James Stewart in Firecreek (1968)

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James Stewart made a surprising amount of westerns and whilst the likes of "The Man from Laramie" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" are some of his better known, those lesser known ones such as "Firecreek" are by no means weaker. In fact "Firecreek" is a little gem of a western not just because James Stewart serves up a fine performance as the honorary sheriff of a quiet town or that it pitches him against Henry Fonda and his bunch of troublemakers but because it has some wonderful cinematography and some really powerful scenes which unexpectedly grab you.

Firecreek is a backwater town where nothing ever happens and people go there to live for that reason including farmer and honorary sheriff Johnny Cobb (James Stewart - The Rare Breed) whose wife is close to giving birth to their third child. But the routine world of Firecreek is spoilt when a group of hell raising cowboys lead by Bob Larkin (Henry Fonda - How the West Was Won) show up and start rasing hell. Hoping that these bunch of rough riders will move on, Cobb does his best to ignore there constant trouble making and law bending. But when things spiral out of control resulting in death Cobb is forced to make a stand.

Henry Fonda in Firecreek (1968)

Now "Firecreek" is a little gem, it's unexpectedly good but that doesn't mean it hasn't got it's share of issues and one of the most obvious is that the storyline is a bit of a plain Jane. And not only is it a plain Jane but there isn't a hell of a lot to it with a sleepy back water town suddenly being turned upside down by a bunch of trouble making cowboys and the honorary sheriff having to decide whether he should do something or just allow the trouble makers to have their fun in the hope they move on quickly. And that is really it, there are sub plots with the sheriff's wife being pregnant, a pretty young girl who falls for a rough cowboy and the ambiguous relationship between the sheriff and a single mother in the town but there isn't really anything meaty to it.

As such "Firecreek" pretty much strolls along as the hell raising cowboys get more and more out of control until the sheriff finally decides to make a stand. But as it strolls towards an expected shootout it manages to build the atmosphere and tension leading to a few stunningly powerful scenes. One such scene features James Stewart delivering an almost stereotypical impassioned speech about doing the right thing and making a stand. It maybe expected but Stewart delivers such passion, such sincerity and belief that it raises the whole tempo of the movie. As does the shoot outs which are surprisingly good, not just a melee of gunfire but some brilliantly choreographed gun fights which culminate with something quite unexpected.

What is interesting is that "Firecreek" was made after Sergio Leone started to change the face of westerns with his spaghetti western trilogy and the impact can be felt. There are moments of stunning camera work, a camera shot angling up from the ground is simple but breathe taking. And at the same time the almost cheesiest of previous westerns is lost as "Firecreek" edges towards being raw and gritty in the level of violence both insinuated and seen. It makes "Firecreek" one of those movies which starts almost casually but grows into something special, taking a simple storyline and making it more through style and embellishments.

It's strange to think that with James Stewart and Henry Fonda being friends and two icons of the westerns that they didn't work together more often especially when they give such brilliant performances as in "Firecreek". Stewart is very much at home playing farmer and honorary sheriff Johnny Cobb allowing him to show all the sides of his persona, the nice guy who builds into someone who becomes passionate as there sense of injustice causes a rage inside. It's wonderful to watch especially with Henry Fonda playing Bob Larkin the leader of the troublesome cowboys, delivering a sense of unease and menace to his character. Watching Stewart and Fonda face off is a big part of what makes "Firecreek" end up more than just an average western.

But Stewart and Fonda are not alone and there are solid performances through out from the likes Jack Elam, Gary Lockwood, Dean Jagger, Ed Begley and James Best. But it is Brooke Bundy who makes the biggest impact and not just because she is stunningly beautiful as Leah but also because she plays a real fire cracker of a character.

What this all boils down to is that "Firecreek" is one of those westerns which seems to get forgotten but is actually quite good. It may not have the most special storyline but the way it builds in intensity is special as is the rawness and camera work which really makes it sparkle. Plus any movie which features such cinematic titans as James Stewart and Henry Fonda isn't going to be bad.