At IMAX: 'Fires of Kuwait' is stunning effort 'Canyon' returns

November 13, 1992|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Not even the big screen of the IMAX theater can really contain the enormity of "Fires of Kuwait," a stunning new film opening today for a six-month run at the Maryland Science Center.

Filmed by a five-person crew over four weeks of searing location work in September 1991, the movie intimately, dramatically documents efforts to quench the inferno of oil well fires deliberately left behind as Iraqi troops retreated from Kuwait to close the Persian Gulf war.

"There's no such words to say what they'd be getting into," we hear a Texas-drawl voice say early in the film, as the screen fills with orange fireballs and greasy smudges of smoke, turning day into night.

And the noise! Surround-sound speakers gush a throbbing roar as narrator Rip Torn relates that the firefighting effort ultimately became "the largest non-military mobilization in history."

Amazingly, the job once estimated as needing up to five years to accomplish actually took just nine months. But at their height, the fires were consuming 5 million barrels of oil a day and if left unquenched might have burned for more than 100 years.

"Everywhere you looked, there was something dumbfounding you'd never seen before. It was just disorienting beyond anything I'd ever done," said David Douglas, the veteran IMAX director of "Fires of Kuwait," who attended a preview showing of the film earlier this week.

From the astonishing proximity of some shots, viewers might wonder how sensitive film and recording gear survived exposure to the hellish environment. But Mr. Douglas said that was not the biggest problem.

"The short fuse in the heat was really us," he said. "It's the worst torture test for cameras I've ever seen, but I wasn't there to protect cameras."

Film crew members huddled with firefighters in makeshift huts of corrugated tin, or sheltered in front of a bulldozer blade as an explosion detonated over a flaring fire, robbing it suddenly of the oxygen required to continue burning.

"Right ahead of you is an unbreathable atmosphere. But we're not dummies, so we go upwind. Generally speaking, we were in relatively clear air," said Pat Campbell, a principal in Wild Well Control, the Houston-based firm whose crews allowed the filmmakers to record their work.

The silver-haired Texan told the preview audience that neither his crew nor those of other American-based teams suffered any accidents in Kuwait. But he said later (as the film only implies) that fatalities did occur among other nations' firefighters.

Mr. Douglas, who made such earlier Science Center features as "Blue Planet" and "Rolling Stones: At the Max," said the IMAX team originally went to Kuwait only to document the pall of air pollution sent up by the fires.

"But we realized there's something interesting going on under that smoke," he said, with the result the team shot more than 200 minutes of firefighting footage, from which the 36-minute "Fires of Kuwait" was "ruthlessly edited."

Except for an opening summary of Saddam Hussein's "final act of vengeance," the film largely eschews politics. We do hear from several representatives of the Kuwaiti oil industry, vowing to eventually recover and operate the scorched oil fields that once provided 10 percent of the world's petroleum supply.

Nice, contrasting human touches include a couple of firefighters discussing the birth of an associate's baby and a pickup baseball game among the Americans. The latter takes place while, out on the horizon, viewers can count seven fires still sending black smoke into the atmosphere.

"Fires of Kuwait" is screened at noon and 3 p.m. weekdays and at noon, 2 and 4 p.m. on weekends.

"Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets," also directed by Mr. Douglas, returns to the Science Center for a second-run appreciation of the great chasm of the Colorado River.

A little anthropology, a little history and a little science mix with lots of effective, conventional footage of the into-the-picture IMAX experience -- especially a rollicking ride down the whitewater (in re-enactment of Maj. John Wesley Powell's pioneering exploration), and an ultralight aircraft flight down below the rim.

"Grand Canyon" is shown at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. weekends.

'Fires of Kuwait' and 'Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets'

Where: Maryland Science Center, IMAX theater.

When: Daily, alternating showings.

Cost: With museum admission; $8.50 adults, $5.50 students (4 to 17), seniors and military.

Information: (410) 685-5225.

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