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FORTY GUNS (director/writer: Samuel Fuller; cinematographer: Joseph Biroc; editor: Gene Fowler, Jr.; music: Harry Sukman; cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Jessica Drummond), Barry Sullivan (Griff Bonnell), Dean Jagger (Sheriff Ned Logan), John Ericson (Brockie Drummond), Gene Barry (Wes Bonnell), Robert Dix (Chico Bonnell), Jidge Carroll (Barney Cashman), Hank Worden (Marshal John Chisum), Chuck Roberson (Howard Swain), Eve Brent (Louvenia Spangler/Mrs. Wes Bonnell), Paul Dubov (Judge Macy), Gerald Milton (Shotgun Spangler); Runtime: 79; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Samuel Fuller; 20th Century Fox; 1957)
“Quintessential American action cinema.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Samuel Fuller’s (“I Shot Jesse James”) delirious low-budget avant-garde western shot in ‘Scope in ten days in B/W defies psychological interpretation except as a marvelously inventive gun-crazy blast at the genre. While criticized by American film critics for its stylized melodramatics it was loved by European film critics, Jean Luc Godard and the rest of the French New Wave, as they saw its stunning violence as a play on the western movie myth and as quintessential American action cinema.

The famous world-weary but intense non-violent federal marshal Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) and his two brothers, the laid-back second gun Wes (Gene Barry) and the youngest Chico (Robert Dix), ride a buckboard across the open prairie to enter Tombstone Territory, Arizona. They have a federal warrant to arrest Swain, a deputy sheriff who robbed the stagecoach mail. Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) is the stern, domineering, corrupt, matriarchal cattle queen, dressed in black and riding lead on a white stallion followed by her fast riding forty hired guns who are kicking up dirt over the buckboard as they ride back to their ranch. This memorable long shot is our introduction to the western. It follows with Grif reaching town and being asked to help save a nearly blind marshal, John Chisum, from Jessica’s evil juvenile delinquent brother Brockie (John Ericson), who is unmercifully gunning for him. Grif advises Chisum to go to Fresno and get an eye operation, and refuses to do anything but serve his warrant on Swain. But Brockie and his drunken gang stop Chisum before he can sneak out of town and Brockie plugs him in the leg after trying to goad him into a gun duel. Grif, a Wyatt Earp-like marshal, ‘walks the walk’ down a deserted Main Street to confront a frightened Brockie and arrests him without any gunplay. The owner of the bathhouse, Barney Cashman (Jidge Carroll), sings the title song, about Jessica Drummond, as Grif bathes in an outdoor tub “She’s a high ridin’ woman with a whip . . . But 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.”

In no time flat, Jessica and her 40 guns return to town and get Brockie released from jail as the crooked judge and the cowardly, crooked and snide sheriff, Ned Logan (Dean Jagger), go along with her request without even a peep. In the meantime, Wes falls in love with the pretty local gunsmith Louvenia (Eve Brent) and plans to stay in town as a local marshal and marry her. In the film’s celebrated shot, Wes locates his future bride through the gun scope of the custom made gun he’s ordering from the apprentice and the next shot is of them kissing.

Chico resents being told by his older brother that he should be a farmer, and plans to also become a marshal. Grif gives a speech about it being the end of the era for lawmen like him–there are no more lawless frontier towns to conquer– and how he wants to retire to California and become a rancher before he is gawked at as a freak gunslinger.

Swain is arrested in Jessica’s house without incident while he attends a dinner party, and she fails to use afterwards her corrupt government politicians to spring him–revealing her soft side as she falls for Grif. But violence simmers in the hands of those Jessica can’t control, and her brother guns down Wes at his wedding ceremony. This leads to Grif having to kill his first man in ten years. Brockie is using his sister as a shield in his jail break and taunting the marshal to shoot, when Grif shoots Jessica and then him as Brockie cries out in anguish “I’m killed Mr. Bonnell, I’m killed.” Grif then proceeds to pump him with more lead until he’s really dead and walks past the bodies lying in the street and gruffly says to the by-standers “Get a doctor, she’ll live.”

Fuller’s rich psychological film is a unique work from one of the masters of American cinema. It’s brutal, sexual, emotionally abstract, and filled with misgivings about love. It’s a wild narrative shot in a magnificently stylized manner featuring trick shots as well as haunting close-ups and long crane-and-track shots of the western wasteland.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”