Forty Guns is western B movie from 1957 that was written and directed by Simon Fuller and showcases a style and strong female presence that was certainly ahead of its time. The film was shot in just over a week and is set in Tombstone, Arizona, during 1881 (though this isn’t Wyatt Earp) and it is the story of a U.S. Marshall, Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) who rides into town with his two younger brothers Wes and Chico (played by Gene Barry and Robert Dix). They come to town with a warrant from the Attorney General for Howard Swain, a man who is one of the “Forty Guns” connected with the local landowner Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), who controls the territory. Things get shaky when Jessica Drummond’s brother, Brockie (John Ericson) gets drunk and begins smashing things up and eventually shoots the town sheriff. This leads to Griff and his brothers staying in Tombstone to clean things up.
Simon Fuller does a great job with the direction of the film, which was directed in Cinemascope which provides some fabulous widescreen shots. As far as visuals were concerned, from the very first scene, I knew I was in for something special. The viewer is treated to a wonderful, nice widescreen shot of an open plain with a lone horse and carriage. The carriage riders are Griff and his brothers who are riding into town and then the director flashes to a closeup of some thundering horse hooves as a large group of horse riders are heading their direction. As the horseriders reach the brothers, the riders split around the sides of the carriage, leaving the carriage in the middle of this long line of horseriders. A really amazing scene. In addition, this is when the viewer is treated to the site of Jessica Drummond, all in black, leading the forty guns past the brothers. Then just like that, all is quiet again. The scene is a visual site to behold from beginning to end.
Simon Fuller uses some fancy camera work in scenes which show this is no ordinary direction. For example, there is the scene with Griff walking steadily up the middle of town to handle the drunken gunslinger, he is one man with one mission. At the same time, everyone in town is running past him in the opposite direction! There is a wonderful rhythm here as when Griff gets closer, the Director zooms in on Griff’s stone cold eyes which are fixated on the drunken gunslinger. Then the camera flashes back to his prey, and then back to Griff’s eyes. It is really intense as he gets closer and closer until he makes contact. There is also some great camera work in a scene where Griff’s brother Wes, is flirting with the girl who works as a local gunsmith and the director provides a shot of her face through the barrel of a rifle (ala James Bond intros) perhaps toying with the theme of sex and violence. Lastly, there is a nice lengthy five-minute shot (probably longest of the time) involving Jessica, Griff, and the sheriff Ned Logan (Dean Jagger) which is long and slow-moving scene mixed with some love and violence, which ends with a haunting visual.
This leads to mentioning the tone and how dark this western can be. There are moments like the above-mentioned haunting scene (which I will leave unrevealed), as well as others where I feel very fortunate that I was not around during the time of the old west. There are moments of people getting shot or killed, quite quickly with no dramatic build up, so it takes one by surprise when it happens. On the flip side of this, there are a number of humorous lines within the dialog containing some sexual innuendo and referring to the man’s “weapon”. This was quite surprising to hear but does help bring a light balance to the dark tone the film has.
The main female characters in the film are strongly portrayed which is a plus and different from the normal portrayal of being the damsel in distress or as the wife staying back at home as the man hits the frontier. Louvenia is a gunsmith and apparently can handle a gun quite well and supposedly the best shooter in town. She has a bit of toughness on display when talking with Wes, showing she is not just some average girl. Wes even compares her to a rifle. Though it is Jessica Drummond (The “High ridin’ woman with whip”) who is portrayed as the strongest and most powerful woman in the film. For starters, she leads forty armed men and controls the territory. There is a fabulous scene where she sits head of a long table and her twenty followers sitting on each side. It is a humorous a scene as the Marshall hands down a warrant to one man at the end of the table and it is passed from each man until finally making its way to Jessica. However, not only is Jessica a strong character but the actress who plays the part, Barbara Stanwyck, did her own stunt work. During a tornado scene, Jessica falls off her horse, but her foot is stuck in the strap, and she is dragged on the ground behind the horse. Keep in mind, Barbara Stanwyck was 49 years old at the time of filming. Barbara performed the stunt a few times, and though a bit bruised, she never complained (according to Fuller).
I will add that the film ends rather quickly and is surprisingly light-hearted in contrast to the dark tone the film seemed to be going with. Apparently there was an original bleaker ending that probably would have fit the tone of the film a little better, however, the studio would not roll with it. Also being a B film some of the acting from side characters are not quite up to par and the dialog could be better in parts. However, none of these take away from the overall enjoyment of the film. Overall, I’m really glad I stumbled across this old western. It is different in many ways, between direction, tone, a strong woman presence, and would recommend the film to anyone who enjoys the western genre.