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Late in James Stewart's career, at a time when Hollywood was cutting back on its annual output, releasing either big-budget musicals (for which he was unsuited) or small, offbeat independent films like Pretty Poison (1968, which were equally out of his realm), James Stewart stuck with what worked best for him throughout the preceding decade - the Western. That genre, too, had changed somewhat over the years, and Firecreek (1968) reflected the changing times. For example, the movie's brutality - an attempted rape scene, Stewart's killing of an outlaw with a pitchfork through the chest, ugly dirty villains, and a moody score (by multiple Oscar®-winner Alfred Newman) - was obviously influenced by the European-produced "Spaghetti Westerns" that made a star of Clint Eastwood.
The plot, however, is a throwback to one of the classics of the genre, High Noon (1952). In Firecreek, it's Stewart as the pacifist sheriff rather than Gary Cooper, and just like that earlier film, he finds he has to single handedly protect a town of cowards against a brutal outlaw band. And similar to the climax of High Noon, Stewart is saved from certain death by a gun-welding woman - but not his wife. Instead, it's the saloonkeeper's daughter, who has tried to coax the chief villain into renouncing his evil ways.
In an interesting twist, the villain of the piece is played by Stewart's old pal, Henry Fonda, in their first movie together since On Our Merry Way in 1948. (They were both in How the West Was Won, 1962, but did not have any scenes together.) Firecreek, though, wasn't entirely a positive experience for Fonda, who wasn't used to playing heavies. The man who had played presidents (most notably in Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939), Wyatt Earp (My Darling Clementine, 1946), and Steinbeck's Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), was now delivering lines like: "I always say if a man's worth shootin', he's worth killin'." Years later in his autobiography, Fonda wrote, "I played a bad guy who tried to kill Jim Stewart. Now, any man who tries to kill Jim Stewart has to be marked as a man who's plain rotten. You can't get much worse than that." Actually, Fonda did get a whole lot worse. A year later he played one of the screen's most cold-blooded killers in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), an epic Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Leone, the man who practically invented that sub-genre.
The director of Firecreek, Vincent McEveety, and his two producers, Philip Leacock and John Mantley, came primarily from TV backgrounds, having spent some time laboring on the classic western series Gunsmoke. (McEveety also did a number of Star Trek episodes.) Fonda had praise for the director's skills with actors and even credited McEveety for not letting Stewart "get away with" his usual mannerisms, "things Jimmy Stewart has used to make a caricature of himself almost." Apparently, such sentiments did not affect their working relationship because a short time later, Fonda and Stewart teamed up again, this time for a bawdy, lighthearted Western comedy, The Cheyenne Social Club (1970). As for McEveety, he followed Firecreek with a handful of successful Disney Pictures, including The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979), but has mostly focused on his television career.
Director: Vincent McEveety
Producer: Philip Leacock, John Mantley
Screenplay: Calvin Clements
Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Editing: William Ziegler
Art Direction: Howard Hollander
Original Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: James Stewart (Johnny Cobb), Henry Fonda (Larkin), Inger Stevens (Evelyn), Gary Lockwood (Earl), Dean Jagger (Whittier), Ed Begley (Preacher Boyles), Jay C. Flippen (Mr. Pittman), Jack Elam (Earl Norman), James Best (Drew), Barbara Luna (Meli), Brooke Bundy (Leah).
by Rob Nixon