Firefighter Shelly Forsythe (Richard Roundtree) has just been assigned to a new firehouse and, from the minute he shows up, it’s trouble. Not only is he resented for taking the place of a popular (if now dead) firefighter but he’s also the first black to have ever been assigned to that firehouse. Led by angry racist Skip Ryerson (Vince Edwards), the other firemen immediately distrust Forsythe and subject him to a grueling hazing. However, Forsythe is determined to prove that he’s just as good as any white firefighter and refuses to be driven out. While the firehouse simmers with racial tensions, a gang of arsonists is setting buildings on fire.
Firehouse does not have much of a plot but what little it does have, it deals with in a brisk 72 minutes. Forsythe shows up for his first day. Everyone hazes him. Forsythe gets mad. There’s a big fire. And then the movie ends, without resolving much. Ryerson is still a racist and Forsythe is still mad at almost everyone in the firehouse. The characters are all paper thin and most of the fire fighting scenes are made up of grainy stock footage. What does make the film interesting is the way that it handles the causal racism of almost every white character. Ryerson, for instance, comes across as being an unrepentant racist but the film suggests that this is mostly due to him being too stubborn to change his ways and that Ryerson’s not that bad once you get to know him. When Andrew Duggan’s fire chief instructs Forsythe not to take any of the constant racial remarks personally, Firehouse portrays it as if Duggan is giving good and reasonable advice. The mentality was typical for 1973 but wouldn’t fly today.
One reason why Firehouse ends so abruptly is because it was a pilot for a television series. At the time Firehouse aired, it had been only two years since Roundtree starred as John Shaft and NBC hoped that to recapture that magic on a weekly basis. However, it would take another year before the Firehouse television series went into production and, by that time, Roundtree had left the project. In fact, with the exception of Richard Jaeckel, no one who appeared in the pilot went on to appear in the short-lived TV series.
The DVD of Firehouse is infamous for featuring a picture of Fred Williamson on the cover, in which Williamson is smoking a cigar and wearing a fireman’s helmet. Williamson does not appear anywhere in Firehouse and I can only imagine how many people have sat through Firehouse expecting to see a Fred Williamson blaxploitation film, just to discover that it was actually a Richard Roundtree television pilot. Firehouse probably would have been better if it had starred Fred Williamson. Roundtree’s good but sometimes, you just need The Hammer.