Sun 17 Jul 2016
FORTY GUNS. 20th Century Fox, 1957. Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Gene Barry, Robert Dix. Director: Samuel Fuller.
Written, directed, and produced by Samuel Fuller, Forty Guns is an emotionally stormy, visually captivating “noir” Western. It’s one of those many mid-to-late 1950s Westerns with a script, had it been in the hands of a studio craftsman, would have produced just another generic movie about a gunman turned lawman facing off against a power hungry cattle baron. But in the hands of the Fuller, an auteur known for his work in Westerns and the war film genre, the movie rises above its recycled cinematic tropes and becomes something far more unconventional.
Filmed in Cinemascope in black and white and replete with extremely well-staged sequences, Forty Guns stars Barry Sullivan as Griff Bonnell, a gunfighter who realizes that his kind’s days are numbered. With the lawless frontier dying, Bonnell decides to become a lawman and signs up as a federal marshal in Cochise County, Arizona. Along for the ride – both figuratively and literally – are his two brothers: Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix).
While Wes romances a local woman who just happens to be the daughter of the local gunsmith, Griff confronts with local cattle baroness Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), a headstrong woman whose hotheaded brother Brockie is responsible for terrorizing the local townsfolk.
Although they are on opposite sides of the law, Griff and Jessica Drummond find themselves attracted to one another. Both know that they are the last of dying breed, strong willed people who have risen far above what the world expected from them. Any chance of rapprochement is forever shattered when Brockie murders Wes in cold blood on his wedding day.
While there are some gritty action sequences, Forty Guns is a richly textured film overall. It’s a Western that’s also a Gothic romance, a drama rich in Freudian subtext, and an occasionally subversive take on the Western genre itself. Pulpy to the core, Fuller’s film doesn’t seem to have garnered the same critical attention as Anthony Mann’s grittier Westerns.
That’s unfortunate, particularly given how natural Barry Sullivan seems in his role as an aging gunfighter who, in the name of family loyalty, is willing to turn his back on what is perhaps his last chance at love and a normal life.