Tuesday, March 22, 2011


In any discussion of Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon A Time in the West” (1969) there is mention how shocked audiences must have been to see Henry Fonda’s outlaw character gun down a family in cold blood.

But audiences who saw “Firecreek” the year before probably weren’t surprised at all. In “Firecreek” Fonda plays another outlaw who shoots an unarmed James Stewart in the street and lynches a man in a barn. But “Firecreek” is no “Once Upon A Time in the West.”

“Firecreek” was the first pairing of long-time friends James Stewart and Henry Fonda, not counting a short skit in “On Our Merry Way” (1948). It’s odd that it took long for the two American icons to be cast together and even odder that they were cast as adversaries here.

Firecreek is the name of the title town, one of the saddest western towns I’ve ever seen. It’s more a collection of shacks and fallen down buildings – I’m not sure you can even call them buildings. The town doesn’t have a regular sheriff but farmer Johnny Cobb (James Stewart) takes over lawman responsibilities when needed, for an additional $2 a month.

He’s needed when a gang of outlaws led by Larkin (Henry Fonda) ride into town and rest for bit while Larkin recovers from a bullet wound. His gang includes familiar faces like Jack Elam, James Best and Gary Lockwood. They take great interest in the town’s women, and for such a small town, the town of Firecreek is home to more than a few attractive ladies, including Inger Stevens, Barbara Luna and Brooke Bundy.

There’s a lot of discussion about what worth’s fighting for. Sheriff Cobb elects to stand up to the outlaws to the dismay of several of the townspeople. Dean Jagger is the most cynical of the neighbors, calling Firecreek’s inhabitants losers, and such an unattractive town that it only attracts losers and no one else. To his credit, Jagger’s character includes himself in the loser category.

But in the great western tradition of a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, a tentative Cobb straps on his guns and orders the Larkin gang out of town or else.
It’s all pretty cynical, and it makes for a long 104 minutes. Despite my love of the stars and the genre, I had never seen “Firecreek.” It didn’t get good reviews when it came out, with many critics saying it was just another western. Sometimes time has a way of making the once ordinary seem extraordinary today, but alas, for me, “Firecreek” reeks of the routine.

It’s not a total washout. The supporting cast is strong. In addition to the fine folk above, there’s also Ed Begley and Jay C. Flippen, who are always a pleasure to watch. Cinematography is by the great William Clothier who always makes his westerns look gritty while still highlighting the great natural beauty of the countryside.

I was fascinated by that town though. I had to rack my brains to think of a drearier western town than this one, and it came to me, and to my surprise it was another Henry Fonda film. Burt Kennedy’s “Welcome to Hard Times” (1967) offers one of the most depressing looking western towns in movie history, but it’s a much better film than “Firecreek.” Fonda made both a year apart, and I wonder what he thought, going from one decrepit western set to another?

Director is Vincent McEveety, best known for his work on various live action Disney films. There was nothing here that made me notice his contributions. It’s adequate, nothing more.

I guess that’s the word for “Firecreek” – adequate. It passes the time adequately enough, but nothing more. I don’t think I’ll be returning to this one too often.

Stewart and Fonda would fare together a little better with “The Cheyenne Social Club” (1970), a moderately entertaining western comedy where cowboy Stewart inherits a bordello.


Rick29 said...

Kevin, I was reading your review and thinking that FIRECREEK always reminded me of WELCOME TO HARD TIMES and then you mentioned said movie. I agree with your review of FIRECREEK--it is indeed pretty routine and a waste of the talents involved.

Caftan Woman said...

"Firecreek" was produced by Philip Leacock and John Mantley, written by Calvin Clements and, as you mentioned, directed by Vincent McEveety. In the 60s/70s these are the people behind my favourite TV series, "Gunsmoke". Certainly the somber, fatalistic tone mirrors many an episode of "Gunsmoke". Most of the cast (Elam, Jacqueline Scott, Robert Porter, etc.) appeared in many "Gunsmoke" episodes. Was this perhaps an extended version of a story intended for the program? What turned it into a film? Was it Jimmy and Hank wanting a project? "Firecreek" could have become a memorable "Gunsmoke" episode along the lines of "Nitro" or "Vengeance", but as a feature film it falls short.

Kevin Deany said...

Caftan Woman, that's very interesting background. I didn't know that. I picked up two sets of "Gunsmoke" dirt cheap from Big Lots over the Thanksgiving weekend but have yet to watch them. Looks like I have to rectify that soon.

Rick, I really wanted to like "Firecreek" but after a while one has to stop fighting it and just realize a movie may not be doing it for you.

ClassicBecky said...

Kevin, I have not seen Firecreek for many years, and I had forgotten Fonda was a bad guy in it. Of course, as you mentioned, Once Upon a Time in the West buried Firecreek in the tumblin' tumbleweeds!

It's always strange when a film with a great cast like Firecreek just doesn't succeed. It shows how important a good writer is to every movie. I felt that way recently in watching a movie that I had thought I would write a post about. I wasn't able to do it but I really wouldn't have wanted to anyway. It was Witness to Murder, and starred Barbara Stanwyck and George Sanders, two of my favorite wonderful actors, but the movie bored me to tears -- well, I didn't actually watch it long enough to come to tears, but you know what I mean!

Kevin Deany said...

Becky, I've never seen "Witness to Murder" but always wanted to. But since we have similar tastes in movies, I may have to put it on the cinematic back burner. Plenty of other movies to watch and enjoy. Thanks for the heads up.

Duke William said...

.I must be looking at this movie from a different viewpoint I actually enjoyed this film tremendously Some of the reasons I enjoyed the movie--- Fonda and Stewart's excellent low key acting , the feeling of realism throughout the movie-- characters are NOT cliches , sets are minimal, plot of movie seems more realistic, too I would give it an 8 out of possible 10