Sam Fuller only made a handful of westerns in his long career, and it’s a damn shame — the logistic and thematic possibilities of the genre give Fuller the perfect opportunity to indulge in his penchants for violent romanticism, romantic violence, and pure cinematic flights of fancy.
Forty Guns revolves around a trio of bounty-hunter brothers, led by Barry Sullivan as a surprisingly scrupulous, infamous gunman who has coasted a long time on his reputation. The second brother is the Marshall’s second gun, covering him from the back, while the youngest itches to get into the fray, and gets prevented from doing so by his brothers.
It turns out that the Marshall has inflated his reputation, and for a good reason — he has grown distasteful of killing, and the moral cloud that hangs over him. When he is forced to face down a violent drunkard, he does it without even firing his gun…the fear of the Marshall’s retribution is enough to freeze the surly young man.
That same surly young man turns out to be the beloved brother of self-appointed cattle baroness Barbara Stanwyck, who rules the territory with her forty sidemen. She has the governor and the town sheriff in her pocket, and she frees her brother through a kangaroo trial. The Marshall follows her to the ranch to capture his quarry, and he and Stanwyck begin a tentative romance.
While the story isn’t much, Forty Guns is full of Fuller’s wild cinematic flourishes — there is a scene of Sullivan and Stanwyck suddenly getting caught in a prairie tornado that is bonkers yet brilliantly executed. A point-of-view shot from the barrel of a gun brings to mind a particular James Bond opening image. A violent wedding-day murder gets shot like a gangland slaying. Finally, a marvelously contrived musical scene at the subsequent funeral is shocking in its emotional sincerity.
Fuller also builds one of the most thrilling sequences I’ve ever seen in a western –the Marshall walks into a trap set up by Stanwyck’s assistant, a conniving tax collector who also holds a fatal torch for her, while the man hired to serve as bait can barely call out the Marshall’s name before fainting from terror. As the Marshall takes the bait and steps into a sniper’s line of fire, his younger brother creeps up behind and shoots the man in the head. The scene gets constructed with fear and intrigue, but it is Sullivan’s reaction that makes the sequence so sublime: “You killed,” he says with grave disappointment, realizing that his brother is now forever tainted by murder.
Forty Guns isn’t a perfect film — Sullivan is serviceable in the lead, but not much more, while Stanwyck’s character barely skirts the edges of campiness. Marlene Dietrich would fare much better playing a similar role in Nick Ray’s Johnny Guitar a few years earlier. Additionally, the ending feels tacked on, especially for a cynical gutter poet like Sam Fuller.
As David Thomson wrote about Fuller, “From the Civil War to the Vietnam War, Fuller has dealt with every major phase of American experience and returned with the conclusion that the world is a madhouse where ferocity alone survives.” This statement could get accurately applied to the majority of Forty Guns, a western of definite ferocity and madness.
Samuel Fuller was never really one to concern himself too much with structure. Aside from his most famous (and best) work Pickup on South Street, his movies seem to distance themselves from the standard form of plot. He directs a movie full of individual scenes and then fastens them together with an overall atmosphere that concentrates the film into a single, consistent unit. The Big Red One is a perfect example of how well Fuller can perform that task in that way. However, Forty Guns is an example of how easily it can all fall apart.
The film follows three Earp-like brothers who arrive in a Tombstone-ish town in Arizona in the late 1800s, a town run by ranch baroness Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck, in the only professional performance in the film) and her gang of forty ruffians. The brothers, headed by oldest brother and former US Marshal Griff Bondell (Barry Sullivan), are just passing through on their way west. That is until Drummond’s little brother kills an old marshal friend of Griff’s, and the other brothers are made aware of the evil doings of the wild, rampant townsfolk. In trying to bring law and order into the town, Griff falls in love with Drummond, and the second oldest brother takes on the job of town marshal.
The plot is not all that new, but that’s okay. It’s a western, and, like with most genre pictures, the film forgivably adheres to genre conventions. However, the plot is not the main problem. Although Fuller wrote, directed, and produced the movie himself, Forty Guns feels like it was made by four different people who each had a different idea of how it should get handled. I wonder if the original intention of the movie was to be shown on television, with commercials, as that would account for some of the incompatibility of conjoined scenes. The result is an erratic, jarring, disconnected arch that forms no rhythm, no consistency, refuses to establish characters, and shotguns plot points and conflicts all over the place without any determination to want to deal with them.
Still, Fuller cannot avoid sneaking in some truly brilliant work. There are six or seven scenes in the film that are brilliant. These scenes reveal a dark, moody, meditative western hinged on the complicated relationship between Griff and Drummond. The best scenes involve Fuller’s deliberate attempt to shock the audience with his gritty, cigar-chewing articulations of violence and death. One of the best moments involves one gunman who has just been shot and is about to die: he coughs and mumbles, and while he tries to speak, a large stream of saliva mixed with blood runs down his chin from his mouth; it’s disgusting and entirely effective. The problem: I cannot tell you who that guy is or why he was there, though I think I know who shot him and why.
Forty Guns is not an altogether bad movie. At times, we can even see how great it could have been. As it stands though, there is not too much separating this Sam Fuller movie from a pretty standard episode of a western TV show of the time. Boy, I never thought I’d say that.