Ronald Bartel is a minor villain that appears in the 1991 film Backdraft. He is a crazed and deadly arsonist who is obsessed with fire and watching things burn.
He is portrayed by veteran actor Donald Sutherland, who also portrayed Donald Mclintock and President Snow.
Although he does not commit any violent acts onscreen, it revealed that he has already deliberately murdered an unknown number of people, including children and elderly women.
He is very quiet, creepy and manipulative and can easily be compared to the likes of Hannibal Lecter. Early dialog implies that at one point he was hired as a mercenary to burn buildings possibly for insurance schemes. He was also creative in his attacks as he was even know to rig telephones to explode by "taping kitchen matches to the bell strikers, wrapped in gasoline soaked cotton balls". He was once caught in one of his own fires and was saved by Donald "Shadow" Rimgale (then a fire fighter) who apparently was unaware of who he was. Rimgale accidentally ran into a barrel of phosphorous which exploded, badly scarring them both.
Beginning of the film [unseen, but revealed in the middle of film]
In 1971, Ronald Bartel set a structure fire on 1545 Idylwild, which involved setting a florist's shop on fire and killing fire captain Dennis McCaffrey, the father of brothers Stephen and Brian McCaffrey, who would both follow in their father's footsteps.
The State Street accident
Sometime after the events of 1971, Ronald was asked to burn down a warehouse for the owner, he did so. Unfortunately, while Ronald was setting the fire, he accidentally got caught in the fire after a tub of phosphorous exploded and the explosion almost killed him and Donald Rimgale, who was a firefighter at the time [mentioned above]. The fire got so bright that it left Donald's shadow on the wall and that's how Donald earned the nickname "Shadow".
He is imprisoned in the film and his chances of parole are always thwarted by Donald Rimgale, now an arson detective. Rimgale drops a burned doll on the table in front of him at his parole hearings asking "What did do to that little girl?" To which he coldly replies " I burned her...". This comes after Bartel lied to the parole board that he was "ready for society". When asked what he would like to do with the world, he replies "Burn it all!" indicating that he is a true anarchist.
Who Doesn't Love Fire?
Later, he is visited by firefighter turned-apprentice arson detective, Brian McCaffery who seeks his knowledge of fire to obtain information on an arsonist he is trying to stop. Bartel shows him an old copy of a Life magazine which has McCaffery's picture, as a child, on the cover. Bartel has already deduced who the arsonist is and begins to taunt McCaffery. Bartel refuses to reveal the information until McCaffery explains who is on the cover of the magazine and if the fire that his father died in "looked at him". McCaffery indicates yes which amazes Bartel, who then begins to explain the clues to the arsonist's identity: The arsonist hates fire but uses it and is around the chemical, trychtichlorate for long periods of time. Brian realizes to his horror who the arsonist might be. Bartel leaves off by saying "That wasn't such a long walk after all?" Brian than questions his brother Stephen if he has any responsibility for the fires. Stephen denies any wrongdoing. Later, Brian finds out that their firefighter friend John "Axe" Adcox was responsible for setting the fires.