Stanwyck Needs a Man With a Big Gun
Watching "Forty Guns" some 50 years after it was released it's impossible to ignore that there is a lot of cliche going on, lawman rides into town and ends up sorting out the bad guys who are starting to ruin things. But at the same time there is something about "Forty Guns", something slightly quirky which makes it feel different to so many other westerns. That difference is that the stock storyline is embellished, the camera work is impressive, the action is at times stunning and there is a risqué ness, an element of sexual innuendo to some of the dialogue that is unexpected. I can only imagine that when "Forty Guns" was originally released it felt different as it included these not so much boundary pushing elements but aspects not normally seen in a western.
Riding into town with his brothers, lawman Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) has a warrant for the arrest of Howard Swain (Chuck Roberson), a straight forward job if it wasn't for the fact he worked on the Dragoon owned by Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck - The Violent Men), an authoritarian whose loyalty to her men earns her great respect. But Jessica isn't Griff's major problem but the weak minded country lawman and Jessica's brother Brockie (John Ericson) who doesn't take kindly to the way Griff goes about his business. And to make matter more complicated Jessica finds herself falling for Griff whilst his brother Wes (Gene Barry) falls for the daughter of the local gunsmith.
There is no disguising the fact that the basic storyline to "Forty Guns" of lawman Griff Bonnell and his brothers riding into town to arrest one man but ending up cleaning up the town from a bad element is not that original. As such you can pretty much predict much of what happens as it progresses towards a big climax where Griff takes on Brockie Drummond the main trouble maker. And as such there are various story elements; a romance between Wes and a beautiful young woman, Griff's younger brother Chico wanting to be like his brave older brother and so on which all feel like they have all been plucked out of a western movie text book.
If that was all there was to "Forty Guns" it would have ended up an entertaining but average western, but it isn't and most notably the storyline embellishes the almost stock storyline. One of the nicest embellishments is that the owner of the ranch where the trouble makers live is a woman, Jessica Drummond, a strict woman who is loyal to the men who work for her but she isn't bad herself. It makes a change from having the big land owner being the villain and by being a woman also leads to a nice romantic twist as she falls for Griff leading to complications as Brockie is her younger brother who in fact is more like a son. These embellishments on a stock story make a huge impact and makes watching "Forty Guns" far more interesting than watching many a western, taking it from generic to something more.
What also makes "Forty Guns" feel something more is the whole styling. In the opening scenes where we see Griff and his brothers coming across country on a horse drawn cart swallowed up by Jessica Drummond and her band of men as they ride past is stunning. The range of camera angles from ones descending from above the carriage and train of horses through to ones shooting up from below the carriage are breath taking and these clever camera angles crop up throughout the whole movie with some great tracking shots. In the first encounter between Griff and Brockie director Samuel Fuller gives us close ups firstly of Griff's feet walking along the dusty street then off his eyes, something which Sergio Leone used to great effect later on in his spaghetti westerns. And that is not the only similarity as the action has a brutal side, a violence which is surprisingly in your face when you remember that "Forty Guns" was made before violence in movies was so brutal.
Along with this you have to say the action is pretty stunning and not just the typical gun fights which there are a few off culminating in a surprising final battle. There is a brilliant scene where Jessica Drummond is thrown from a horse and is dragged along a bumpy dusty track, what is more spectacular is that it's not a stunt woman being dragged that is Barbara Stanwyck being dragged and bounced about by a running horse. And what follows, the tornado which forces Jessica and Griff to seek shelter together is just as spectacular and gripping. It's these elements, the action which you don't expect from a western which helps make "Forty Guns" so much more than just another western.
If that wasn't enough there is also a stream of light hearted humour threading its way through various scenes most notably the flirtations between Jessica and Griff. It takes you by surprise when you actually hear some blatant sexual innuendo when Jessica asks to feel Griff's trademark, referring to his gun. But again this almost risque banter makes "Forty Guns" so much more interesting and fun. The only negative are the two ballads which creep into the movie, they are nice enough but they don't seem to be in fitting with the movies style.
For what is such an impressive movie I have to say that I felt under whelmed by the acting, although no one does anything in the least bit wrong. Barry Sullivan is solid as Griff Bonnell and epitomises the tall handsome lawman whilst Gene Barry is just as solid as his brother Wes. Barbara Stanwyck most certainly impresses when she does her own stunts and seems to be enjoying the sexual innuendo part of the dialogue but beyond that her character of Jessica doesn't come across quite strong enough. And sadly John Ericson ends up under served by a script which means as the major bad guy, Brockie, he is just a generic 2 dimensional character. It is such a shame that whilst all the performances are solid there wasn't anything that bit special about them.
What this all boils down to is that whilst it may now feel a little like a cliche "Forty Guns" is still a very good, in fact better than average western. The embellishments on a stock storyline, the stunning action and camera work as well as the risque dialogue makes it far more interesting than your average western. The only real disappointment is that for a movie which seems to switch things up on a typical storyline the acting is for the most just average, solid but unremarkable.