Forty Guns (1957)

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

‘May I feel it?’
‘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: ****