Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon: Forty Guns (1957)

Film

Today’s post is part of the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, as hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please head over to that blog to check out some of the other awesome content celebrating the life and acting of one of the great actresses of classic Hollywood!

Forty Guns Poster

Samuel Fuller’s black-and-white Cinemascope western Forty Guns is one of the strangest westerns of the 1950s. Not only is it startlingly morbid, but it seems that with every scene that passes by the film changes genre. It also seems like the film can’t settle in on which of it’s cast is the main character, and in this respect the film does feel like three stories that have been intertwined into one cross-cutting super narrative. It feels surprisingly modern, and anticipatory of the westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Whatever your feelings about this strange film, none can deny it is supremely well-made, well-acted, and exquisitely shot. Forty Guns is a lesser-known masterpiece and one of Fuller’s best films.

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When Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) and his two younger brothers drift into Tombstone, Arizona with a warrant to arrest a man for bank robbery, they are brought into direct conflict with Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), a landowner, and her “forty guns,” a deadly private army of gunslingers. When Jessica’s violent younger brother Brockie (John Ericson) blinds a friend of Griff’s in a vicious shooting, Griff sets of a chain-reaction of double-crossing and murder, whilst he and Jessica are helpless to fall in love.

Fuller’s seminal western is very much set at the of the West as it is mythically portrayed. As Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond bravely states, “this is the last stop, Griff. The Frontier is finished. There’ll be no more towns to break, no more men to break – time you started to break yourself.” Barry Sullivan’s Griff is a gunslinger who is at the end of his game, and Jessica Drummond is a landowner who’s power has lost all meaning or interest. She simply keeps going because there’s nothing else to do. That could be said of the rest of Tombstone, too. The frontier may be gone, but civilisation hasn’t quite caught up yet – so we might as well stay the same, and wait for an outside force to “civilise” us.

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The acting is particularly strong in Forty Guns. Barry Sullivan turns in a great and psychologically complex performance as Griff, and John Ericson’s Brockie is a despicable and violent youth who we all know will die young. The true star of the picture, though, is Barbara Stanwyck, who steals every single scene she is in from any other actor or actress present. She is particularly brilliant in the scene in which Griff arrives at her house to arrest Howard Swain, commanding the room with her speech and gaze. It’s a truly stellar performance in a brilliantly written role.

More impressive than the acting, perhaps, is the cinematography. Samuel Fuller’s lush direction and Joseph F. Biroc’s fantastic use of the Cinemascope aspect-ratio makes this western a visual masterpiece on the level of Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Fuller’s framing of the desert landscapes far surpasses even those of John Ford; the opening sequence as the Bonnell brothers arrive in Tombstone from the desert, and Jessica and Griff’s escape from the tornado on her farm are particularly noteworthy for their cinematography.

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All together, Forty Guns is a puzzling, complex, and multi-layered western that packs a big punch in its 80 minute run time. Fuller’s brilliant direction and cinematography, combined with a stellar script and some great acting makes Forty Guns one of the most unusual, affecting, and morbid westerns of the 1950s.

9/10

Remembering Barbara Stanwyck

Comic Review: B.P.R.D. Plague of Frogs Vol. 1 TPB

Comics

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After having read all six oversized volumes of the Hellboy Library Editions, I couldn’t imagine that any spin-off series of one of the greatest American comics could be any good, especially with Mike Mignola’s limited involvement. I am glad to say that this first of four volumes collecting the first cycle of the B.P.R.D. series, which has been dubbed “Plague of Frogs,” lives up to the quality established by the Hellboy series. This first volume is uneven, but by the end the writers and artists have found their trajectory and have begun to settle in to what has become an acclaimed run.

“Hollow Earth” kicks the series off with a bang, as Abe Sapien, Roger the homonculus, and new recruit Johann Kraus team up to find Liz Sherman, who has gone missing after a spiritual journey to learn how to control her hazardous powers. On the surface, “Hollow Earth” is a story crafted in the Hellboy tradition, featuring lots of monsters fighting monsters, and vast subterranean tunnels. But really the story explores how Abe and Roger are dealing with the aftermath of Hellboy’s departure from the B.P.R.D., and there are many tender moments as the characters reflect on their own friendship with Hellboy. Essentially the story serves to redefine their roles in the Hellboy universe, now that they are without big red’s help. Johann Kraus is also a fascinating new character who has plenty of opportunity to excel in the pages of the ongoing narrative. Ryan Sook’s art clearly mimics Mignola’s style as well as quality, and the pages are often beautiful.

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“Hollow Earth” begins explores how Hellboy has impacted all of his coworkers at the B.P.R.D. and addresses how they feel about continuing there without him.

“The Killer in My Skull” and “Abe Sapien vs. Science” are two shorter stories, both written by Mignola and illustrated by Sook, that further explore the character of Lobster Johnson and depicts the resuscitation of Roger after the events of Conqueror Worm. “The Killer in My Skull” is an enjoyably pulpy narrative, and “Abe Sapien vs. Science” gives the chance to build a relationship between Abe and Roger. Both are solid reads.

“Drums of the Dead” is a freaky little solo story featuring Abe. Whilst the idea is interesting and the artwork is grotesquely beautiful, the story stumbles slightly without Mignola’s direct input. It’s an enjoyable enough story, but it just doesn’t feel like a natural fit for the Hellboy universe. Also, Abe’s sharpened teeth look a little too scary.

“The Soul of Venice,” like “Drums of the Dead,” also doesn’t feel like a natural fit for the Hellboy universe, but this is more to do with the pacing of the story and Michael Avon Oeming’s cartoony artwork. However, it’s great seeing the main team together for the first time in full, with Liz, Abe, Roger and Johann, all having their moments to shine.

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Important developments abound for Roger’s character in “The Soul of Venice.”

“Dark Waters” is the first work by Guy Davis on B.P.R.D. and it is also one of the best stories in this first volume. Roger and Abe go to a New England town to investigate the corpses of some witches that are a little too fresh. It’s a great reflection on America’s own dark history of witch-hunting, and again gives an opportunity for Roger and Abe to interact. Davis’ artwork is stunning, and is a natural fit for the Hellboy universe despite a very different style from Mignola’s. I particularly like his interpretation of Roger.

“Night Train” is another stumble in the collection, with Geoff Johns providing an uninteresting story about a ghost train and Scott Kolins on artwork that is just a bit too cartoony / superheroic for a Hellboy-universe story. However, it does have significant impact as there are a few good scenes showing Roger and Liz interacting and gradually becoming close friends. I liked this element, but the other stuff I could have gone without.

“There’s Something Under My Bed” is the worst story in the collection, as writer Joe Harris‘ dialogue comes off as very stiff and unnatural, with several jokes that don’t land, and Adam Pollina’s zany artwork which has very little smooth flow. It’s not terrible but I found very little that I liked in the story.

Mignola returns to writing duties with the great short “Another Day at the Office,” with wonderful artwork by Cameron Stewart. It’s very short, but basically shows Johann and Abe taking on some zombies. Stewart’s artwork is simply superb. I would love to see more of his work on B.P.R.D. for sure.

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Plague of Frogs reintroduces the Frog threat from the classic Hellboy story “Seed of Destruction,” and Guy Davis excels on artwork.

The volume closes with the extended opening chapter of the “Plague of Frogs” cycle, suitably titled Plague of Frogs. Guy Davis returns on artwork and continues to impress whilst Mignola is once again on writing chores. The team take some seeds from the classic Hellboy story Seed of Destruction to open up this ongoing story of the Frog plague. The true stars of the book have to be Johann and Abe, as they go head-first into battle. Abe’s origins are also hinted at, adding even more complexity to one of Mignola’s star creations. Whilst the story is only a beginning, it’s a great one at that and the best story in the volume. Absolutely superb.

Whilst there may have been a few duds in the first volume of B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs, the great stories really overcome the lesser ones. It’s a great continuation of the Hellboy mythos and I cannot wait to see more of Guy Davis’ work in future volumes. Great stuff, recommended.

8/10

Thank you, David.

Uncategorized

And these children that you spit on,
As they try to change their worlds,
Are immune to your consultations,
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.

When I woke up on Monday morning, started scrolling through my Facebook feed, and saw a post about David Bowie’s death, I wasn’t sad. Instead, I had a moment of utter disbelief. David Bowie couldn’t have passed away. When I then promptly saw a confirmation from filmmaker Duncan Jones, David Bowie’s son, there was a sinking feeling in my chest, and a deep, guttural sadness.

For so many of us David Bowie wasn’t just a rock’n’roll star, nor just a poet, but a truly compassionate being who took care of many of us at our lowest points. For me this period came when I was around fourteen. I was being bullied at school and seriously questioned the point of life. I had never felt so unbearably lonely before, and I didn’t really see a solution to any of these problems. Part of my anger and frustration was at my own social awkwardness. I couldn’t carry conversations well with guys who were markedly confident or popular, let alone chat to a girl. I did retreat into myself a bit, and my only real social interactions were with other “misfits” or “weirdos” in school. I so desperately wanted to be normal, to be confident, and to be able to stand up for myself.

In my lowest moments I would listen to music to try and block out these black feelings, often not very successfully. Even if I was listening to the most upbeat, celebratory music, to try and psyche myself up, I couldn’t block out this darkness. There was only really one exception during this time, which was David Bowie.

Bowie made it cool to be uncool, to be alternative, to be weird, to not fit into any of society’s conventions. His beautiful compassion and love reached me in his music, and it genuinely helped me fight back these bleak emotions. It’s something I can never be able to thank him for. When my family and few friends couldn’t help, David Bowie did.

He’s now joined the pantheon of artists who have left this world. I say left, because whilst Bowie may have passed from this mortal plane, he lives on in his music. He had one of those electric voices that only really come once in a generation. Even though I am coming to terms with his death, I listen to his music and I don’t hear the voice of a dead man. I feel him in my room with me, remembering that time he was able to put his hand on my shoulder and tell me that everything was going to be okay, if I could keep my strength up just a little bit longer.

Thank you, David, for everything you’ve done for me. A light may have gone out in the night sky, but somewhere else in this huge universe there is a new star lighting the way in the cosmos.