James Stewart is Johnny Cobb and Henry Fonda Bob Larkin in this 1968 western. Cobb is a farmer and part-time Sheriff of Firecreek and Larkin is the leader of a band of guns for hire that stop over in the town. Larkin’s band is made up of actors Gary Lockwood, Morgan Woodward, James Best, and Jack Elam. The townspeople include Dean Jagger, Inger Stevens, and Ed Begley is a circuit preacher.
Stewart’s wife is expecting their third child, the time is now, and he’s sent a midwife out to see to her while he and his two sons stay in town. The midwife doesn’t like males underfoot at this time.
There are several subplots driving the film. Larkin is wounded and being cared for by Inger Stevens, an attraction growing between them. The midwife’s daughter, a pretty young blond has caught Lockwood’s eye and she’s just naive enough not to known the trouble that will cause. There is a Native American woman living in town, with a blond headed child, and there’s a connection with Stewart’s character. In a conversation, they argue about telling the town the truth, as he wanted to do when he first brought her to town, and she prevented it. James Best wants her.
Though drunk and disorderly and continually upsetting the townspeople, Stewart, despite going unarmed, seems to command some sort of respect and manages to keep the gunmen in line. He tries to stay out of their business, hoping they will move on.
Arthur is a mentally challenged young man who wandered into town a few years before and works in the livery. He is Stewart’s “deputy,” a job he takes very seriously. When he finds James Best trying to rape the Native American woman, he jumps in and gets a beating for his troubles. As Best turns to continue his assault on the woman, Arthur grabs his gun and, unfamiliar with weapons, accidentally shoots him in the back, killing him.
Stewart arrests him for his own good and still stands by while the gang throws an impromptu wake for their slain comrade, driving the townspeople out in the middle of the night to attend. A little later, a neighbor comes racing into town to tell him something is wrong with his wife. Stewart rushes off to see to her.
Crisis averted, he returns the next morning to find a deserted street and when he gets to the livery, he discovers Arthur hanging from a rafter. Enraged, he stands screaming at the town for not stopping it, only to hear behind him, “They didn’t have any choice.” Fonda and his three men were still in town, getting ready to leave. He swears to follow them, hound them, until he can find a more legal law officer and charge them with murder, only to get a bullet in his leg for his trouble.
When he goes for a weapon and gets Dean Jagger trying to talk him out of it, Stewart realizes he’s just as bad as the townspeople. If he hadn’t wanted to stay out of their business during their drunken mischief, Arthur likely would still be alive.
The showdown that follows between Stewart and the gang is well staged as he has to deal with the individual members. He’s neither a gunman or a fighter, just an ordinary man.
I’d never seen this one before. Or even heard of it. It was pretty good.