Forty Guns (1957)

Written and directed by Samuel Fuller

Barbara Stanwyck dazzles in Samuel Fuller’s feminist western, a spectacle that indulges sensation more than the story it’s meant to tell. 

It stars Barry Sullivan as Griff Bonell, a formidable bounty hunter who contracts on behalf of the fledgling U.S. government trying to rein in the wild west. Alongside him are his two brothers Wes Bonell (Gene Barry, a crooner in chaps) and Chico Bonell (Robert Dix, upstart spark). Wes is his so-called second gun, his partner, while Chico is more along for the ride, even if he’s rearing to holster up and live the life, despite both Griff and Wes telling him their line of work is coming to an end.

They arrive in a dusty Arizona town with a warrant for a local bandit’s arrest only to find out their target rides as part of a 40-man posse that throws a long shadow over the town and its judicial infrastructure. At the head of this gang? Jessica Drummond, a woman who built her empire from the ground up.  

It’d take someone special to grant Jessica Drummond such authority, and that someone special is Barbara Stanwyck. Forty Guns is shot in wide, wide, wide CinemaScope and even if she’s small in stature, Stanwyck dominates any frame she’s in, and woe be anyone who tries to share it. Fuller fully builds an altar for her as we get to see her in earnest for the first time, squaring her dead center and slowly zooming in on her face, and she’s a rare actress who can justify such prominence without it feeling forced. 

She had spine in real life too, famously doing her own stunts, and there’s at least one sequence in Forty Guns where that devotion is on display as she’s dragged behind a horse. It’s worth its weight in upholding the immersion of a film that doubles down on sensation. 

Fuller loves spectacle. Loves it to the point of perhaps overindulging it. The very first scene takes place in a quiet valley until the distant rumble of hooves is heard. Fuller lets it build until the source roars into frame, with 40 thieves and their horses coming over the hill and charging downwards. Cross-cutting between galloping hooves and the frozen-in-place Bonell brothers, Fuller doesn’t seem to want to move on from this thunderous charge, in love with the power on display. 

When it’s time for us to witness Griff’s own intimidating posture, Fuller likewise dials it up. Putting the stopper to some drunkards causing a real ruckus in the small town, he simply walks down the street. Most hoodlums scatter, one remains; he staggers in place, while Griff walks, Fuller’s camera cutting to his boots, calmly and deliberately striding forwards. Fuller cuts to his eye, close enough to see the reflection in his irises. Back to drunkard. Back to boots. Back to eyes.  

It’s strange then to see Forty Guns so lean in other areas. Entire plotlines are teased, born, and resolved in three scenes, be they romantic in nature, about fraternal relationships, or even simple plot devices. Sometimes it’s even fewer, and you’d wish Fuller’s emphasis on sensual storytelling would extend to the story itself. It’s what leaves Forty Guns still reaching for greatness and only great in certain parts. 

It’s a shame, because those certain parts are memorable, most of all Stanwyck’s Jessica, who walks right up to Joan Crawford’s Vienna in Johnny Guitar and sees an equal as one of the great female western protagonists. 

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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 )

Connecting to %s