New York City's Firefighters
Brave: A Story of New York City's Firefighters

Working Fire: The Making of an Accidental Fireman
Working Fire: The Making of an Accidental Fireman

Ladder 49: A Bond Forged in Flame © 2005 by Jack Acies: ALL RIGHTS RESERVED