In a career spanning 6 decades, Henry Fonda became synonymous with heroic lead characters who always fought for what was right, fighting for the underdog, and often doing it at his own expense. And then he wasn’t! In 1968, he took 2 villain roles in westerns, one that’s a classic and pretty well-known, Once Upon a Time in the West, and the other a far lesser-known but still quality western, 1968’s Firecreek.
In the tiny, isolated town of Firecreek, farmer Johnny Cobb (James Stewart) lives with his wife and their 2 boys. His wife is also expecting their third child. Johnny doubles as the town sheriff, but the town doesn’t necessarily need him to do much as he quietly earns (sometimes) his $2 a month. The peaceful, even boring town is about to get some excitement though. A gunfighter, Bob Larkin (Fonda), and his gang of four fellow gunslingers have ridden into town. They don’t start off causing any trouble at first, but that quickly changes. Basically on his own, Cobb must decide what to do. Where’s his line? How far should he let these men push before he pushes back? Whatever his decision, the townspeople are scared to death of any possible repercussions, leaving Johnny seemingly on his own.
The obvious comparison for this 1968 western from director Vincent McEveety is the classic 1952 western High Noon. The basic connection is obvious, a small-town sheriff forced to defend his town on his own against a gang of bandits. The basic premise is there, but 16 years later, things had changed in the western genre. Stories were nastier, more adult, more violent and for lack of a better description…more uncomfortable. This is an excellent western, but it isn’t necessarily an enjoyable western. It’s not fun, it’s not exciting. Instead, it’s nerve-wracking, the tension building all the time to a tough but ultimately highly memorable finale.
It’s hard to beat a pairing of two Hollywood legends like Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. They co-starred in 1962’s How the West Was Won but didn’t have any scenes together, so this was the first pairing for the iconic pair. They would co-star 2 years later in another solid western, The Cheyenne Social Club. Here in Firecreek, they don’t share a ton of screentime, but what’s there is prime.
Where ‘Firecreek’ succeeds so well is as a character study of Johnny Cobb and Bob Larkin. Neither man is truly content with his life. Cobb begins to realize as much as he loves his family, he made an unconscious decision years before to simply…settle and not challenge himself. He’s capable, strong-willed and patient, well-respected by the small population of the town. Fonda’s Larkin is a gunfighter, pure and simple, but not necessarily a bad one. He’s a self-proclaimed leader of men, always riding out front into the dirtiest, hairiest jobs. When things take a turn for the worse, Larkin wants to see how far he can push, even though he might not agree with his men’s actions. Rock and a hard place, but something has to give. Memorable performances from two Hollywood legends.
In creepy supporting parts look for Gary Lockwood, Jack Elam, James Best and Morgan Woodward as Larkin’s gang. Lockwood is especially memorable as a possibly unhinged gunslinger, Earl, with Elam and Best also making the most of supporting parts. Inger Stevens plays Evelyn, a widow who’s basically hiding in Firecreek, wasting her life away. Robert Porter plays Arthur, a simple-minded stable boy who idolizes Johnny, with Dean Jagger, Jay C. Flippen and John Qualen as some of the townspeople. Ed Begley is a fire-and-brimstone traveling preacher. Barbara Luna plays Meli, an Indian woman with a half-breed son (oh, scandalous backstory) with Brooke Bundy playing Leah, a teenage girl oblivious to the gang’s intentions and Jacqueline Scott as Cobb’s wife. Good supporting cast all-around.
Clocking in at 106 minutes, ‘Firecreek’ takes place in a little over a 24-hour period. The story is set almost entirely in the small town with a couple ventures out into the country, giving it an almost theatrical feel. The town – small, dusty and depressing – becomes a key character in itself. Even as the gang rides in, there’s a sense of doom hanging in the air. What’s gonna happen? Who’s gonna light the match of this powder keg? That’s where the uncomfortable qualities take off from. ‘High Noon’ was a nerve-wracking final product, but there’s an added, harsher edge here because we’ve gotten to see the depths the gang has gone to.
There’s little in the way of action for the first 90 minutes, but then with one shocking reveal in the third act, things take off like crazy. It’s not a huge gunfight, but instead a cat-and-mouse hunt through the town with some surprising touches of violence. An incredibly tense ending to a lesser-known but high quality western. Definitely should check this one out.
Firecreek (1968): ***/****