Farmer and family man Johnny Cobb moonlights as a $2 a month sheriff in the quiet little town of Firecreek. When a gang of freebooters passes through, their leader Larkin, who is suffering from a minor wound, decides to spend the night. The gang members prove to be vicious, sadistic sociopaths who take advantage of the frightened townspeople, humiliating them for their own perverse amusement.
Although Larkin disapproves of their behavior, his leadership role is tenuous, and he is reluctant to test it by exercising control over his men. The mild-mannered Cobb also seems hesitant to challenge the gang's antisocial behavior. Things come to a head when Meli, an Indian woman with a mixed race child, is sexually attacked by one of vicious psychopaths. Arthur, a mentally-challenged stable boy, comes to her aid and accidentally kills him. Cobb locks up Arthur pending a trial, but when the sheriff visits his pregnant wife, the gang breaks into the jail and lynches the boy. Cobb now realizes the time has come to act.
James Stewart ... Johnny Cobb
Henry Fonda ... Bob Larkin
Inger Stevens ... Evelyn Pittman
Gary Lockwood ... Earl
Dean Jagger ... Whittier
Ed Begley ... Preacher Broyles
Jay C. Flippen ... Mr. Pittman
Jack Elam ... Norman
James Best ... Drew
Barbara Luna ... Meli
Jacqueline Scott ... Henrietta Cobb
Brooke Bundy ... Leah
Robert Porter ... Arthur (as J. Robert Porter)
Morgan Woodward ... Willard
John Qualen ... Hall
"Firecreek" is a somber, downbeat Western, photographed in bleak, striking colors... It has the benefit of Alfred Newman's musical inspiration… The movie starts off well, but goes steadily downhill in a welter of unrelieved negativism... Director Vincent McEveety—quite different from Anthony Mann who died the previous year—forces us to come to grip with a central figure, subtly played by Stewart who seems not to have held the plot in high esteem...
Stewart, an aging farmer and family-man turned sheriff, straps on his guns and goes out to meet the Fonda gang, especially after they lynch a boy who had caught one of them in mid-rape and killed him… Fonda was ruthless, stern, severe, sadistic, unrepentantly villainous from start to finish… He and his gang terrorize a small Arizona town causing among its people annoyance and trouble...
The film is a small predictable Western, far from perfect, which does not show its stars at their best... It had quite a little talk, much of it psychological, before the inevitable action finally begins to explode...
The tormented and unhappy actress Inger Stevens, who committed suicide two years after "Firecreek" at the early age of 36, managed to suggest sincere evocations of underlying neurosis in her role… Her real-life torments, sadly, gave her role more dimension than either the all-good Stewart or all-bad Fonda were able to achieve in "Firecreek."
Last note: "Firecreek" was the last picture in which Stewart's beloved horse 'Pie' would appear with him; they had worked together for eighteen years, since Winchester '73 in 1950… Stewart loved the horse but its owner, a lady, called Stevie Myers, would never let him, for unexplained reasons, buy it…
"Firecreek" is another variation of the "High Noon" (1952) theme of one man standing up to a gang of outlaws while the rest of the town stands idly by.
Johnny Cobb (James Stewart) is a $2 a month town part time sheriff who is also a full time farmer. A gang of mercenaries rides into the sleepy town led by Bob Larkin (Henry Fonda). His gang includes the trouble making Earl (Gary Lockwood), Norman (Jack Elam), Drew (James Best) and Willard (Morgan Woodward). Their intention is to lay over in the town for a couple of hours before moving on.
Larkin has been wounded and needs to rest. He goes to a boarding house run by Evelyn Pittman (Inger Stevens) and her talkative grandfather (Jay C. Flippen). She at first, wants nothing to do with him but later relents. The gang begins to whoop it up and make noise. Drew sets his sights on a young native woman Meli (Barbara Luna). He goes to her home and attacks her. Arthur a young mentally challenged stable hand hears her cries and goes to her aid. While trying to prevent Drew from assaulting the woman, he accidentally kills him.
Cobb's wife Henrietta (Jacqueline Scott) is about to have a baby. The mid-wife Dulcie (Louise Latham) sends for him when she goes into labor. Johnny rushes to her side leaving town amid a "wake" celebration for Drew.
Cobb later returns to town and finds that the gang has hung the helpless Arthur for Drew's killing. Cobb then decides to do something about it. He goes to the local general store and gets a gun from owner Whitner (Dean Jagger) who begs him not to fight the gang alone. Johnny steps out into the street and...................
Stewart and Fonda had been friends since they both started out in Hollywood in the 30s. They play well off each other and give the film an extra dimension. Their characters respect each other and are alike in many ways. Larkin bares his soul to Evelyn and notes that "certain things are expected of me" when one of his men is killed. Cobb confesses to Whitner that he came to Firecreek because he considered himself the ultimate loser. Both men were in their 60s at the time but could still carry a film.
Others in the cast include John Qualen as Hall a townsman, Ed Begley as a preacher and Brooke Bundy as a naive young girl tempting the evil Earl.
In his early films, James Stewart acquired something of a "Mr Nice Guy" image, something he tried to shake off in the latter part of his career. Although he rarely, if ever, played an outright villain, he took several opportunities to play flawed heroes, particularly in Westerns. An example is "The Naked Spur" from 1953. Stewart's character in this film, Howard Kemp, is not an evil man, but a basically good one corrupted by greed and resentment.
In "Firecreek", made fifteen years later, Stewart plays another flawed hero, Johnny Cobb, although Cobb's flaw is very different to Kemp's. Indeed, at first Cobb does not appear to be either flawed or a hero. He is a small-time farmer in the village of Firecreek, a loving and happily-married family man with two young sons- in fact, a typical Stewart Mr Nice Guy. He could be George Bailey from "It's a Wonderful Life" twenty years older and transported to the Old West. Cobb is also the Sheriff of Firecreek, although this is only a part-time position for which he receives a token salary of two dollars a month. He does not even have a proper badge, although his sons have given him a home-made one bearing the misspelt legend "Sheraf".
Things change when a gang of ruffians ride into town. They are not, ostensibly, looking to cause trouble; their leader, Bob Larkin, has been injured in an earlier shooting incident and needs somewhere to lay up while he recuperates. He has chosen Firecreek because it is the home of his former lover Evelyn. His men, however, start making a nuisance of themselves, but Cobb and his fellow townsmen are reluctant to ask them to leave. This is partly because the men have not committed any serious crimes, being guilty of little more than bad manners and minor vandalism, for which they always offer to pay compensation. The real reason, however, that Cobb is unwilling to take any action is because he is a coward whose dearest wish is for a quiet life.
Unfortunately, his wish is to be denied. While their leader is still with Evelyn, the gang attempt to rape Meli, a young Indian woman. Cobb's deputy, a simple-minded farm boy named Arthur, intervenes and, in an attempt to protect the girl, accidentally shoots one of the outlaws dead. Cobb arrests Arthur, more for his own protection than for anything else, and locks him in the town jail to await trial. At this juncture Cobb is called away to be with his wife, who is giving birth to their third child. During his absence, the gang break into the jail and lynch Arthur; the townspeople make no attempt to stop them.
This sets up a finale similar to the ending of "High Noon". Cobb, realising too late that his cowardice has contributed to Arthur's death, resolves to confront the villains, even though the odds are stacked against him. He is one old man (Stewart was sixty at the time), normally quiet and peaceable, taking on a gang of several hardened desperadoes. (The reviewer who said that Stewart was too old for the part is missing the point. The decision to make Cobb an older man was quite deliberate- had the role gone to a younger actor such as Clint Eastwood he would have seemed less vulnerable and his courage less remarkable). Like Will Kane, Gary Cooper's character in "High Noon", he receives no support from the residents of the town, who try to dissuade him. Cobb, however, will not be dissuaded; he has realised too late that, in Edmund Burke's words, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Besides Stewart, the film features another major Hollywood star cast against type. Henry Fonda normally played heroes, but here he is cast as Larkin, the leader of the bad guys. Yet, just as Cobb is not a straightforward hero like Kane, so Larkin is not a straightforward villain. He initially does not want to cause any trouble in Firecreek and tries unsuccessfully to dissuade the gang from their evil intentions. It soon becomes clear, however, that he has lost control over his men. Larkin joins them in the final shootout because his sense of self-respect depends upon the idea that he is someone to be feared. He sees himself as controlling his gang, but in reality they control him. Voltaire described the British constitution thus: "The King, all-powerful to do good, has his hands tied to prevent him from doing evil". Larkin finds himself in precisely the opposite position. He is all-powerful to do evil, but when it comes to doing good- or even restraining others from doing harm- his hands are tied.
Vincent McEveety is not normally regarded as a major Hollywood director- he worked mainly in television and only made a handful of feature films- and "Firecreek" is not normally numbered among the great Westerns. It is not quite in the same class as "High Noon", lacking the pacing and the ever-increasing tension which make that a great classic. (The first half of "Firecreek", in particular, is rather leisurely). Yet if it is not quite a great Western, it is certainly a very good one with great performances from its two veteran stars, one as a man who redeems his earlier cowardice through a desperate act of courage, the other as a man who lacks the moral courage to redeem himself by renouncing his life of violence. 8/10
The late sixties, for me, were the last years of traditionnel Hollywood western, typical of the Anthony Mann type of films of the fifties. Western of the seventies will have all that Leone type of feeling, or the violent aura of The Wild Bunch (Of course, there's few exceptions, like The Shootist). Nothing new under the sun here : a little bit of High Noon here, a little bit of the Mann-type of western there. But the story, if not original, is strong and the acting is very fine. I don't think Firecreek was popular then, or got a reputation, perhaps because people were tired of that kind of films. But James Stewart is superb. As always.