Western RoundUp: Forty Guns (1957)

Western RoundUp: Forty Guns (1957)

In last month’s column I took a look at Ambush at Cimarron Pass (1958), which I described as a “rather middling movie” which I nonetheless enjoyed.

Fourty Guns (1957) Movie Poster
Forty Guns (1957) Movie Poster

This time around I’ll discuss a film at the other end of the spectrum, Samuel Fuller‘s Forty Guns (1957), a polished and deeply satisfying Western with so many layers that I suspect I will still be noticing new things several viewings from now.

Forty Guns grabs the viewer’s attention from the amazing opening set piece, with Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) leading a thundering group of riders on horseback. The horses race past a lonely wagon, leaving its occupants covered in dust.

Barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyck

In the wagon are former gunslinger Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan), who’s now a lawman, and his younger brothers Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix).

The Bonells are headed to Tombstone, and the Earp mythology is made clear time and again, including an unfortunate death late in the movie. Griff and Wes stand in for Wyatt and Morgan Earp; the genial Wes serves as his brother’s “second gun,” but both Griff and Wes want more for their kid brother. The two older men know the days of gunmen imposing order in the West are drawing to a close, and they want Chico to have a nice, safe profession, like farming.

Barbara Stanwyck and John Ericson in Fourty Guns (1957)
Barbara Stanwyck and John Ericson in Forty Guns (1957)

The powerful Jessica, meanwhile, engages in shady activities and might be said to be standing in for Ike Clanton, along with her troubled younger brother Brockie (John Ericson) and her “forty guns.” But an erotic attraction develops between Griff and Jessica which surely never existed between Wyatt Earp and his nemesis.

When Brockie causes trouble early on, Griff is nice enough to knock him out with a gun, rather than kill him. Jessica realizes that her brother is trouble, and when Griff saves Jessica’s life in a dust storm, a long discussion leads to understanding between two tough people who have carved out varying types of success in a hard country.

Dean Jagger and Barbara Stanwyck in Fourty Guns (1957)
Dean Jagger and Barbara Stanwyck

Problems, however, will continue to rear their head, not only from Brockie but from Sheriff Logan (Dean Jagger), who harbors a crush on Jessica and is none too happy that Griff seems to be moving in on his territory, both in town and with Jessica.

Though much of the story is focused around a “law and order” theme, the movie has some of the wildness and unpredictability of Nicholas Ray‘s Johnny Guitar (1954). There is so much that’s noteworthy about this film, including excellent performances of unusual characters; a string of memorable set pieces; and the stunning black and white widescreen cinematography of Joseph Biroc. And it all happens in just 80 fast-paced minutes.

Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan in Fourty Guns (1957)
Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan

Sullivan and Stanwyck had worked together previously on Jeopardy (1953) and The Maverick Queen (1956), and they have excellent chemistry. Some of the dialogue they exchange is mind-blowingly suggestive, though it would sail right over the head of a 10-year-old. The film’s unexpected moments occur right down to the final scene, when Griff confronts Brockie, who is holding Jessica hostage; Griff’s somewhat ungallant yet necessary solution is downright startling.

John Ericson, Barry Sullivan, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Dix and Dean Jagger in Fourty Guns (1957)
John Ericson, Barry Sullivan, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Dix and Dean Jagger

I especially like the unexpected women’s roles in this film; interestingly, they contrast with the movie’s theme song about a “high-ridin’ woman” who needs a strong man. In the end, Jessica does need a strong man — not to make her less, but because no one else could measure up! A set piece with Griff interrupting a dinner where Jessica presides as queen over a very long table of two seemingly endless rows of men is another memorable moment.

Sullivan is absolutely outstanding in a charismatic, layered performance as the confident gunman whose mere walk down a street strikes fear in the hearts of his opponents. But despite loving relationships with his brothers, the life of a successful gunman is a lonely one. Jessica clearly appeals to him, but her illicit activities and no-good brother? Not so much.

Eve Brent in Fourty Guns (1957)
Eve Brent

Along with Stanwyck’s Jessica, who rules Cochise County, there’s another wonderful female character in Louvenia Spanger (Eve Brent), the local gunsmith’s daughter.

Louvenia meets Wes during a shootout, when she confidently and quickly selects a rifle and tosses it to him to use. Wes and Louvenia continue to bond when her father (Gerald Milton) makes Wes a custom rifle, sharing their love of guns amidst more suggestive dialogue. My only disappointment with the film was how their story concluded, but I’ll say no more.

Gene Barry and Eve Brent in Fourty Guns (1957)
Gene Barry and Eve Brent

Robert Dix was the son of Richard Dix (1893-1949), who had played Wyatt Earp in Tombstone: The Town Too Tough to Die (1942), which I wrote about here, along with two additional Earp Westerns, in 2018.

One might say that the younger Dix as Chico is playing the “Tim Holt role” of the youngest Earp from My Darling Clementine (1946), but Samuel Fuller, who wrote the screenplay along with directing, wisely goes a different route with the character. The development of Chico’s character into a more mature, confident gunman in his own right is another somewhat unexpected twist in a film which often “zigs” when it could “zag.”

Barry Sullivan, Gene Barry and Richard Dix in Fourty Guns (1957)
Barry Sullivan, Gene Barry and Richard Dix

Western staple Hank Worden is also on hand as a hapless marshal losing his sight. The cast is rounded out by Jidge Carroll, Chuck Roberson, Chuck Hayward, Albert Cavens, Paul Dubov, and Neyle Morrow.

As a final note, it’s interesting that both Sullivan and Barry had overlapping TV Western careers not long after Forty Guns, with Sullivan starring as Sheriff Pat Garrett in The Tall Man (1960-62) and Barry as Bat Masterson (1958-61).

Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan in Fourty Guns (1957)
Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan

I highly recommed the Criterion Collection DVD of Forty Guns, which has an excellent 33-minute look at the film by Imogen Sara Smith. Her commentary made me want to watch the movie all over again!

Forty Guns is “must see” Western viewing.

– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub

Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns.  She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals.  Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.

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10 Responses to Western RoundUp: Forty Guns (1957)

  1. Vienna says:

    Great review of a favourite , unusual western.

  2. This is one of my all-time favorites, though I’ve seen many reviews calling it ridiculous and overheated. I don’t see why. Because of its strangeness and intensity so often compared to Johnny Guitar, I like Forty Guns much better.

    I agree about the perfect chemistry between Stanwyck and Sullivan, which was not so notable in Jeopardy (another favorite). But that movie belonged to Ralph Meeker.

    BTW, I had no problem with the Griff’s “somewhat ungallant yet necessary solution” in the end. It’s something you don’t see in a Classic Western, but frankly Jessica brought that on herself.

  3. I greatly enjoyed your write-up — even though I’m not a fan of Forty Guns (I tried!), I appreciated your take on it. For me, the best part of the movie was Eve Brent and Gene Barry, and their relationship!

  4. What a perceptive and entertaining analysis. And it makes me want to see it yet again! Thank you, Laura.

  5. Jerry Entract says:

    A good choice of western to write about, Laura. I certainly like it well enough but your incisive writing here makes me think a re-watch is long overdue.
    As you know, I am a great admirer of Barbara Stanwyck (there are those whose opinions I respect do not), a gutsy lady who obviously liked doing westerns and was a good horsewoman.
    Overheated? Yes, perhaps but that seems to work well in this film’s context.

  6. Good write-upon a movie I think is superb. Stanwyck can do little wrong in my book and she is on terrific form in this one. The whole affair is pure Fuller, driving, explosive and provocative. And how that dialogue about Sullivan’s gun ever got past the censor is beyond me!
    Wonderful stuff all round.

  7. Walter says:

    Laura, good write-up of FORTY GUNS(1957) a Western Movie that is well worth viewing. I had read about the movie, but didn’t get a chance to view it until the cable tv explosion of the 1980’s. I first caught it on the SuperStation WTBS Channel 17, Atlanta in 1986.

    Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite actress, especially in Westerns. She loved to make Westerns and it was her favorite movie genre. In an interview, she was asked why? She replied, “Because you get to be outdoors, ride horses, and shoot guns.” She was an excellent horsewoman and did her own stunts. In one scene she is being dragged by her horse and you can clearly see that it is her.

    I could comment all day long about the greatness of Barbara Stanwyck’s performances in all types of movie and tv roles. In my opinion, no one today can fill Barbara Stanwyck’s boots.

    Look forward to your next write-up.

  8. Barry Lane says:

    Over the top, in a good way, but if Barbara Stanwyck had played Media, and she nearly does, and Barry Sullivan Jason, same with him, it would have been hysterical.

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