"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Forty Guns Redux

Forty more Guns

One of the earliest posts on this most epic of blogs (read of course only by the crème de la crème of Westernistas), which was published in the dim and distant days of July 2010, was about the movie Forty Guns (Fox, 1957). It was less than complimentary.

The Italians loved it

So many people praised Forty Guns and esteemed Samuel Fuller a genius, and still do, that I began to feel I must have been wrong. There must be hidden depths to what outwardly appears a trashy black & white B-Western. I do not care for cineastes and certainly do not consider myself one; such people seem pretentious to me and read too much into what are only movies after all, and they are often members of the dreaded tribe of auteuristes, who seem to think that the director of a film is the only one responsible for any artistic merit it may have. ‘Film studies’ lecturers are just as bad. I, instead, come from what might be called the Brian Garfield school of Western writers: call trash trash and praise Gary Cooper. But the aforementioned intellectual commentators adore Samuel Fuller and praise him to the skies. Bof, who knows, perhaps they are right.
Samuel Fuller: genius?
Anyway, I thought I better watch Forty Guns again.

The first thing I noticed on re-viewing that I hadn’t commented on before is that it was shot by Joe Biroc. Now Mr. Biroc was one of the great Western cinematographers. He had started as an assistant photographer on Cimarron in 1931 and had first been DP on a Western in 1949 on Roughshod. He worked well with Robert Aldrich, filming The Ride Back the same year as Forty Guns and Ulzana’s Raid in 1972. He did some Audie Murphy Westerns (always well photographed) and Cahill, US Marshal for John Wayne. Even bad Westerns he worked on like the Samuel Fuller-directed Run of the Arrow were finely photographed. He was a real talent. In Forty Guns, the opening shot of Stanwyck’s forty cowboys galloping past the brothers’ wagon is justly famous but there is also some other atmospheric photography, such as the dust by the telegraph office, and the twister and funeral scenes. Sometimes the townscape is positively luminous, like Charles Lawton Jr.’s cinematography in the first 3:10 to Yuma the same year. Visually, the film is better than I previously gave it credit for.
Joseph Biroc with award (not for Forty Guns)

I suppose you can’t really blame a 1950s Western for being demeaning to women; nearly all films were. But the song that talks about Barbara Stanwyck’s character Jessica Drummond, which tells us that she was “a high-ridin’ woman with a whip” does grate a lot, at least to modern audiences, especially when we are told in the last line of the song that "after all, she was only a woman.”

For me, Stanwyck is another major weakness of this B movie: she was always very poor in Westerns, though “I own the valley” movies were rather her thing.
Stanwyck ridiculous. But after all, she was only a woman.
There are many presages of spaghetti westerns, from the garish title on. The zooming in on boots, for example, and the ultra-close-ups of faces. Italian westerns loved those shots and there is no doubt that Forty Guns was a progenitor of that genre. If, however, like me you have feelings towards spaghetti westerns that come close to contempt, that is hardly praise. I suppose the film’s violence and the fact that it is almost a commentary on the Western rather than actually being one really appealed to the middle-aged denizens of Cinecittà who had fond memories of the black & white B-Westerns of their youth.

The racy-for-the-time language, full of double-entendres, is all rather tame these days but still comes across as frankly cheap and tawdry. Fuller wrote it, of course, and was the producer of the movie, so there is really no one else to blame.

I also missed in the first review the Earpishness of the story. The Bonnell brothers are clearly Earps by any other name, and Sheriff Logan (Dean Jagger, always worth watching) is evidently a sort of Johnny Behan figure. La Stanwyck as Ike Clanton is a bit harder to swallow.
Bonnells as Earps
Hank Worden was a great character and always entertaining, in those John Ford, then John Wayne Westerns, but you know, he really was a very ham actor. And he is dreadful here as the town marshal ‘John Chisum’ (I ask you).
Good old Hank. But I don't think he ever held his breath when the Oscars were announced.
Barry Sullivan as the leading brother Griff, on the other hand, is probably better than I first gave him credit for. I was probably influenced by The Tall Man, the TV series in which he reduced the great Pat Garrett to little more than a character in a soap, and I didn’t like The Road West. To me Sullivan was an actor in below-average TV Westerns and such big-screen Westerns as he did tended to be definitely on the B side. But in fact he could act and there are moments in Forty Guns when he is quite impressive. In that scene in the cabin he almost looks like Coop in a certain light. Almost.

Dennis Schwartz has written that Forty Gunsdefies psychological interpretation except as a marvelously inventive gun-crazy blast at the genre” but if that’s true there has been no shortage of attempts at psychological interpretation. The Europeans loved it, especially in France. Godard waxed lyrical about it, but I have always trusted the maxim that it is wiser never to take notice of anything to do with cinema put out by someone named Jean-Luc.
Some fine photography
You know, if Forty Guns is “a unique work from one of the masters of American cinema”, then I’m a Dutchman. I prefer Brian Garfield’s view that the movie is “banal, brutal, dehumanizing trash.”

So in the last resort I have re-evaluated the picture but my basic view hasn’t changed. Convince me I’m wrong. Leave a comment, o ye defenders of this film, and point out what I have missed.



  1. I'm with you ... I never understood the appeal of this movie. When I first caught up with it, I thought it to be boring trash. When I revisited years later ... my opinion had not changed.

  2. Jeff,

    Beside of a few words in your Rod Steiger's notice, I have not found your Run of the Arrow comment and I would be interested in it when you will have a moment. And I am not Jean-Luc...
    Thank you

    1. I haven't reviewed Run of the Arrow yet. I'll get round to it eventually. (I suppose I have to).

  3. Just saw the Criterion Collection edition of this and it looks great. But that's all it's got going for it, really. The brothers sure like to take a bath, don't they? I agree wholeheartedly with your review. I would, however, like to see this remade by Tarantino... maybe.


    1. Still no one leaving a comment in praise of this film…

  4. I’m writing my own review just now and agree with you, it has some fantastic visuals but the script needed work. I prefer Barbara’s other film that year, Trooper Hook.
    Vienna (Vienna’s Classic Hollywood)

    1. Yes, I'm fond of TROOPER HOOK too.
      McCrea magisterial and Stanwyck good for once.