Firecreek

Somewhere in the mid-60s the western began to be less attractive, both in terms of the look and the mood. It’s something which seemed to creep into the genre gradually as the decade wore on. You could even say it made occasional forays before retreating again, but it seemed to visit more frequently and stay a little longer each time. What I’m speaking about here is difficult to put my finger on exactly; it’s got to do with images which haven’t got quite the snap that was once the case, and an attitude of weariness and melancholy. Firecreek (1968) comes close to encapsulating the point I suppose I’m trying to make here – not a bad film by any means, but not an especially attractive one either.

Firecreek is a quiet town, a place where nothing all that important happens and people just go about their daily business without much serious worry. And yet it’s a place lacking something else, something vital whose absence is soon to be highlighted by the arrival of a handful of men. Larkin (Henry Fonda) is gunman, an enforcer for hire who has spent his life roaming the frontier plying his trade, and that of the ragtag bunch of followers he attracts, in the service of the highest bidder. A gunshot wound, the need to rest up and the suggestion of pursuit by unnamed figures has brought him and his men to Firecreek. And it’s here that they run into Johnny Cobb (James Stewart), farmer and family man, and part-time sheriff if or when the need arises. Cobb displays none of the characteristics or indeed the trappings one might normally associate with a lawman, and when this role is eventually revealed it represents as much a surprise to Larkin’s band of toughs as it does to the viewer. These new arrivals profess no interest in hanging around any longer than is necessary while Cobb, and indeed virtually the entire population, takes the view that confrontation is to be avoided at all costs. However, any place where drink is available as well as the presence of that other genuine rarity on the frontier, women, trouble has a habit of turning up too. When violence does burst onto the scene and shatters the tranquility of Firecreek, Cobb in particular finds himself driven towards confrontation. On the surface, he’s forced to face off against the men who have threatened the security of his town, but it’s really a challenge posed by the passive mood of the settlement itself and the withdrawal from life he’s been hitherto happy to embrace.

Firecreek was directed by Vincent McEveety, a man who worked extensively on television (most notably on Gunsmoke) but whose work I’m not very familiar with. Personally, I found the pacing of the movie a bit too leisurely, taking a long time to set up the central situation and then slacking off again before racing towards the resolution. The idea of a group of dangerous men resting up in a small and isolated settlement, while their leader tries to recuperate, and subsequently causing mayhem recalls de Toth’s Day of the Outlaw in some respects. However, Firecreek never reaches those dramatic heights, nor does it have the tight focus of that picture. Aside from the community in peril aspect, it attempts to blend in too many other themes and thus weighs itself down. The main ideas seems to be that of a town which has become a kind of repository for those who have lost their way or lost their nerve in life, a sort of limbo state on the western frontier. That’s an interesting enough concept, the antithesis of the thrusting pioneer spirit typically portrayed in the genre, but it’s introduced late in the day and the back stories of the characters are sketched too lightly to bear it out successfully. Alongside this there are allusions to the conflict between civic duty and one’s responsibilities to family, questions about race and miscegenation, and a whole range of powerful emotions from desire and jealousy through loss and bitterness – yet none of them feel all that fully developed. In addition to all this, much of the plot unfolds within the drab confines of the town and there’s therefore limited scope for cinematographer William H Clothier to show off his unquestioned skills behind the camera.

Fonda and Stewart were big names in cinema and both had their fair share of important westerns behind them, each having worked with the likes of Ford and Mann in the past. Stewart got the meatier role, one which afforded him the chance to progress from his characteristic down-home humility to something approaching the emotional pain Mann so expertly coaxed from him. Although the transformation his character undergoes in the third act doesn’t reach the intensity of those tortured souls he gave us in the previous decade there’s still a touch of that inner rage and frustration he was so adept at tapping into. Fonda’s villain is one of those men who senses the end of the line nearing, a throwback to wilder days who sees he’s fast becoming an anachronism yet can’t envision himself doing anything else. The supporting cast is impressive even though some of the members aren’t used as effectively as they might have been. Of the women, Inger Stevens has the most to do and gets to play a decisive part in the final resolution. Conversely, Barbara Luna and an exceptionally sour Louise Latham play potentially interesting characters whose backgrounds are never fully explored. Gary Lockwood makes for an extraordinarily dangerous henchman with a tinderbox temperament and James Best nails both callous and dumb. As is so often the case, Jack Elam is more or less wasted as the senior member of Fonda’s gang but he’s always a pleasure to watch all the same. With the likes of Dean Jagger, John Qualen, Ed Begley and Jay C Flippen all contributing turns of varying significance, it shouldn’t be hard to appreciate the depth of talent involved in this movie.

Firecreek was released on DVD in the US many years ago, on a disc which has The Cheyenne Social Club on the flip side, by Warner Brothers. The scope image is presented anamorphically and looks fine for the most part. Colors look reasonable to my eye but, as I said at the beginning, it’s not what I’d term a handsome looking movie. The only extra feature is the theatrical trailer. Despite the excellent cast and a plot that offers plenty to mull over, I can’t say I like this movie a lot. The tone, look and central message are all downbeat, and relentlessly so. Films of this era can, at times, leave me with that vaguely dissatisfied feeling. I have a hunch that filmmakers then were striving to achieve what they hoped would be another layer of realism but it’s possible to lose some of that magical and almost indefinable quality that can make cinema such an alluring form of art and entertainment. All told, Firecreek is a film which doesn’t quite work for me – others may react differently of course.

Advertisements

47 thoughts on “Firecreek

  1. A very interesting choice and review here, Colin. By 1968 the western had pretty-well fallen out of my ‘comfort zone’, largely because of the huge changes sweeping through the film industry and reflecting the seismic social changes taking place generally. For many, I am sure, these changes in the way films were made were welcome but for me they marked a turning-point. For the most part, the best westerns had by now been made IMHO. I know this has been discussed before.

    Perhaps strangely though, I quite liked “FIRECREEK” when it appeared at my local cinema. I kind of saw it as a return to a degree of the kind of western I liked though not equalling the best of them. I think, for me, had it not been for the excellent turns by Stewart and Fonda, two of my all-time favourite movie actors, the film would not have appealed to me half as much. They were run a close third though by Inger Stevens, wonderfully jaded and outwardly tough yet clearly vulnerable.

    Let’s just say – for a post-1964 western I like it quite a lot.

    Like

    • I find westerns from this period very variable, Jerry, both as a body of work and on an individual basis. Firecreek actually works well in places for me and then falls somewhat flat in others. The casting is a major plus here and the film does hark back to the 50s in some respects – however, the tonal shift is very apparent to me. There’s a kind of pessimism pervading it all, and even the resolution doesn’t clear that away.

      Like

  2. An unusual choice to review here, Colin. I think you’ve helped me understand the malaise that burdens FIRECREEK. I don’t much like it. The actors seem to be reaching for something that isn’t there in the material. Perhaps if the script had been tightened up in terms of focus and structure I would respond more positively to it. The flipside of the disc, Gene Kelly’s CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB, is considerably more cheerful. I got the satire about the important role the brothel plays in the town but I felt uncomfortable watching the film at the theater. I kind of wish Jimmy Steward and Henry Fonda had passed on both projects.

    Like

    • Yes, The Cheyenne Social Club is a lighter vehicle and more enjoyable overall, although I’m not crazy about it either.
      As for Firecreek, I feel there is plenty in the script for the actors, arguably too much, but it needed to be better focused – it takes too long making up its mind which aspect to concentrate on.

      Like

  3. While I understand that the film isn’t up to par with many other titles, it’s just one that I saw quite often on TV as a kid on City TV out of Toronto. Therefore I have fond recollections of the big shootout capturing my imagination. Gary Lockwood seemed kind of cool to a kid discovering this one on TV.
    It is of course routine and borrows from titles like High Noon but does have a solid cast going for it. Makes one wonder what could have happened if a sure hand like Hathaway or up and comer like Peckinpah had been behind the camera.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The direction, the pacing anyway, is a bit slack in places so maybe another filmmaker could have done something about that, but I do feel the writing contributes more to the weakness. I don’t think it’s a poor movie though – it’s weak and not all that satisfying overall but it still has points in its favor.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Even if it’s been discussed before and will again I’m always interested in the subject of the Western in transition in the mid-60s and then declining to where it is by the point of a movie like FIRECREEK. I completely agree with you about this one. To read the synopsis is indeed to be reminded of a superior movie like DAY OF THE OUTLAW from the genre’s best days (less than a decade before!) and certainly sounds like a workable story. McEveety may not have been a major director but had been around for awhile in TV, the cast are mostly veterans we all like and know what to do (and Gary Lockwood could clearly fit in well), Clothier is cinematographer and so on. And yet, it all doesn’t work that well—as if they are going through the motions with the meaning of it understood and kind of spelled out but just not that profoundly felt.

    Interestingly, though, while I don’t want to defend it, I did enjoy it on first viewing when it came out. But on second viewing it palled and good Westerns don’t do that. I now believe I just attached to the familiar iconography, hanging on to my love of the genre and not yet ready to acknowledge the fall that was happening in these years. But it’s now been a long time since I’ve come to terms with this and I accept that by the end of the 60s, the Western has become mostly depressing.

    Looking at late 60s Westerns now, though there are few that are great, I now feel that the best ones are not the ones that try to follow the old patterns. They reflect that they know those films but do try to do something fresh in the genre too–Sam Peckinpah is the best example, with a foot in classical and modernist camps. A movie like WILL PENNY (Tom Gries) from this same year of 1968 is also an example of what I mean. It does have some of the beauty of a classic but one feels it is of its period and would not have been made in the 50s. I do like a few Westerns by veterans too, most notably TRUE GRIT (1969, Hathaway) but it too actually had a fresh story and relationships, for all its classical aesthetics, kind of the best of both worlds.

    Like

    • Blake, what you say here towards the end of your comment about the better and more successful (and satisfying) westerns of this period interests me. You make a good point about the importance of having a foot in both camps, and especially about the need to do something fresh.
      The desire to look back, to try to capture the essence of what went before is natural enough. However, if that’s all that’s on offer, then it’s less likely to succeed. It does tend to result in something vaguely depressing, and this point makes me think of some of the A C Lyles westerns. I know those movies have their fans, some of the guys who visit here are fond of them in fact, but I’ve never been a fan. I’ve only seen a few but that sense of trying to hang onto a mood or aesthetic that had departed doesn’t give me any particular pleasure. While Firecreek is a different production, with a bigger budget and different aims, it still has something of that tiredness about it.

      Like

  5. Been ages since I saw this one, but I think you hit the nail on the head here – there is a cynicism to these later films that makes them often hard to like. It makes sense I suppose for the Vietnam era but also shows how deep rooted the romanticism of the Leone films was, which seem to dwell on cruelty but which are clearly very much in love with the trope of the traditional Western in a way that films like this really are not. I tend to find find them depressing and so don’t often look at them again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sergio, I think this ties in with what Blake said earlier about the necessity to do something more original and fresher than merely looking back to the glory days. Leone certainly highlighted his love of the classic western but also, crucially, took things in a different direction. As such, there’s none of that feeling of staleness on view in his work.

      Like

  6. I almost mentioned Leone and I agree about this–although I don’t like most Italian Westerns, I do like Leone and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST remains my favorite post-classical Western to this day. For where the genre was then, I love the mood he found for this and believe it will always hold up. (and interesting, because Fonda also played the villain in this as in FIRECREEK but so much more memorably for Leone).

    And yes, I also thought about the Lyles movies while I was writing, the most depressing Westerns of the period. A movie like FIRECREEK may have a little more on its mind and up in class a little but really does share so much of that dispirited, stale feeling of these more “traditional” Westerns of the time. I’ve seen most (missing about three) of the Lyles cycle. Depressing is truly the word–I will probably get a chance to see the ones I missed some time and may do it if they are right there, just out of curiosity, but am not looking forward to it. It’s interesting–directors like Springsteen and Selander were veterans who had made really good Westerns in their time–they seem so tired, and no one seems to care that so much exposition (way too much!) is simply verbalized in those movies (and Steve Fisher had good writing credits in the past too!). Finally, the actors–the film’s detractors rightly complain that there is a waxworks aspect to almost all of them, while defenders say it’s good that Lyles wanted to give them a job. Well, yes, it’s good he remembered them, but my feeling as regards the waxworks quality is that these were all still good actors, and in better, more interesting projects, asked to invest in something fresher with good writing and more caring direction, they all could have still given good performances worthy of their whole careers.

    Like

    • Yeah, that’s almost exactly the same as how I feel about the Lyles movies I’ve seen. More or less everyone involved in those films had bags of talent and experience yet everything comes across dreadfully flat on screen.

      Like

      • Do you think that if Fisher and Lyles had been making the same stories but in a modern setting, our reaction to them would have been different? I don;t mean because the Western has to be one thing or another (its great flexibility is what i like about the genre), but that the tone and approach of these later works would have been suited to a contemporary setting?

        Like

        • Good question, and one I hadn’t considered before. I agree there’s really nothing in westerns that cannot be transposed to another time or place, and vice versa. I guess with the Lyles stuff you could say that the fact the kind of western they aped was no longer current emphasized their shortcomings. I get the impression the malaise was more deeply rooted though and I doubt a different setting would have helped much.

          Like

            • Yes, only a couple of years down the road. While I’m not a fan of McCabe & Mrs Miller, the truth is I could never say I enjoyed Altman’s films, I think the 70s did see the genre trying some new things. Those may not always have been successful but on occasion they were. If you look at something like Monte Walsh, made only a few years after Firecreek and starring a couple of veterans too, there’s a completely different mood and feel to the picture.

              Like

              • It is is interesting when one compares, say, Winner’s LAWMAN with Aldrich’s ULZANA’S RAID for instance – made quite close together with the same star, but have a decidedly mellow, fin de circle feel – both directors were often pretty cynical and harsh in there views. And yet there is a very different tone to them …

                Like

                • Yes, it’s a very difficult era or period to categorize comfortably – just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, you realize there are significant exceptions.
                  Lawman is a movie I haven’t watched for years even though I have a copy at hand. I felt somewhat ambivalent about it before – I should give it another look some time soon just to see how I feel these days.

                  Like

                    • Well, Ulzana’s Raid is an excellent piece of work in my opinion, harsh and downbeat too but in a very different way, I may actually feature Winner’s movie here now that you’ve got me thinking about it…

                      Like

                  • You are not alone there, Colin. I never much cared for his movies, apart from ‘GOSFORD PARK’, but I am reminded that his early career was in TV (until about 1969) and much more to my taste. Can you believe that the man who directed “McCABE AND MRS MILLER” had once directed 20 episodes of “WHIRLYBIRDS”?????

                    Like

                    • Yes, I came to his career in a “back to front” fashion too only realizing after some time that he’d started out as a prolific director of television.
                      Mind you, I’m kind of fond of The Gingerbread Man.

                      Like

  7. I feel the same about the Lyle westerns. The films did give work to a number of good actors from days past but they are just flat, no freshness or feeling of originality present. About the same time, Alex Gordon put out two with the same concept (casts of actors from the past mostly) and they share much of the same flatness. ‘REQUIEM FOR A GUNFIGHTER’ & ‘THE BOUNTY KILLER’. I found them a bit better than the Lyles.

    Blake’s second para above was very resonant for me – I still remember that sinking feeling as realisation began to dawn that the kind of western I had grown up with and loved had had its day by the middle ’60s. It was hard to accept and I clung for a while to any new western in hopes of revival, which of course we all know was never to happen, apart from a few examples from the Duke. The Italian westerns brought fresh hope but that quickly dissipated for me anyway. A few early films in that cycle were original and pretty fine but quickly turned to blood-letting parodies.

    Little did we know at the time that the classic era would not continue but that, thanks to video technology, we would all be able to continue to appreciate those movies all these years later.

    I still find ‘FIRECREEK’ quite good for its year but agree that there was a negative, depressing feel that was there now (and didn’t go away).

    Like

    • Interesting you should mention those Alex Gordon films. I had been mulling over picking up a copy of The Bounty Killer, which has been released on DVD in the UK, since it stars Dan Duryea and Rod Cameron and was written by Leo Gordon – you’ve given me pause though.

      Like

      • In some ways, though this seems to go against general opinion, I slightly preferred “REQUIEM…..” of the two. It starred Rod Cameron and had Stephen McNally as the chief bad hat. The real draw though was a nice cameo from Col. Tim McCoy who showed he had lost nothing in his ability to hold screen attention.

        Like

      • Don’t waste your money on the UK version of THE BOUNTY KILLER……it’s a 4×3
        version of a Techniscope film with dire picture quality.

        Like

    • Nice to hear from you, Chris. Yes, the Fonda/Stewart billing does ramp up expectations, and the support cast is packed with the kind of names that would draw one to a movie too, but it just doesn’t satisfy in the end.

      Like

  8. The Sons of Katie Elder and 5 Card Stud, both directed by Henry Hathaway were entertaining in their own right. Both were from the mid-60s. Best regards.

    Like

    • Agreed on the former. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen 5 Card Stud though so I can’t speak with a lot of certainty. It has a good cast and the mystery/western element is always an attractive one in my opinion. I seem to remember feeling a bit let down when I watched – of course as I said, that was some time ago

      Like

  9. Yep,Chris I too do not have fond memories of 5 CARD STUD,further proof of Hathaway’s general
    decline. Having said that it’s nowhere near as bad as the atrocious SHOOT OUT.

    There’s sort of a twin discussion here about post 1965 Westerns,and the recent thread over
    at Toby’s. It started off as a Wayne Morris thing but it morphed into a post ’65 Westerns thing.
    Interesting comments on both blogs.

    Generally speaking there were still some pretty good Westerns made after ’65 as the various
    folk over at Toby’s comment.As mentioned at Toby’s I recently got the Blu Ray of DOC and it’s a
    lot better than I remember it being. It’s always fun to re-visit these films in high -def.
    Would I get a Blu Ray of FIRECREEK…I guess so especially as it’s shot in widescreen.
    Have not seen the film since it’s initial release and remember it being a notch or two above other
    Stewart Westerns at that time.

    Very excited about the forthcoming French Blu Ray of ULZANA’S RAID another film I have not seen
    since it’s release.Also Germany have announced CHISUM on Blu Ray in June which I have
    always felt was one of the best (Along with BIG JAKE and THE SHOOTIST) of the Duke’s
    Seventies Westerns. I should imagine the German release will be at the same time as a USA
    or UK release but it’s only announced in Germany at the moment.

    Speaking of Roddy McDowall in a Western,recently got the DVD of Boetticher’s BLACK MIDNIGHT.
    McDowall is very good in this film which is a combo of “horsie” flick and Western.
    Lovely Lone Pine locations and a taster of what was to follow.
    I would class the film as essential early Boetticher and for me,it’s actually better than a couple of
    his Universal Westerns.

    My “most wanted” films on Blu Ray from the post ’65 era are McQueen’s NEVADA SMITH
    (an on form Hathaway) and the underrated TOM HORN.Would also like to see Burt Kennedy’s
    THE DESERTER which I enjoyed at the time and sadly has not even been given a DVD release.
    It goes without saying I’d get a Blu Ray of CATTLE ANNIE & LITTLE BRITCHES in a heartbeat.
    (a personal favorite of mine) I’m amazed that the film is always perceived as a “comedy Western”
    which it certainly is not.

    Like

    • Lots of interesting info there as usual, John. There were indeed good westerns made in the late 60s and into the 70s, just fewer and with a different feel. I haven’t seen that thread at Toby’s (been a little out of the loop with one thing and another lately) but I’m going to have a look now you’ve drawn my attention to what sounds like an interesting discussion.

      Like

  10. The problem i have with “Firecreek” is that there is too much back story that tends to make it too long. It has always felt like a TV movie with a TV director that couldn’t quite find a way to tighten it up. Blessed with a great cast it never, for me, makes the most of the central story with bad guys just taking over the town. I feel it would have been better without the baggage of Stewart’s family. It would have been fine with him as a widower without changing the basic nature of the character. It is not that it is a bad movie it just could have been better.

    Like

    • Yeah, there is far too much going on that ends up having little or no impact on the central plot. As is so often the case with less successful films, it tends to come down to scripting issues. I can see how the idea was clearly to tray to give some more depth to the characters but so much of it is ultimately redundant and superfluous- it does slow the pace considerably.

      Like

  11. Colin, another 60s westerns worthy of mention would be Bandolero starring the ever capable James Stewart and Dean Martin. This was overlooked earlier. Best regards.

    Like

  12. I saw this one a little while back and don’t remember it in detail, but I remember liking it more than you did – I suppose that might have been partly sentimental, to see the two “old men” starring together one more time, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s fair enough and I do think the presence of Fonda and Stewart is one of the biggest plus points of the movie. The fact they both starred in much stronger vehicles in the genre, some of its genuine classics if we’re honest, is enough to catch one’s interest yet, conversely, it also serves as a reminder of some of the shortcomings of the picture overall.

      Like

  13. Another one I caught on the huge screen at the drive-in back in the 70’s. I found it rather tame when I caught it again on tv 2-3 years ago. Ok timewaster, but not something i’ll ever watch a third time. Nice review.

    Like

    • Noting particularly essential in the movie, sadly, which is not the kind of comment you expect to make of a film starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda. It’s a dull, and largely dispiriting affair really.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s