Forty Guns (1957)

When it’s on: Monday, 11 May (2.50 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

‘May I feel it?’
‘Uh-uh.’
‘Just curious.’
‘It might go off in your face.’
‘I’ll take a chance.’

One of the aspects of the Westerm I find most fascinating is its dying days, the realisation that American expansion has caught up with the untamed frontier, making its ways approach their ending. This is a theme of Forty Guns I really like. Both its hero, Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan), and rancher Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), have long histories, complicated back stories, and know the elements that have defined their lives are drawing to a close. They’re becoming anachronisms, and their riding off in the direction of California together at the end is symbolic of the dawning new chapter in Arizona’s own tale.

But this is only one aspect of Forty Guns, a film I found very hard to pigeonhole into any single theme. That might suggest a bit of a mess, but it’s anything but, director Samuel Fuller shoehorning just about every trick available into a piece that runs under eighty minutes in length and feels gloriously longer. It’s funny. The slice of dialogue quoted above is one instance of the film’s bawdy sense of humour, transforming a conversation between ex-shooter Bonnell and Jessica about his gunmanship into something quite different and, for the time, close to the bone.

It’s also beautifully filmed. The opening, pre-credits sequence is breathtaking, three men driving a wagon slowly across the plain and then abruptly a large posse of cowboys surround them and ride past, led by Stanwyck’s character. Fuller shoots the moment from all sorts of angles – beneath the wagon, at the riders’ height, from a bird’s eye perspective – dragging entirely the sense of confusion and menace from the scene as well as focusing on the wagon’s screaming, terrified horses. The meaning is obvious. This is her land and the men on the wagon had better know it. And it’s only the most celebrated from a number of inventively shot sequences. I love this bit, surely ripped off in various Bond flicks, where Bonnell’s brother Wes (Gene Barry) sparks off his own romantic liaison with the town’s pretty gunsmith (Eve Brent) when he stares at her through the barrel of a rifle:

Given the short running time, the film isn’t given space to offer too much exposition about its characters and does the work through action instead, which is always better. We realise Bonnell is badass early, when Jessica’s out of control brother Brockie (John Ericson) kills the marshall just for drunken kicks and then starts tearing up the town. Bonnell marches up the street to stop him, even though Brockie’s holding a loaded gun, and they can tell from the way he’s walking (it’s a sequence that seems to take much longer than it realistically could), the cold resolve in his eyes, that he’s been there and dealt with much bigger men many times. It’s so assured that Bonnell is able to walk right up to Brockie and pistol whip him, ending the disorder.

But because he’s Jessica’s brother, she has to use her influence to get him released and that brings her into the orbit of Bonnell, who’s soon sparking a romantic relationship with her. Again, it’s clear that he must be some man to exert any sort of desire. The ‘forty guns’ of the title refer to Jessica’s personal army of ranch hands. Bonnell arrives at her house, a palatial pile that was modelled on Tara from Gone with the Wind, to arrest one of her men and finds them all sitting at the dinner table, immaculately dressed with Jessica naturally at the head, which emphasises her power. His arrest warrant is duly passed along the table, a long tracking shot that sees each man glimpsing at the name on the paper before Jessica gets it and reacts, every inch the queen bee.

Stanwyck, 49 when Forty Guns was made, fits the part beautifully as the middle-aged yet still beautiful and commanding Jessica. It was a role coveted by Marilyn Monroe, though it’s hard to imagine anyone but Stanwyck owning it so effectively. Despite her years and fame, she was unafraid to get her hands dirty, volunteering over the stunt performers to act the scene where Jessica is dragged along the ground by her horse during a tornado storm. It’s another great moment, the storm violent and brutal, narratively developing the romance that grows between her and Bonnell as they shelter from the winds in an abandoned building.

The block to a happy ending comes ultimately in the shape of Brockie, too hot headed to handle and nicely juxtaposed with Bonnell’ kid brother, Chico (Robert Dix), who similarly wants in on the action despite his better wishes. Brockie’s increasingly erratic actions lead to tragedy and then the final showdown, a superb climax that shows entirely the justice meted out by Bonnell when he’s ultimately driven to act violently.

I’ve read that Forty Guns is a veiled riff on the Wyatt Earp legend, and perhaps that’s there, but I’m not certain I’ve ever seen it told so winningly. I can only imagine the number of renowned Western directors who watched it and realised the game had suddenly been upped within their genre. There’s a cavalcade of minor characters, all in some way corrupted by the town and its imbalance of power, and the presence of Bonnell to set things straight. Stanwyck’s character was originally intended to die at the end but instead enjoyed a happy finale, and I’m glad about that. Corrupt she may be, but there’s also hope and the note of optimism that closes the film gentles its bittersweet denouement.

As highlighted on Riding the High Country, Forty Guns is due for a release on Blu Ray shortly to take full advantage of its expansive Cinemascope filming. It’s definitely on my list; its influence can be felt on the work of, amongst others, Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino, both of whom held deep respect for Fuller’s masterly camera work and economical storytelling. For one things, it’s impossible to picture Leone filming the classically wordless opening sequences to his Westerns so confidently without the marker set by Forty Guns.

Forty Guns: ****

The War of the Worlds (1953)

When it’s on: Monday, 22 December (12.50 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The 1950s was a brilliant decade for science fiction movies. Within a deepening Cold War climate, invaders from other worlds substituted for the Soviet menace during an era of heightened paranoia. Behind the Iron Curtain, the Russians were every bit as unknown, their threat the matter of guesswork and potentially limitless, as aliens from distant planets, and cinema played on this sense of fear with the likes of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and today’s entry.

It’s also worth mentioning that even as recently as sixty years ago, very little was known about Mars. Earth’s nearest celestial body had always intrigued us as a possible sister planet, teeming with its own intelligent lifeforms just as humankind evolved on our own sphere, and if that was so then wasn’t it also feasible that those beings might not be friendly? It was of course HG Wells who explored the possibility of invaders from Mars in his 1898 novel, positing the initial meteorite landing on Horsell Common in Surrey as the precursor to a full-scale global attack. But it was entirely speculative, with no scientific evidence to back up the possibility of beings of any kind existing on Mars, indeed it wasn’t until 1965 that NASA’s Mariner probe revealed the planet to be a desert, then in 1976 the Viking lander explored further, pretty much confirming it as a dead world. Even now, ongoing discoveries suggest life on Mars to be something discussed, at best, in the past tense.

These were discoveries for future generations in 1953, however, when the rights to The War of the Worlds had already been held by Paramount for almost thirty years. Initially slated as a project for Cecil B DeMille, and then Sergei Eisenstein when the great Russian director started working in America, it gathered dust when the limits of special effects and then a real world war stalled its production. It was picked up finally by George Pal, the Hungarian stop-motion animator who moved into production with films like Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide. Barré Lyndon was hired to write a screenplay, tasked with moving the story out of Victorian England and into modern California in order to give it contemporary resonance, whilst retaining his documentary style that had lent The House on 92nd Street a degree of authenticity.

Considerable work was undertaken on the design of the invaders. Out went Well’s tripods, which were seen as tough going for the designers and special effects teams of their day, and in came flying machines, sleekly designed eggs with antennae, adding to their otherworldliness and spitting out deadly rays that could incinerate humans into piles of ash. These were far easier to manipulate than tripods, and whilst the wires that controlled the vehicles are often clearly visible in shots, they still look great.

The War of the Worlds opens with some black and white stock footage of human war machines from the two world wars, juxtaposing what we have created to kill each other with the technologies of the Martians, before bursting into full colour for its title credits. After a brief opening narration by Cedric Hardwicke  that outlines why Earth was chosen for invasion over the Solar System’s other planetary bodies, and features some gorgeous artwork, the action moves to small-town California, which pays early witness to the first meteor landing. By chance, scientist Dr Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is enjoying a fishing trip nearby and dashes over the investigate, accompanied by the usual crowd of gawkers and the film’s heroine, Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson). A nice touch of these more innocent times is that the hordes are allowed to get so close to the meteorite, a molten lump of rock, then it’s later supervised by three locals while the rest of the community, including Forrester, goes to the celebratory square dance.

Soon enough though, the rock unscrews and out come the machines, vapourising the luckless people watching them before cutting the power and turning on the town itself. Pretty soon the world is in jeopardy, powerless to stop the machines, which protect themselves with a sort of force field. No matter what the military throws at them, culminating in the obvious atomic bomb drop, the Martians are unaffected and keep on coming, leaving the likes of Forrester to wonder what can possibly be done to prevent the conflict from turning into a rout. Not a lot, it seems. Whilst the majority of the film’s focus is on Forrester, there is a brief glimpse into the aliens’ attacks elsewhere on Earth, with Britain marked as fighting magnificently, albeit with futility as Mars marches on.

In the meantime, romance between Forrester and Sylvia sort of blossoms, albeit constrained within an 85-minute running time that tries to pack as much action into every frame as it can manage. In one of the film’s best scenes, they’re holed up in her home, one visited by an actual physical Martian that introduces itself by touching Sylvia on the shoulder. The alien looks as good as you might imagine in terms of 1950s effects work, but the eyes, looking a bit like a walking Simon Says with its three primary coloured orbs is suitably sinister, and shows a very neat design decision to repeat this consistently across the Martian machines.

The ending of the film is well known enough, though unlike in the Spielberg-Cruise adaptation from 2005 the story mounts to a very tense moment before its climactic twist kicks in. Less than ninety minutes have taken place, but it feels longer, in a good way, with the yarn taking in a full-scale invasion at a pace that’s out of breath. Serious money ($2 million) was sunk into it, and the kaleidoscope of alien craft, beautifully designed miniatures being zapped, an army of extras in military fatigues and the wonderful shots of a swiftly deserted Los Angeles shows exactly where those bucks were sunk. It’s a treat of a movie; the effects still have some power, and – religious subtexts aside – there’s little to jar with an audience from 2014.

The War of the Worlds: ****