Entertainment Magazine

Forty Guns

Posted on the 09 November 2014 by Christopher Saunders
Forty GunsThe Fifties saw myriad female-centric Westerns, usually off-the-wall pictures like Johnny Guitar (1954). Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns (1957) holds up better because it downplays gender politics for efficient, stylish storytelling.
Ranch boss Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) rules Western Arizona with an army of hired guns. The Bonnell Brothers, Griff (Barry Sullivan) and Wes (Gene Barry), arrive to arrest one of her men for stagecoach robbery. Initially hostile, Jessica warms to Griff, earning the ire of Jessica's trigger-happy brother Brockie (John Ericson).
A crisp 86 minutes, Forty Guns provides marvelous economy. Fuller's plotting's a little pokey, but he scores with his trademark terse dialogue: watch the scene where Jessica admires Griff's pistol, or when Wes's suitor asks if her kiss has any recoil. While Wes and Griff are straight arrows, Fuller dotes on colorful supporting players: eager young Chico (Robert Dix), the blind Marshal (Hank Worden) who won't back down from a fight, a tough gunsmith's daughter (Eve Brent). The movie works down to the unforgettable hostage-taking climax, a savage riposte to High Noon.
Westerns typically fumble women by making them needy (Duel in the Sun), neurotic (The Furies) or genderbending psychos (Johnny Guitar). But Forty Guns's Jessica is tough and feminine at once: she's a shrewd businesswoman and tough ranch boss wary of love. Surrounded by impotent lawmen and crooks, her assertiveness keeps Arizona afloat. Sad about the silly ballad encouraging Wes to "break her and take her whip away": their arrival, it's implied, reasserts rightful masculine authority. Even so, it's refreshing to see such a strong female in a Western.
And Forty Guns is a directorial marvel. Josef F. Biroc's's stark widescreen photography bespeaks a bigger budget, allowing Fuller a desolate stage for grim action. Scenes like Griff facing down the drunken Brockie or an insistent thump proceeding a grim discovery showcase Fulller's inventiveness. Sergio Leone appropriated Fuller's juxtapositions of landscapes and ocular closeups. Guns' signature image, the titular posse hurtling through the countryside, became a running gag in My Name is Nobody. But Guns contains wild scenes like Jessica riding through a tornado that you won't see anywhere else.
Barbara Stanwyck made a second career playing Old West matriarchs: The Furies, Cattle Queen of Montana, TV's The Big Valley. Middle-aged but glamorous, Stanwyck makes a complex heroine: flinty, reserved, violent but fair. Barry Sullivan and Gene Barry play conventional straight men. John Ericson is a memorable psycho; Dean Jagger and Hank Worden are stuck playing crass wimps.
Forty Guns has a rich cult reputation and it's well-deserved. Its influence on later Westerns is undeniable, but Fuller's oddball oater holds its own as a minor masterpiece.

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