Starring: Barbara Stanwyk, Barry Sullivan, John Ericson, Gene Barry
Director: Samuel Fuller
Mood: If your scattered brain can’t decide between genres so you’re hoping to find one Western that covers as many bases as possible.
Forty Guns sat on my wishlist for YEARS before I finally bought it. The price is high for an 80-minute movie, but it’s worth it for anyone who loves classic Westerns.
With that said, don’t put Forty Guns in a box. There’s something here for everyone:
- Dramatic 1950s romance
- Dramatic 1950s violence
- A posse that’s more like the Mob
- A powerful female Mob boss rancher
- Political corruption galore
- Cheeky innuendo involving guns and wood
Plus a heaping serving of galloping horseback sequences, a couple of slightly confusing musical numbers, and so much killing. You don’t want to miss this movie.
Forty Guns draws inspiration from the war between the Earps and the Cochise Cowboys, which becomes increasingly evident as the story unfolds.
Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) is a wealthy rancher who commands a posse of 40 hired guns that regularly tear up the town of Tombstone. This group represents the Cowboys, with Jessica in the role of cattle baron “Old Man” Clanton. Her drunk, violent little brother Brockie (John Ericson) is kind of an Ike Clanton/Curly Bill Brocius hybrid.
Brothers Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan), Wes (Gene Barry), and Chico (Robert Dix) ride into Tombstone, with Griff playing this tale’s “retired gunman” Wyatt Earp role.
Brockie gets arrested for wild behaviour, the cowboys have darker plans afoot, and Griff has to become the law. There’s a scene where a sign on a dead cowboy begs the public’s support, labeling the Bonell brothers as murderers – just like what happened after the shootout at the O.K. Corral.
But there’s plenty of original storytelling here, too. Wes falls for the local gunsmith’s badass daughter, Griff and Jessica are drawn to each other, and with 40 cowboys running amok there’s nonstop action from start to finish.
Barbara Stanwyck is formidable and commanding from the get-go, and it’s easy to see why this movie draws so many comparisons to Johnny Guitar. She’s a powerful woman in pants (gasp!) who basically runs a town. In her first scene she’s galloping down a road at the head of her 40-gun posse, literally the leader of the pack.
But where Joan Crawford was a fiery and tempestuous boss, Stanwyck is more often coy like a cat. She has bursts of anger, but mostly she expends no more energy than is necessary, smirking ever-so-slightly from the head of her massive dining table and relishing every moment of her complete control over the room.
Stanwyck was 49 years old when Forty Guns was made – 49! Women in Hollywood still struggle to get good roles beyond their 30s, so the writing and casting are impressive for 1957.
- Fun Fact #1: Stanwyck’s stunt double apparently felt the tornado scene in which she’s dragged by her horse was too dangerous, so Stanwyck did THREE takes of it herself, along with all of the other horseback scenes. Makes you wonder what was even left for the stunt double to do…
The other noteworthy performance is Eve Brent. She’s absolutely stunning as gunsmith Louvenia Spanger, the kind of gorgeous that should be illegal. But she brings such joy to her tomboy character, especially when exchanging what would have been extremely sexually charged one-liners with Wes, that you instantly fall for her charm.
The men are nothing special, and even kind of drag down Forty Guns. Barry Sullivan and Gene Barry are pretty good as Griff and Wes, but for the first half of the movie I was still struggling to tell them apart – two cleancut, dark-haired, New York-born white guys. I mean, the actors both have ‘Barry’ in their names for crying out loud.
At least Robert Dix and John Ericson have more unique characters that give them room for a few standout moments as the needy younger brothers. But it gets significantly muddier with the 40 cowboys and many townsfolk. On the plus side, all those indistinct men make the leading ladies really stand out.
Forty Guns may not seem shocking by today’s standards for sex and violence, but holy crap was it ahead of its time for the ‘50s.
- Fun Fact #2: Samuel Fuller wrote, directed AND produced Forty Guns.
To have a woman leading a Western was already daring – and got the script rejected by Fox in 1953 for its violence and “implausible” portrayal of women. But Fuller went ahead and placed a middle-aged woman opposite a Wyatt Earp-inspired character, not just holding her own but in a leadership role AND a desirable sexual partner and love interest. Then you have two women making naughty jokes with men, participating in violence alongside them without remorse. Mad props to Fuller.
The cinematography is absolutely stunning. The wide shots of the galloping posse easily hold up to today’s standards, and there’s a three-minute unbroken single shot that was the longest in Fox studio’s history. The closeups are also delicious, giving the characters heightened drama.
Having come up making B-movies, Fuller was a pro at stretching a budget to make magic happen. He shot Forty Guns in just 10 days, for $300k USD – and we get epic chases, tons of action, and a terrifyingly realistic tornado! Fuller seriously loved making movies that defied the rules, and this is no exception.
There are a few points that keep Forty Guns from getting a perfect score from me. SPOILER ALERT AHEAD!
- The two ballads sung by an otherwise nonexistent character feel forced
- One of the ballads, the main theme, is “The High-Ridin’ Woman with a Whip” and on the cover illustration she’s holding a whip… but there’s no whip in the damn movie!
- Fuller’s original ending had Jessica die from Griff’s gunshot, but the studio forced him to film a happy ending that detracts from her character
Some reviews claim that Jessica is one of the best Western villains, but I can’t agree. Although she’s a fantastically strong woman in a Western, she’s not really a villain. Her posse runs amok on the town, but she’s frequently shown as compassionate, agreeing with the law or chastising her boys, and even letting her brother go off to hang for his crimes.
It’s more like Jessica was once a villain to this town, but we’re seeing her at the tail end of her corrupt cattle baron-Mob bos career. She’s losing the power she once had, and she’s losing interest in the game.
- Less-Fun Fact #3: Forty Guns was Stanwyck’s last great movie role, after which she went on to do mostly TV for the rest of her career.
Thank the Western gods that we got this last movie from Stanwyck. I look forward to discovering more about it on future viewings.