The film that should have been called True Grit…

Difficult Film Pitches #47: It’s a thriller about driving gravel-laden trucks around the British countryside.

In the greater scheme of things the concept of an exhilarating film about people driving ballast to building sites doesn’t sound lik,e the most riveting of ideas, but from the opening adrenaline burst of speed Hell Drivers engages both as drama and action. Joe (Stanley Baker) is the unlikely hero, straight out of the slammer and desperate for cash to try and make amends for his past mistakes. The only place he can get a job is in the employ of hard bastard Bill Hartnell, driving gravel for the construction industry. It’s a tough haul where you’re paid by the number of loads carried in a day – fall below 12 and you’re out on the streets, beat bona fide nutcase foreman Red’s total and you get a gold cigarette case. And most likely a damn good beating.

A good few years prior to the kitchen sink boom, Hell Drivers demonstrated that you could have a socially conscious drama whilst providing enough thrills and spills to satisfy any action cravings. The trucks race around at hair-raising speeds, sometimes hitting the magic 50 mph mark around the twisting lanes. What sets Hell Drivers apart is the eclectic cast of misfits – from love-struck Italian Gino (Herbert Lom) to lecherous Sid James, all hard drinking, quick fisted workers who are kept in line by "Ma", the local landlady.

Top of the bunch (no mean feat in this galaxy of UK film favourites, including an early turn from Sean Connery, a truly chilling William Hartnell and an on-form David McCallum) is Patrick McGoohan as the deranged Red, a violent conniving driver who runs his competitors off the road, sabotages trucks and maintains his top dog position by any means. There’s plenty on show: romance, unrequited love, local resentment, brawls, a mother spurning her own son, murder and intrigue. And despite this it never feels as contrived as it clearly is. This is sterling stuff, a fast, tough, romp that hardly puts a foot wrong and the sort of film that leads inevitably to moans about the decline of the British film industry. That they made a film that is culturally relevant without being a soap opera dry-run or a lazily directed comedy about male strippers is entirely to its credit. The dialogue is suitably tough and there’s little in the way of escape for the characters. Even Joe’s (or Tom as he inexplicably likes to be known) shopkeeper mother harshly castigates her son with the words "To you it was just one year in gaol, for Jim and me it’s a life sentence.”

Carlton’s DVD does credit to the Vistavision black and white cinematography, although it is slightly cropped at the sides. For the main it is crisply sourced, but of chief delight are two (basically) contemporaneous extras – a ‘making of’ featurette showing the social and cinematic background of the film and an interview with Stanley Baker during the making of Sea Fury. This is fascinating, although some of the questioning is unintentionally hilarious: "So Stanley, why aren’t you mining in Wales?"…