The film begins with a breathtaking sequence of Stanwyck leading her band of forty gunmen on horseback, galloping across the Cinemascope screen, surrounding, then passing a buckboard that carries three men who sit, silently astonished, watching. Fuller fills the wide screen with that dynamic opening and never lets up after that. Stanwyck plays Jessica Drummond, the steely landowner who rules Tombstone, Arizona, but cannot tame her hotheaded younger brother. The men in the buckboard are Griff Bonnell, a former gunfighter turned federal agent, in town to arrest a fugitive who is one of Jessica's guns, and his two younger brothers. An attraction flares between Jessica and Bonnell, even as they are caught up in the violence and lawlessness of the times in the Arizona territory.
Fuller had written the screenplay for Forty Guns, originally titled Woman with Whip, while under contract at 20th Century Fox in the early 1950s, but it was rejected by studio head Darryl Zanuck. After his contract ended, he had formed an independent production company, and made financing and distribution deals with Fox and other studios. By 1957, Fox was looking for films that could be made cheaply and quickly, and agreed to finance Forty Guns. Fuller later claimed that Fox contract player Marilyn Monroe wanted the role of Jessica, but he had always intended it for Stanwyck, whose work he admired.
"To work with Stanwyck is to work with the happy pertinence of professionalism and emotion." Fuller said. "She's superb as a queen, slut, matriarch, con girl or on a horse--a viable criterion of dramatic impact because she naturally (bless her) eschews aspects of forced emotion." Knowing how skilled she was at allowing the camera to capture her emotions, the director challenged her. "There was a scene loaded with a page of monologue and she knew it perfectly. I asked her, before the take, to eliminate the gibble-gabble and show the words in her face. Her eyes did it superbly."
Stanwyck was also superb in the action scenes. During the impressive tornado sequence, the script called for Stanwyck to fall off her horse and, her foot caught in the stirrup, be dragged by the galloping animal. When the stunt men refused to do the drag because it was too dangerous, Stanwyck, then nearly fifty, volunteered. She did it three times before Fuller was satisfied.
The star proved that she still was as adept at delivering lines loaded with sexual innuendo as she had been two decades earlier. A verbal exchange with Barry Sullivan, who played Griff, about his gun is played for laughs. As Dan Callahan writes in The Miracle Woman, his study of Stanwyck's career, "Something about Fuller's direction has clawed away all the cobwebs that had grown over her on-screen sexuality, so that she's as hot-to-trot, don't-give-a-damn sexy here at fifty as she ever was in her twenties." Stanwyck did not appear in another film until Walk on the Wild Side (1962), but did go on to star in a successful TV western, The Big Valley (1965-1969).
Fuller later said of Forty Guns, "I considered it one of my best efforts so far. Sure there were some compromises, like the ending [Fuller had wanted Jessica to die at the end, but the studio insisted that she live], but it came close to my original vision." His directorial flourishes in the film--long, masterful tracking shots, the shooting and editing of the gunfight scene, startling visual set pieces--have been admired and imitated by everyone from Jean-Luc Godard and the FrenchNouvelle Vague, to Sergio Leone, to Jim Jarmush and Quentin Tarantino. Forty Guns offers the thrill of recognition, and the realization that Fuller did them first. His outrageous, kinetic style still feels as fresh and inventive as ever.
In an appreciation of Fuller, director Martin Scorsese said, "When you respond to a Fuller film, what you're responding to is cinema at its essence. Motion as emotion. Fuller's pictures move convulsively, violently. Just like life when it's being lived with passion." But Fuller himself said it best, in a cameo as himself in Godard's Pierrot le Fou (1965): "A film is like a battleground. It's love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word, emotion."
Producer: Samuel Fuller
Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Cinematography: Joseph Biroc
Art Direction: John Mansbridge
Music: Harry Sukman
Film Editing: Gene Fowler Jr.
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), Paul Dubov (Judge Macy), Gerald Milton (Shotgun Spanger), Ziva Rodann (Rio)