Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller, 1957)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Forty Guns.

criterion logoJessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) rules over her county in Arizona with an army of forty gunmen until gunslinger-turned-US Marshall Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) and his brothers arrive, bringing law and order to Drummond’s corrupt empire.  But when Jessica and Griff fall in love and Griff’s brother is murdered, loyalties become divided between romance, family, justice, and revenge.  Written, directed, and produced by Samuel Fuller, Forty Guns explodes off the screen with audacious cinematography, psychosexual energy, and a hyperbolic story that unites style and substance in a muscular Western classic.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary by Sam Fuller biographer Lisa Dombrowski
  • A new video essay on the film’s pre-production featuring filmmaker Jim Jarmusch reading archived memoranda from the 20th Century Fox archives
  • Stills gallery of photos, posters, lobby cards for American and international promotion
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring a new essay by filmmaker Allison Anders, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1957 review for Cahiers du cinéma, and excepts from Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking

Sam Fuller proclaims in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965), “Film is like a battleground.  There’s love, hate, action, violence, death … in one word: emotion.”  He might have been talking about Forty Guns (1957), Fuller’s loopy Western melodrama that confirmed his place as an auteur of distinction among French critics, earning the film visual quotations in both Godard’s Breathless (1960) and François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968).  Godard called it “Fuller’s best film,” while Jonathan Rosenbaum has described it as “avant-garde,” Richard T. Jameson declared it “the most rampantly sexualized western ever made,” and Andrew Sarris thought it “a wild and reckless western that separates the cultish from the sheepish.”  In Martin Scorsese’s estimation, Forty Guns defies explanation – “It’s not even really a Western.  I don’t know what it is.  It’s pure emotion. … Forty Guns doesn’t care.  It’s just what it is.”  And Forty Guns is brilliant – a fantastic, fatalistic tale of love and duty set against the mythical demise of the wild, wild West, shot in bold black and white, and reveling in its Cinemascope expansiveness.

Fuller’s Forty Guns was originally developed during his tenure under Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox as Woman with a Whip and involved the Earps as its central lawmen arriving in Tombstone, Arizona, to execute federal warrants.  Zanuck rejected the script on a variety of bases, objecting to its scattered subplots and viewing its iron-fisted female cattle tycoon as unbelievable, but then later picked up the picture after Fuller re-wrote it and developed it through his Globe Productions, becoming available when 20th Century was in need of films.  Fuller replaced the Earps with the Bonnell brothers and refashioned his female landowner into Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), a self-made woman who controls Cochise County through her determination, a network of political and judicial corruption, and a gangs of 40 dragoons.  Drummond’s regime is threatened when Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan), once a legendary gunfighter and now a marshall for the US Attorney General’s Office, arrives with his “second gun,” brother Wes (Gene Barry), to execute warrants against members of Drummond’s crew.  The presence of the Bonnells agitates Jessica’s short-tempered and overly indulged younger brother Brockie (John Ericson), putting him on a collision course with Griff, one that cannot be avoided by either the failed efforts of corrupt Sheriff Ned Logan (Dean Jagger) or the mutual attraction of Jessica and Griff.  Drummond’s empire is eventually dismantled by the Bonnells’ arrests and the dissolution of Jessica’s assets to excessively satisfy federal authorities and futilely defend Brockie, leading to a climactic gunfight where Brockie uses Jessica as a human shield to protect himself from Griff, only to have Griff shoot Jessica (wounding, not killing her) and then gun down Brockie in cold-blood.

Fuller’s unique brand of hard-boiled, shock melodrama is on decided display in Forty Guns and Stanwyck and Sullivan are irresistible to watch.  Each recognizes instantly in the other the force of will and the moral sacrifices that have brought both to their notorious positions and their impending obsolescence in the new, civilized West.  Theirs is an immediate kinship that resembles a meeting of old lovers and of old adversaries – assured, patient, relenting – but Fuller reserves the best lines for Griff and Jessica, never letting the boldness of these now aging characters become just a memory.  Jessica asks to feel Griff’s “trademark” and take it out – she’s talking about his sidearm.  Griff warns her, “It might go off in your face.”  She demurs, “I’ll take a chance.”  Loving and fighting aren’t far apart for the pair, as Jessica observes that love, like war, is “easy to start … hard to stop.”

Forty Guns was derided at its release (as a B-feature on a double bill with Bob McNaught’s Sea Wife (1957)) partly for its “cluttered” and “unnecessarily complicated” plot.  Aside from Fuller’s obvious lack of realism, Forty Guns has a tendency to introduce subplots (the near-blind and terrorized sheriff, Brockie’s pregnant girlfriend, the romance of Wes and the gunsmith’s daughter, younger brother Chico Bonnell’s opposition to being sent to California for farm work, the collapse of Jessica’s empire by some undetailed deal with the federal government) only to abandon them once they have modestly and sufficiently advanced the plot.  Lisa Dombrowski suggests in The Films of Sam Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You that such readings are superficial and that these asides, usually relating to loyalties and complications arising from Griff and Jessica’s siblings, serve as impediments to their coupling.  To the extent that they eschew classical narrative development and instead “explode” into Forty Guns‘s story, they represent Fuller’s characteristic audaciousness and raise the stakes to the impossibility of their romance.

Forty GunsAccounts of the film’s production reveal that Fuller relented to studio demands for a happy ending and his script was rewritten so that Jessica did not die from Griff’s gunshot.  Instead Jessica survives and chases down Griff as he leaves town alone; Griff mistakenly believing that Jessica could never forgive him for shooting her and killing her no-good brother.  Most critics, including Dombrowski, characterize this resolution as a sad commercial compromise that reads in opposition to Forty Guns‘ tale of tragedy, of impossible love, and of the closure of space in the now civilized West for rugged individualists like Griff and Jessica who harshly brought order to the frontier and made it their own.  However the reunion of Jessica and Griff is markedly muted, with Jessica catching up to Griff’s horse cart and being welcomed into it without any dialogue or any embrace shot in close-up.  (The image of Jessica calling for Griff and running up the same street that moments earlier he had walked down, stepping over her while flatly ordering a doctor be called to tend to her because “she’ll live” despite his shooting her, is a wonderful reversal of movement and emotion.)  Their recoupling is represented in long shot and from behind, Griff’s cart stopped at the far end of Tombstone’s main street.  The understatement of this scene stands in contrast to the otherwise brashness of Forty Guns, with its bold crane moves, its cacophonies of hoofbeats, its stark chiaroscuro, and its strange angles.  Fuller undercuts this happy ending, suggesting that the transition to domestic life for Jessica and Griff, and their ability to put Tombstone behind them, both literally and figuratively, is not entirely certain.  This uncharacteristically tempered approach is surprisingly poetic and offers a partial resolution to the film that is far more in keeping with it than is usually credited.

Stanwyck Forty GunsForty Guns already has a decent Region 1 DVD edition, although it has virtually no special features and its transfer could be brightened up a touch to better see the detail of its gorgeous black and white cinematography.  The Criterion Collection, like all good film fans, holds Sam Fuller in special regard and Forty Guns seems like an easy choice for a wacky “C” given its admiration by contemporary critics and admired filmmakers.  The film’s camera work, compliments of Fuller and cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc, is so compelling, particularly the film’s opening sequence where Jessica and her 40 dragoons ride across the Arizona landscape and thunderously pass the Bonnell Brothers, that there seems little other option for a cover treatment than to draw from the film itself.  That line of riders is a great image (above), as is the image of Stanwyck astride her white horse and dressed all in black (left).  And Stanwyck deserves to be featured on a cover treatment.  She is enthralling here, still gorgeous and commanding in her 50s (even doing 3 takes of being dragged by a horse herself when her stunt person refused for safety reasons).  Forty Guns would end an era for Stanwyck in films as she transitioned to primarily television thereafter, and the Collection would do well to offer an uncharacteristic nod in their cover treatment to the film’s star.  If not, then we’d like to see the above image used with an imposing title standing up from behind the hills’ crest, towering above the line of dragoons strung out below.  (Barbara on horseback could surely find a spot on the back cover.)  We’d also like to hear the film’s wonderful theme, “High Ridin’ Woman” as sung by Jidge Carroll, play over the menu screen.

Credits:  Lisa Dombrowski’s insightful and detailed discussion of Forty Guns in The Films of Sam Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You made her an easy choice for an audio commentator and the feature relating to the 20th Century Fox memoranda is inspired from her own research that reviewed such internal discussions of Fuller’s initial script.  Having Fuller-fan and Criterion favourite Jim Jarmusch read those notes in his characteristic groan seemed too good to pass up.  The bounty of promotional art for the film (including posters calling it Tornado in Arizona) encouraged us to include a gallery similar to the one offered on Criterion’s edition of Pickup on South Street (1953).  The autobiography excerpts seem to be standard features on Criterion editions of Fuller’s films and we chose Allison Anders as an essayist based on her commentary of Forty Guns‘s trailer for Trailers from Hell.

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