The making of the movie, There Will Be Blood, was chalk full of historic accuracy in its scene construction and nothing exemplifies that more than the famous fire scene, above. Lets look at this scene, likely one of the most memorable in the entire movie...
The origins of much of the film, There Will Be Blood (2007) actually started here, on the left, at the West Kern Oil Museum in Taft, California. Both the director of the film, Paul Anderson and his art director, the famous, Jack Fisk (Revenant 2015) visited the museum often, mostly unannounced, and the the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield. They took many pictures of this replicated rig, on the left, and eventually Fisk actually solicited a copy of the plans to the rig from the folks in Taft.
Though the story, There Will Be Blood was loosely based on Upton Sinclair's novel, Oil!... the screenplay itself seems to borrow from a great deal of history on early oil discoveries in the Northern San Juaquin Valley near Oil City, and Coalinga. Very early wells in the Coalinga area were actually hand dug pits looking for coal seams.
A large part of the film was shot in Presidio County, south of Marfa, in Texas. The opening shaft scenes, with no dialog whatsoever for the first 14 minutes of the film, were shot near the abandoned town of Shafter, Texas, near Presidio itself. Much of the rest of the film was shot on the McGuire Ranch, off Highway 67 between Marfa and Presidio. The entire set of the movie and the make-believe community of Little Boston were actually left standing on the McGuire Ranch and you can visit the site, even today. The movie, No Country For Old Men was actually shot outside Marfa at the same time as There Will Be Blood.
Marfa is a cool place to visit in West Texas; its quaint and historic and has good Mescan food. The famous movie, Giant, was also filmed near Marfa in 1955. Terrell County, also in West Texas, has to be the most remote, unpopulated county in Texas but Presidio is not far behind. The "Marfa Lights" are real, man!
Left, script drawing of the wooden rig that caught fire.
From a historical perspective I particularly like the attention to detail given the cable tool rigs in the movie. Bull wheels, band wheels, calf wheels, Sampson posts and walking beams were all constructed quite well, right down to the slow, methodical up and down of the temper screw as rock is being pulverized downhole, headed for pay dirt. The bull wheel in the photograph. above, is actually quite remarkable as it is laminated wood that was tortuously bent to form the wheel and pegged together. I suspect this bull wheel may have been borrowed from a museum to shoot these scenes. If it was actually built by film carpenters, that's big work, gentlemen.
There are several references to Taft, California in the dialogue of the movie; in 1908 there was no town named, Taft, it was called Moron. The name was not changed to Taft until 1921.
This film is 16 minutes long; sorry. Wait for a cold morning in need of multiple cups of steaming coffee and watch it. It is actually quite good and worth it. I can't even begin to describe how this particular scene in the movie was done with regard to fuel and ignition mechanisms, but it works really well for me. Halliburton HP trucks, from its Odessa camp, were used in this fire scene. By the way, things went off script when the well caught fire, but they kept on filming and it all made the final edit.
The time frame of the movie, and the fire scene in particular, was 196-1908 In real life a fire like the one above would have simply been handled with steam from boilers. As we use to say in the well control business, you could have put your hardhat over it.
In the movie however there is an effort to put the fire out with explosives, seen above. The first actual attempt at using explosives to extinguish a fire did not occur until 1913, four or five years later, in Midway oil field outside Moron, California. I am being picky, sorry; that hardly matters.
Properly, all of the wooden structure, the floor and/or substructure would have been completely removed from around the well to have better access and to prevent re-ignition from occurring after the fire was blown out. They did not do that in the movie but what WAS of some historical significance was the manner in which the explosive shots were placed at the base of the fire, see photo above. Single axel carts were built to hold the glycerin charge, usually in a small barrel, and were then pushed, or rolled into the fire. There were no big Athey wagon booms to use for backing explosives into a fire with a dozer, this is actually the way it use to be done. A bunch of damn people got killed placing charges in oil well fires this way, but there was really no other way.
I DO have a film of Myron Kinley in 1929 rolling a shot canister downhill to the base of a fire on a set of narrow gauge railroad tracks. THAT was cool !
Parts of the movie, Let There Be Blood were terrific and Daniel Lewis was cast perfectly. I didn't understand a lot of it, the bowling alley scene, for instance, but so what. It as an oily movie and there needs to be more of those!
Like the movie, The Iron Orchard ! Ya gotta see that.
Here is a 1925 photo of the "cart" set up I referenced above; it has a boom built on the front where the explosives drum would be placed and opposite the boom there appears a stub out, maybe a 2 7/8s collar, for joints of tubing to push the charge into the fire. The shot would have been wrapped in wet asbestos, with no detonator. Hands had sixty feet of time, so to speak, to push the charge into the base of the fire and haul ass before it exploded from heat. There was no dicking around, you pushed it in and ran like your life depended on it. Lots of shots were used in the old days to blow away damaged well heads or new, experimental BOP closing rams (that didn't work, obviously), then reshot again to put the fire out. Push carts like the one above, and in the movie, were how it was done.
Now you know.
This photo was taken in front of Union's acreage block, and yard, in Santa Fe Springs where there were many fires in need of explosive charges.
Bottom photo courtesy University of California Digital Archives