Hell and High Water (1954) was one of 20th Century Fox’s earliest experiments with CinemaScope, widescreen movies that was Hollywood’s attempt in the 1950s to lure people away from their television sets and back into the theaters by giving them something they couldn’t get staying home. Samuel Fuller did such a good job with this format that he used it again on Forty Guns (1957), a hard-hitting western as only he could make.
Right from the opening scene, Fuller presents an impressive, expansive vista: a wide-open plain with a lone horse and carriage. He uses the widescreen aspect ratio to convey the epic grandeur of this landscape. He even has a cloud’s shadow move across the land. There is a sudden, jarring cut to a close-up of many horse hooves thundering across the plain. It is 40 men on horseback being led by landowner Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), clad all in black. They head straight for the men and their carriage only to go flying past them, surrounding them on all sides with no intention of slowing down, accompanied by Harry Sukman’s rousing score. And then they’re gone. Welcome to a Sam Fuller western. In his trademark fashion, the director grabs our attention right away with a visually arresting sequence.
Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) and his brothers Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix) arrive in a small, Arizona town. He is a United States Marshal looking to arrest Howard Swain (Chuck Roberson), coincidentally one of Jessica’s 40 guns. With a few judicious edits, Fuller gives us a tour of the town, which is being terrorized and trashed by Brockie Drummond (John Ericson) and his boys. He’s an arrogant drunk and bully but when he shoots an old buddy of Griff’s (a man going blind no less), he and his brothers intervene in a bravura scene.
Griff strides purposefully towards the action, unconcerned at the mayhem going on. Brockie’s buddies recognize the lawman and flee but the drunken bully doesn’t know or care. Fuller cuts back and forth between a close-up of Griff’s eyes and Rocky’s gun repeatedly until the climax when Griff finally reaches Brockie and punches his lights out. This scene demonstrates how Fuller understood that the power of an action scene lies in how it is edited. The rhythm and pacing is as crucial as the camerawork. This approach was later used to even more dramatic effect in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns.
Jessica comes in with her posse and quickly gets Brockie released from jail in what can only be called “frontier justice,” but once she gets him alone, punishes him by taking away his guns. She’s a tough lady and she has to be if she’s going to lead 40 cowboys. Wes wastes no time romancing the town’s female gunsmith (Eve Brent) in a flirtaceous scene as only Fuller could write and stage: Wes: “I never kissed a gunsmith before.” Louvenie: “Any recoil?” Cue romantic music and fade to black. This is a world where men are men and women are women.
Griff and Jessica inevitably cross paths and their first meeting is charged with sexual tension as they exchange pulpy prose as the two hard-nosed individuals test each other only to diffuse the situation when they have a drink together. Jessica’s tough but also a shrewd businesswoman and knows better than to mess with a federal warrant and a revered hired gun like Griff. Their relationship starts off as antagonistic but eventually blossoms into a romance.
As always, Barbara Stanwyck is outstanding and conveys Jessica with a forceful nature that makes her a believable leader of men. Fuller even gives her a wonderful scene where Jessica tells Griff her backstory and provides insight into what motivates her. It also allows Stanwyck to reveal a more vulnerable side of Jessica so that she’s more than just a hard-as-nails leader.
Even though Forty Guns features all the traditional iconography of a western it contains Fuller’s distinctive, audacious style. For example, early on a cowboy sings a surreal song called, “High Ridin’ Woman” about Jessica. It features such memorable lyrics as “If someone could break her and take her whip away / Someone big, someone strong, someone tall / You may find that the woman with a whip / Is only a woman after all.” A man in the middle of an all-male bathhouse is singing this odd song. This gives you an idea of the kind of wild, go-for-broke cinema that is the trademark of Fuller’s oeuvre.
Forty Guns is peppered with Fuller’s trademark bizarre pulpy dialogue, like when Griff tells Jessica at one point, “In my heart I’ve always asked for forgiveness before I kill just like an Indian asking for forgiveness from an animal before the slaughter. You can’t ask after you kill, it’s too late then.” This comes out of nowhere and is unusual for the genre where men don’t speak so philosophically. Fuller is being honest and speaking from the heart but looked at from today’s perspective it is funny.
He also includes oddly humorous moments like showing Jessica eating her meals with all 40 of her men and when Griff shows up with a warrant it is passed down a long table for what feels like an eternity until it is finally put in her hands. There is also plenty of exciting action, like the scene where Griff and Jessica are caught in a tornado, which is depicted in harrowing fashion as Fuller conveys a real sense of danger. At one point, her horse drags Jessica and eventually her and Griff have to crawl to a nearby shack to take refuge.
There’s an interesting dynamic between the Bonnell brothers that Fuller explores in a nice scene where Chico goes on a bender and after being sobered up complains that he doesn’t want to be a farmer but a gunslinger like Griff and Wes. Griff tells him, “The last few towns we rode through they looked at my gun and I know they figured I was one of those freaks out of the past. There’s a new era coming up, Chico. My kind of making a living is on the way out…I’m a freak, Chico. I just don’t want you to be one.” It’s an honest talk among brothers that provides all kinds of insight into these men and their relationship with each other.
Sam Fuller’s original screenplay, as written, had Griff killing both Brockie and Jessica and was entitled, Woman with Whip. He was under contract with 20th Century Fox at the time and its studio head Darryl F. Zanuck loved it. The marketing department told him that they couldn’t sell a western where the film’s love interest and her antagonist brother are killed by the hero and that movie theater owners would never play a film like that. Zanuck told Fuller to come up with a different ending, which he did and is in the film. Several years passed and Fox was looking for films that could be made fast and cheap – something that Fuller excelled at doing.
Before the start of filming, Fuller was approached by Marilyn Monroe who wondered why he hadn’t asked her to read for the part of Jessica. He told the actress that her innocence and wholesomeness would’ve been out of place for the experienced character and that her presence – she was known for starring in comedies – would’ve changed the tone of his film.
Fuller had a short shooting schedule (principal photography lasted less than two weeks!) and so he couldn’t do many takes. He shot most of the film on Fox’s backlot in the studio’s western town and much of the outdoor shots where done in “one of those arid California valleys with unbroken vistas,” he said in his memoir. Barbara Stanwyck insisted on doing all of her own horseback scenes as well as the stunt shots. She even did the bit where Jessica is thrown from her horse and dragged. “Not only did Stanwyck do the stunt, she did it over and over…Barbara was a little bruised at the end of the day, but she never murmured a word of complaint,” he said.
Fuller made two-fisted B-movies full of heightened emotions and without a hint of irony. He honestly believed in the stories he told and it comes through in every frame of Forty Guns. He was also an expert craftsman as evident from the masterful framing of every widescreen shot that places the characters for maximum effect. He may have traded in pulpy stories but he was no hack director. This film is a revisionist western as it comments on a way of life that was disappearing as evident in Griff’s self-awareness that his days as a gunslinger will soon be over and Jessica realizing that her business is failing and she’ll have to sell her land but it doesn’t mean things can’t go out with a bang as the film’s exciting climax demonstrates.
Fuller uses every opportunity to show off the widescreen format while employing extensive use of close-ups and one of the longest tracking shots ever done at Fox’s studio at that time. Forty Guns is one of the most dynamic westerns ever made and this is due to Fuller’s infectious energy as reflected in his pulpy prose and kinetic camerawork. It’s not enough to say that they don’t make westerns like this anymore – they just don’t make films like this anymore.
Forty Guns. Turner Classic Movies.
Fuller, Samuel. A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking. Applause 2002.