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!
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.
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.
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.
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.