Firecreek (1968)




This movie has been called High Noon on geriatrics because of the aging cast and the premise of a lone sheriff standing up against a group of ruffians terrorizing his town, but the similarities to Zinneman’s movie are superficial and (more important) rather deceiving. Firecreek is a cerebral, literate western, far from perfect, but intriguing and above all misunderstood.

Jimmy Stewart is John Cobb, an aging farmer living in the sleepy town of Firecreek; he has two young sons and his wife is pregnant of a third child. To most inhabitants he is still a relatively young man and is therefore called Johnny by them; for this reason they have also asked him to be their part-time sheriff. The job only pays two dollars a month, but so far he has never been forced to use his gun (he keeps in a drawer back home!). Things change radically when a group of returnees from a range war decide to spend some time in town because their leader, Larkin (Henry Fonda), suffers a small but painful wound. While Larkin is being treated in a hotel room (by an attractive widow, played by Inger Stevens), his men start harassing the local women - notably a full-blood Indian woman who might be Cobb's mistress - and their behavior eventually leads to mayhem and murder ...


To start with these misleading similarities to High Noon: Stewart is not begging for help in this movie, the people are begging him to do something, and it’s in fact he who is acting like a coward. The 'bad guys' in the movie are no real outlaws, and they behave more like hooligans than traditional western villains; during the shootout near the end they seem to fear for their lives instead of showing the usual bad man's bravura. All things considered, the story is closer to Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (made a few years later) than to High Noon: it’s about a ‘normal’ situation that gradually deteriorates and eventually discharges into violence. Like Hoffman’s behavior in Straw Dogs, Stewart’s behavior seems irrational: when he finally acts, there’s not too much left to defend, he has given up hope for the town and its losers of people, but he feels a line has been transgressed. His actions are not those of a hero, but rather those of a madman. He knows he should have acted earlier and is appalled by the fact that he behaved like a coward, and therefore loses all self-control.

The script is also full of references to bigotry and repressed sexuality (also Peckinpah themes), but at this point it doesn’t fulfill its promises. Fonda’s character works old and tired, and in the course of the movie we get the idea that he’d rather stay in this 'cemetery of a town' (as he characterizes it), 'in which people are not asked to compete with each other' (as one of the other characters describes it), but in the end he decides to side with his hooligans of men. He wants to leave Firecreek, simply ride out of town after he has restored his authority by giving his men permission to hang a slow-witted young man. His aborted romance with Inger Stevens seems to be at the base of this decision, but this but this story element should have been treated with more care, especially since Stevens plays a key role in the film’s conclusion.

"A cemetery of a town"

With this premise, this couple of great actors and these complex characters Firecreek should have been a classic, and it isn't. It's intriguing, but it's also plodding, especially in the second half, and the script is needlessly verbose, with characters starting to speechify instead of simply explaining themselves in a few words. Director McEveety mainly worked for television, and it shows: there’s a certain Gunsmoke or Bonanza (or even The Little House on the Prairie) feeling hanging over the movie; it works a bit claustrophobic, with too many static indoor shots, but there are also a few nice camera angles, especially during the protracted action scene near the end (probably due to the keen camera eye of experienced cinematographer William Clothier).

When Firecreek was released, the Hollywood western was struggling; the genre would soon get a new impetus, but movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch would create a new context in which Firecreek must have looked old-fashioned, even obsolete. True Grit, the movie in which John Wayne reshaped his movie character, showed an aging star tall in the saddle, not limping - with a bullet in his leg - through the dusty streets of a western town. The movie never got a fair chance. I like films that try to do something different, and this certainly is a different western. The supporting cast is very fine, especially Gary Lockwood, as the most fearsome of the hooligans, and Dean Jagger, as the town's part-time philosopher. The climactic shootout is a long, long time coming, but it's as different as the movie itself, showing the hero in a frantic frenzy and his opponents as panic-stricken. Firecreek is a bit of a sleepy movie too, but patient viewers will be rewarded. 


*
1968 - Dir: Vincent McEveety - Cast: James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Inger Stevens, Gary Lockwood, Dean Jagger, Robert Porter, James Best, Jack Elam, Jacqueline Scott, Barbara Luna, Jay C. Flippen, Brooke Bundy, Ed Begley

Comments

  1. Great review, as always.

    A great cast. It should have been a better film. Unless I am forgetting something, Stewart and Fonda starred together in only one other Western, "The Cheyenne Social Club." It was supposed to have been a comedy, I guess, but outside of its opening scenes it wasn't very funny.

    Both films suffered from poor direction with, as you mentioned, McEveety in this one and Gene Kelly (Gene Kelly, for pete's sakes!) in charge of the other.

    These two stars deserved better.

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