Western RoundUp: Forty Guns (1957)
I took a look at it in last month’s column Ambush at Cimarron Pass (1958), which I described as a “rather mediocre film” that I still enjoyed.
This time I’m going to talk about a film on the other end of the spectrum, that of Samuel Fuller Forty guns (1957), a polished and deeply satisfying western with so many layers that I suspect I’ll still be able to find new things even after multiple viewings.
Forty guns draws the viewer’s attention from the amazing opening scene in which Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) leads a thundering group of horsemen on horseback. The horses race past a lonely wagon, leaving its occupants covered in dust.
Also in the car are former gunslinger Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan), now a lawyer, and his younger brothers Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix).
The Bonells are on their way to Tombstone, and the Earp mythology is revealed throughout, including an unfortunate death late in the film. Griff and Wes represent Wyatt and Morgan Earp; The genius Wes serves as his brother’s “second weapon,” but both Griff and Wes want more for their little brother. The two older men know that the days of armed law enforcement in the West are coming to an end, and they want Chico to have a nice, safe job like farming.
Meanwhile, the powerful Jessica engages in shady activities and could say she represents Ike Clanton, along with her troubled younger brother Brockie (John Ericson) and their “forty guns”. But an erotic attraction develops between Griff and Jessica that probably never existed between Wyatt Earp and his nemesis.
When Brockie causes trouble early on, Griff is kind enough to KO him with a gun instead of killing him. Jessica realizes her brother is causing trouble, and when Griff saves Jessica’s life in a sandstorm, a lengthy argument leads to an understanding between two tough people who have achieved different levels of success in a tough country.
Problems will continue to crop up, however, not just from Brockie, but also from Sheriff Logan (Dean Jagger), who has a crush on Jessica and isn’t too happy that Griff appears to be encroaching on his territory, both in town and with Jessica.
Although much of the story revolves around the theme of law and order, the film has some of the ferocity and unpredictability of Nicholas Ray Johnny guitar (1954). There is so much that is remarkable about this film, including excellent performances of unusual characters; a number of memorable set pieces; and the stunning black and white widescreen cinematography by Joseph Biroc. And it all happens in just 80 fast-paced minutes.
Sullivan and Stanwyck had previously worked together Danger (1953) and The Maverick Queen (1956) and they have excellent chemistry. Some of the dialogue they exchange is overwhelmingly suggestive, although it would sail right over the head of a 10-year-old. The film’s unexpected moments occur until the final scene, when Griff confronts Brockie, who is holding Jessica hostage; Griff’s somewhat ungallant but necessary solution is nothing short of amazing.
I particularly like the unexpected female roles in this film; Interestingly, they contrast with the film’s theme song about a “bashful woman” who needs a strong man. In the end, Jessica needs a strong man – not to make her less, but because no one else can match! A set piece in which Griff interrupts a dinner with Jessica presiding as queen at a very long table with two seemingly endless rows of men is another memorable moment.
Sullivan absolutely excels in a charismatic, multifaceted performance as the confident marksman whose mere stroll down a street strikes fear in the hearts of his opponents. But despite loving relationships with his brothers, the life of a successful Sagittarius is a lonely one. Jessica is clearly addressing him, but her illegal activities and useless brother? Not as much.
In addition to Stanwyck’s Jessica, who rules Cochise County, there is another wonderful female character in Louvenia Spanger (Eve Brent), the daughter of the local gunsmith.
Louvenia meets Wes during a shootout when she confidently and quickly selects a rifle and tosses it for him to use. Wes and Louvenia continue to bond as her father (Gerald Milton) builds Wes a custom rifle and shares their love of guns amid more stimulating dialogue. My only disappointment with the film was how her story ended, but that’s all I’ll say.
Robert Dix was the son of Richard Dix (1893–1949), who had played Wyatt Earp Tombstone: The Town That’s Too Hard To Die (1942), which I wrote about here, along with two other Earp westerns in 2018.
You could say that the younger Dix as Chico plays the “Tim Holt role” of the youngest Earp My dear Clementine (1946), but Samuel Fuller, who directed and wrote the screenplay, wisely takes a different approach with the character. The development of Chico’s character into a more mature, confident shooter in his own right is another somewhat unexpected twist in a film that often “bitches” when it could “pin.”
Western star Hank Worden is also there as an unfortunate marshal who is losing his sight. Rounding out the cast are Jidge Carroll, Chuck Roberson, Chuck Hayward, Albert Cavens, Paul Dubov and Neyle Morrow.
As a final note, it’s interesting that both Sullivan and Barry had overlapping TV Western careers shortly thereafter Forty gunsstarring Sullivan as Sheriff Pat Garrett The tall man (1960-62) and Barry as Bat Masterson (1958-61).
I recommend the Criterion Collection DVD by Forty guns, which offers an excellent 33-minute look at the Imogen Sara Smith film. Your comment made me want to see the movie again!
Forty guns is a must-see Western viewing.
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found on her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she has been writing about film since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film buff, Laura loves classics like Disney, film noir, musicals and westerns. She regularly reports on classic film festivals in Southern California. Laura will be writing all about westerns at the Western RoundUp for CMH.