Cast: James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Inger Stevens, Jacqueline Scott, Gary Lockwood, Dean Jagger
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.
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While not the greatest of Westerns, although that’s not what it’s aiming for, Fire Creek is an entertaining piece of film that pits two iconic actors James Stewart and Henry Fonda against each other in a compelling gunfight. Stewart plays an unlikely hero, forced into action when his conscience will not permit evil to continue, but the arrival of Fonda and his men challenge the sheriff’s determination to keep a peaceful town. It’s an engaging conflict that provides plenty of solid performances and exciting entertainment.
During the time of their careers and beyond, Stewart and Fonda were close friends. However an interesting note is in 1947, a political argument led to a fist fight between them, but despite the fact that the two men had very different political ideologies they maintained their friendship by never discussing politics again. Although a small reference is made in a later film they starred in together.
This was the second film Fonda played the antagonist. The first was Sergio Leonie’s “Once upon a time in the west” in which he played a crooked gunslinger looking to make a break from his old life into a new life as a business man. But here he’s simply a criminal leading his men through a peaceful town. His character may not be as compelling as the one he played in the Leonie’s film, but he was still engaging to watch.
Stewart has always played the likable hero, and this role is no different. In many ways, the film draws parallels to High Noon starring Gary Cooper, the classic American actor who epitomized what the traditional cowboy was. Like Cooper’s character, Stewart finds himself alone fighting against a group of sadistic criminals led by Fonda. With no other option, Stewart must find a way to protect his town, even at the cost of his life.
Knowing the struggle Cooper went through as he was left to defend not the only the town but himself alone. There was more emotional weight to the conflict than in Fire Creek, which felt more sensationalized for the purpose of entertainment. But that’s okay.
Stewart and Fonda deliver solid performances, and the scenes with Inger Stevens and Fonda are well done with some interesting conversations between them. Inger Stevens, who can also be seen in a few episodes of the Twilight Zone, is a real standout in her performance. If you’re a fan of westerns, than Fire Creek will provide the perfect entertainment you expect when dealing the popular genre.