FORTY GUNS (1957)
Superficially just another cheap, quickly churned-out western typical of hundreds of similar efforts rolled out during Hollywood’s obsession with America’s Wild West, Forty Guns actually reveals itself as something slightly different and considerably more nuanced. The film is written and directed by Samuel Fuller, a sharp and individual talent who exploited the low budgets afforded to his projects by subverting studio expectations and creating brusque, often brutal and controversial movies. Here he uses the language and terminology of the western movie and his audience’s familiarity with them to subtly deconstruct the genre and the film is full of his trademark close-ups and oblique camera angles as well as one of the longest tracking shots ever filmed by Fox at the time. The result is a cult film which, in many ways, is a forerunner to the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s (which briefly reinvigorated a genre which was becoming increasingly unfashionable even as Forty Guns was being filmed) and there’s no mistaking the debt Clint Eastwood’s own Pale Rider (1985) owes to Fuller’s quirky and wilfully iconoclastic effort.
The ‘forty guns’ of the title are, in fact, the hired hands who trail in the wake of formidable rancher Jessica Drummond (Stanwyck) and they’re introduced in dramatic fashion in the striking pre-credits sequence. US Marshall (and reluctant gunslinger) Griff Bonnell (Sullivan) arrives in town to arrest a mail robber who just happens to be in Jessica’s employ setting the scene for an edgy power struggle and a battle of wits which will force Griff to confront the man he once was. If it all sounds like the stuff of almost any western movie then it very probably is. But it’s the way Fuller unfurls the story which makes Forty Guns distinctive and more memorable than it really ought to be. Fuller’s Wild West is grimier and grimmer than we’re used to and he’s not afraid to confront and depict the casual violence and disregard for human life which characterised the real-world Wild West; one fatality, shot in the back, expires in foaming-mouthed agony which, unless we’re very much mistaken, rarely happened in John Wayne westerns or in episodes of TV’s Bonanza. Fuller presents his world in sweeping cinemascope and dramatic long shots and there’s a sense here that he’s determined to strip away the Hollywood glamour of the era and present it as it might have been, warts and all.
The chemistry between Barry Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck, reunited in Forty Guns after appearing together in The Maverick Queen the year before, is palpable; they savour Fuller’s remarkably saucy, innuendo-heavy dialogue and if their burgeoning romance seems as rushed as that of Gene Barry’s Wes and Eve Brent’s blonde bombshell and gunsmith’s daughter Louvenia Spanger then the film’s tight eighty-minute running time is to blame. Fuller’s clearly happier putting his uncompromising vision of the Wild West on the screen to worry too much about the believability of his characters and their relationships.
In the final analysis, Forty Guns is surely more important for its treatment of its genre and the way it subtly changed those westerns which followed it than for what is, in the end, a fairly mundane box-ticking story. But it is unmistakably a landmark movie in the history of the western, a film which has rarely received proper credit for its importance but which deserves the reappraisal this new pin-sharp monochrome Masters of Cinema release from Eureka is likely to bring.
Special features: Collector’s booklet / 1969 audio interview with Sam Fuller / video interview with film critic Jean-Louis Leutrat / Trailer
INFO: CERT: PG / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: SAMUEL FULLER / STARRING: BARBARA STANWYCK, BARRY SULLIVAN, GENE BARRY, ROBERT DIX / RELEASE DATE: JUNE 22ND