Monday, September 7, 2015

Onshore oil field fires . . . in film

Just as I was finishing the last blog post on the Inglewood oil field in the Los Angeles basin, with links to historic LA photos of “forests” of derricks, I caught the last 30 minutes of one of my favorite petroleum-themed films, Tulsa (1949), a classic film depiction of the early 20th-century Oklahoma oil boom (

The climax of Tulsa is an oil field fire in a jungle of closely-spaced wooden derricks whose spectacle rivals the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind. Although the New York Times did not give the film a great review (too melodramatic and “cliché-loaded”), it did praise the oil field conflagration as “fiery a Technicolored burn-out as ever you're likely to see”. Not surprisingly, the film was nominated for a 1950 Special Effects Academy Award. Interestingly, I did find that the derrick-field fire was not full-scale but a miniature model set (; in this fascinating, but long, blog post, the Tulsa photos are ~1/3 of the way down, easiest to find by searching on the page for “Tulsa”.)

The conflicts in Tulsa: pollution, land preservation versus development, over-production versus paced extraction, sound surprisingly current, but just emphasize that these issues are perennial and not new. The oil pollution of a creek that runs through an adjacent ranch, sickening and killing cattle, is the trigger that causes the ranch owner, a former oil man, to toss a lit match into the water to test for contamination, the resulting fire climactically spreading upstream to production derricks. In the denouement, it is resolved that fences will keep cattle from contaminated areas and oil field development will practice conservation. The “conservation”, espoused by the movie’s geologist, includes 1) spacing wells to preserve more grassland and 2) controlled flow to maximize life of field and volume of production. (Producing oil too quickly may draw any underlying water in the reservoir up into the more buoyant oil above it or strand pockets of oil far from the well bore.)

Conventional anticlinal oil trap with natural gas over oil over salt water/brine, controlled by buoyancy and immiscibility (Figure source-

Tulsa, of course, is not the only movie that illustrates competing land use issues in the lower Plains states. Such conflict, reminiscent of that in the Los Angeles basin (business/residential development vs. oil fields), has me humming “The farmer and the cow man should be friends” from the musical/movie, Oklahoma. And, of course, the cattle vs. oil issues resurface in the television prime-time soap, Dallas (1978-1991), and James Dean’s last film, Giant (1956).

Two other classic black-and-white films with distinguished natural disaster special effects, IMHO, are San Francisco (1936), in which the tragedy of the 1906 earthquake helps the leading characters realize their true love for each other, and The Hurricane (1937) with a culminating South Pacific typhoon. Neither film was nominated for a Special Effects Academy Award, but both won for Sound (Recording).

However, while mentioning a few of the best and most spectacular disaster effects in classic movies, I might as well mention one of the worst, Beginning of the End (1957): giant grasshoppers, which grew after eating experimental radioactivity-treated wheat, migrate to the city of Chicago, devouring people along the way. I may have only seen the last half of this movie a long time ago, but grasshoppers crawling on an obvious photo of the Wrigley Building, including defying gravity and walking off into the blue sky, was jaw-droppingly memorable (“Inconceivable!” to quote The Princess Bride). That this conspicuous budgetary short-cut in special effects is also described in the Wikipedia entry on the film indicates it was apparent to numerous viewers! 
From Beginning of the End (1957)

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