Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns begins with serenity. There on the dry road to Tombstone, Arizona, comes a horse and buckboard carrying three men. Suddenly, there’s a thundering, and the horses and men look up and brace themselves for impact. A woman comes down the pass toward them, leading forty gunmen. Fuller captures the emotion, the power, the awe beautifully before the title appears on the Cinemascope screen.
It says something about the power of Barbara Stanwyck that, other than in this brief opening ride-by, she is otherwise absent from the picture for the first twenty minutes of Forty Guns yet still manages to control the entire film. We feel her presence throughout, even in those twenty minutes where she is absent and we watch three brothers ride into Tombstone, Arizona. Stanwyck was fifty years old when the film was released, and this would be one of her final roles in a prolific career. She still does her own stunts, including getting dragged by a horse, and she still commands the men and the audience with perfection.
I had not seen Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns until recently when I watched the new release from The Criterion Collection, and what a pleasant surprise it was. Of course, I know that a movie by Fuller is always worth watching — his films are visceral, his compositions magnificent — and this is one of Barbara Stanwyck’s final major roles, but I was still shocked at the strengths of this dark western which is rightly called, at times and will be here, a western noir.
The three men riding into Tombstone are the Bonnell brothers. Griff (Barry Sullivan) is the oldest and the leader. Griff is riding to town because he works for the government and is on a trip to arrest a man for mail robbery. The second oldest is Wes (Gene Barry). He’s Griff’s back-up. Griff is tough, and we learn he used to be on the other side of the law, but one reason he can act as tough as he does is because Wes covers him from a convenient window.
So, for example, in one of the opening scenes, before we really meet Stanwyck’s character, a bunch of men have come to town to drunkenly terrorize the place and shoot up the frightened town marshal. One who is arrogant and young picks a fight with Griff and gets into position while Griff walks steadily toward him on the street.
It’s a great scene, filled with Fuller’s assured direction, and Griff looks extremely tough as he walks to the young man. This is subverted a bit because Wes is on the draw. But only a little bit; Griff’s still a force to be reckoned with even if he looks to protect himself.
Griff also looks to protect his youngest brother, Chico (Robert Dix). Chico — twenty years younger than Griff — wants nothing more than to be Griff’s backup, but Griff thinks times are changing and Chico should look at doing something with a bit more security.
As it turns out, the man Griff is going to arrest works for a woman named Jessica Drummond. We, along with Griff, saw her briefly leading her forty guns in that opening scene, but now we get to see her in her home, at the head of a very long table filled with her men. To her left sits Brockie, the youngster who tried to stand up to Griff in town. This is Jessica’s little brother, and, like Griff, she wants to look out for his safety.
We can see the problems lining up.
At the same time, Jessica has heard of Griff and he’s heard of her. Even this first real meeting has a moment of striking innuendo:
It’s not long before the two are fully in love. But that doesn’t mean the troubles go away. Their interests are in conflict, and her men don’t seem to see that their boss is infatuated with the man out to get them.
For that matter, the Bonnell Brothers keep doing their work.
For his part, Fuller continues to direct a twisted succession of scenes that feature hangings, baths, hearses, and song.
And the ending. It’s not what Fuller originally wanted, to be fair. He was going for something altogether darker. That said, what we end up with is another classic example of “playing nice” by the standards of what could be shown in feature films while subverting it all. I’d love to show just a frame from the final climax, but it’s too good to spoil.