Features and Columns

Instant Badass: A Brief History of the Flamethrower in Film

By  · Published on August 4th, 2011

Let’s face it. If you need to threaten an enemy from a middle range distance, clear a ton of jungle in a hurry or carmelize the top of a crème brûlée, there’s nothing better for the job than a flamethrower.

It’s a gun that throws fire.

As your head wraps around that awesome concept (just as it does on a daily basis when you daydream about owning one), consider this beautiful instrument of destruction’s place in film. Sure, Bellflower comes out this week (and should energize you to convert daydreaming into action), but there’s a storied history here to uncover, and a future that’s assured to be bright enough to demand protective gear.

Here are just a handful of movies that put the flamethrower on the burnt pedestal it deserves to sit upon.

Fire in the 50s and 60s

The flamethrower itself is an arguably ancient tool, but it was utilized to more prominence in the trench warfare of WWI and even more in WWII. There are several instances of films focused on those wars that feature a flammable backpack, but many of them were made in the modern era. As such, one of the earlier uses of the badass device on film was in 1959’s Pork Chop Hill. Star Gregory Peck never gets to wield one, but a 7th Infantry solider gets to lug around an M2 model flamethrower, and a Chinese soldier burns an American outpost with one during battle:

In 1962, the M2 would be featured again when James Coburn’s Cpl. Henshaw got to flambé some Germans in the WWII flick Hell is for Heroes. Not only did Henshaw get a turn, there were a lot of M2s featured heavily during a handful of the battle scenes.

But before they marched off to war, flamethrowers were used to ward off monsters in movies like 1955’s It Came From Beneath the Sea, 1957’s The Deadly Mantis, 1954’s Them! and 1957’s 20 Million Miles to Earth. These films, of course, proved scientifically that fire is universally hated even if you’re a 20-story tall insect looking for a mate.

Burning Down the 70s and 80s

This era took the B-movie monsters of old and gave them a sleek update (with a far bigger budget). Perhaps the most famous uses of the flamethrower come from Alien and Aliens. It’s not just an auxiliary tool in those films, it’s the standard issue for the crew of the Nostromo. So it goes without saying that when they encounter any kind of danger, Ripley busts this out:

Believe it. In the sequel, she tapes the flamethrower together with an M41A Pulse Rifle for extra awesomeness. And, since it’s the future, these bad boys don’t require a heavy tank to lug around (and to explode when hit by a single bullet (which is ridiculous, yet amazing-looking)).

On another fantasy front, in 1981, The Road Warrior saw Mad Max using a giant flamethrower to ward off The Humungus and the marauders as they attacked the oil refinery. As it turns out, in a world with a fuel shortage, only the people living the oil refinery can afford to fling fire. It’s also the centerpiece of a great moment where the Warrior Woman tries to thank Max only to have him hand control of the thrower over to her as his silently badass “You’re welcome.”

There, of course, was also the notable appearance of the No2 Portable Flamethrower (called the Lifebuoy because it looks like, well, you guessed it) in 1977’s A Bridge Too Far, but since there were zero aliens or maniacs with hockey masks in it, it just can’t compete with the more fantastical uses during the era (even though the movie is incredible).

Speaking of which, a National Guardsman got to rock a flame pack on top of the World Trade Center for the 1976 remake of King Kong, but the only movie from the time that could even think to compete with the Alien/Aliens supremacy (a concept I’m pitching to Paul Greengrass and Universal) is the humble tale of men in the antarctic:

Hell yes. What have we learned from The Thing and this two-decade span? That the only way to take down an extra-terrestrial menace is to kill it with fire.

The Modern Era Flames On

The 1990s didn’t feature a ton of flamethrowers, maybe because you can never have too many flamethrowers or maybe because Saving Private Ryan pretty much had the decade covered.

Amongst the many, many weapons found in Steven Spielberg’s glorious take on WWII, the M1 comes into good use during the storming of Omaha Beach. Doyle (the character played by Glenn Wrage) lights up a German bunker, and his colleagues shoot the burning human bodies as they flail out of their hiding space. Until the order is given to let them burn. Another uplifting moment from the mind of Steven Spielberg.

Plus, as per the standard usage in military films (even 2002’s Windtalkers), poor Doyle’s wearing a bomb on his back, and apparently it can be detonated with a single gun shot. Cinematic flare trumps physics almost every time.

Moving further into the future, 2007 gave us a 28 Weeks Later where zombies are taken care of with fire guns, 2008 delivered a handless Nick Nolte taking out drug dealing thugs in Tropic Thunder, and 2009 gave us one of the few examples where a flamethrower has actually been used for character development. There are a lot of opportunities in Watchmen to get a sense of who The Comedian is, but few things say it as loudly as the slow motion segment of him smoking a cigar, not a care in the world, as he burns a Vietcong soldier at close range. We now know everything we need to about this horrible beast of a man, although it’s unclear whether there’s a smiley face sticker on his M1A1.

Fortunately, this hellacious weapon is far from seeing its last bow on the big screen. This week sees the release of Bellflower which takes the titanium testicles of Mad Max and tosses them into the deep end of a romantic drama. In the film, best friends Woodrow and Aiden make this:

Medusa is a vehicular flamethrower (and they also make a handy one that fits conveniently on your back). Plus, the forthcoming 30 Minutes or Less features Nick Swardson and Danny McBride as kidnapping assholes who put their own homemade flamethrower at the front of the intimidation strategy. Clearly, this thing has moved from the battle field and into the garage.

What Have We Learned?

Flamethrowers are awesome. But we already knew that. Their use in film ranges from weapon of choice to deathtrap, from bringer of despair to defender of the people, from military to the backyard.

The weapon is more versatile than it seems at first, but at the end of the day, it basically has one function, and that one function is a truly awe-inspiring one.

On that note, we leave you with a gallery of flamethrowers in film. Hope you brought marshmallows:

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Special thanks to the invaluable resources over at the Internet Movie Firearms Database

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.