Jessica Drummond (played by Barbara Stanwyck) is a hardened but benign rancher who holds sway over a small army of – you guessed it – forty hired guns. She inherited her ranch from her father as a young girl and turned it into an empire, but she’s looking to find the right man to help her take the reins of the ranch. Griff Bonnell (played by a steely-faced Barry Sullivan) is the quintessential Western sheriff with a bad past who clearly knows right from wrong – rolls into town with his younger brothers trying to put his shady past behind him. He also rolls right into trouble in the town, in the form of Jessica’s good-for-nothing younger brother Brockie (played with a suitably naïve recklessness by John Ericson). Brockie is drunk and running wild, intimidating the entire town – but not Griff, who despite not wanting to get involved in the drama walks right up, cold-cocks him, puts an end to his rampage, and lands him in jail - and also on Brockie’s bad side. This simple conflict sets in motion the heated drama that is Forty Guns, director Samuel Fuller’s eleventh feature film and his best to this point in his career.
Fuller’s films always operated in a world of high drama and heightened emotions. He worked as a young man in the newspaper world and always retained the attention-grabbing techniques of tabloid headlines in his story telling. In what could be just another romantic western action-drama, Fuller here pushes the emotions up to 11 and makes sure that – just like a gripping newspaper story – each scene is designed to grab you by the throat with its style, the acting, the dialogue, no matter whether it’s a love scene, a dramatic confrontation, or the inevitable showdown gunfight on Main Street. He often makes you laugh out loud with his audacity – sometimes because it’s amazing, sometimes because it’s absurd, sometimes it’s amazingly absurd. But Fuller never minded moments of transcendent schlock – as when the cowboy tune that goes “She’s a high ridin’ woman… with a whip” comes up on the soundtrack over a montage of the city and later is shown to be attributed to characters playing and singing, not just a tune laid over the soundtrack. But after the film’s opening, where the Bonnell brothers are traveling along a path only to be overtaken by Jessica Drummond’s “guns” storming around their simple wagon as they roll toward town, there’s no way you won’t be associating the words “high ridin’ woman with a whip” with Jessica Drummond. It’s an efficient bit of storytelling and background without a single word of dialogue to let you know more about her – and it’s amazingly efficient and smart filmmaking, the kind that Fuller made for most of his career.
The film is typically in-your-face Fuller, a pulpy story juiced to the maximum but smart, good-hearted, even tender in the right parts. With his years of work on earlier films (he was by this point a master with the camera, having directed 10 films in only eight years leading up to this one), and ably assisted by cinematographer Joseph Biroc (It’s A Wonderful Life, plus three Fuller films, of which this is the middle one), he puts together a film that’s entertaining, engaging, and simply beautiful to look at as well. There are widescreen and full frame versions included on this release but why anyone would watch a full frame version of this rather than the CinemaScope version is beyond my comprehension – don’t do it! The opening credits note that the film is “Written-Produced-Directed by Samuel Fuller” – and you can damn well bet he was in that editing room too! And though he’s known as a master of working with small budgets, this had double the budget of his other 1957 Fox picture China Gate and presumably more than his other 1957 RKO-made/Universal-distributed film Run of the Arrow and he put every penny to work to make this look terrific. It’s pure Fuller, pure pulp, pure entertainment, but made by a filmmaker with a brain who assumes his audience has them too, and knows how to use them. He makes smart, efficient cinema for his audience. He’d go on to make the cult hits Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss (also both pulpy, entertaining, and deliriously over-the-top in parts) but for me (and also for the French critics who worshipped him – Sam Fuller is probably the #1 influence on Jean-Luc Godard’s early style) this film may well be his best.
- Patrick Brown