Forty Guns Review
The films of Samuel Fuller work on at least a couple of distinct, key levels, and that's partly why his cinema has endured as strongly as it has across the decades. On the one hand you have quick, crude excitement that still somewhat shocks the modern viewer and entertains as broadly as most anything from Hollywood's auteur-building decade of the 1950s. On the other, there are the big and bold messages Fuller shoehorns into his work, making glossy studio pictures personal creeds colored in by a single author's worldview. The idea of "Samuel Fuller Productions" hints at some of the creative freedom afforded him but, make no mistake, a film like Forty Guns, the 1957 western starring Barry Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck, carries its 20th Century-Fox logo and distribution as a badge. At worst, Daryl Zanuck and Fox would have been a necessary evil, filtering a vision for a segment of the masses. At best, the studio is an enabling vessel of creative forces. Take away any element and Forty Guns would shift too far into a single direction. Its push-pull is vital to its successes.
Like other auteur-centric westerns of the time Johnny Guitar, directed by Nicholas Ray, and Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious, the Fuller picture twists typical genre expectations by placing a woman in the traditionally male position of power and authority. Here it's Stanwyck as Jessica Drummond, a wealthy woman in black who controls her Arizona town and has hired the forty men of the title as protection for her and her property. It's a little while until we actually see Stanwyck in the picture, and her screen time isn't really that substantial, but she remains the dominant force. The most memorable scenes involve her. The plot runs directly through the character. She's well-established as the lead, or at least the co-lead. Barry Sullivan is probably the guiding force of the film but Stanwyck feels like the catalyst.
Sullivan enters the Arizona setting as a former marshal and Wyatt Earp-type figure looking for a fugitive who also happens to be one of Stanwyck's forty guns. The main complications that emerge revolve, directly or not, around her. There's also the younger brother who shoots the town marshal and later plays a much more volatile role. Sullivan's Griff Bonnell has a pair of brothers of his own, including Gene Barry who meets a girl and wants to establish a home in town instead of continuing his nomadic lifestyle. Further complications ensue when Stanwyck's main squeeze Sheriff Logan (Dean Jagger) senses something between his boss and Sullivan. From a romantic or sexual aspect he clearly feels threatened.
The entire sexual nature of Forty Guns is easily worth exploring a bit further and might perhaps be the film's most interesting aspect. There's a fairly famous scene between Stanwyck and Sullivan where they discuss his firearm and it feels, especially when viewed out of context, like one of the most sexually explicit exchanges of dialogue you'll find in American cinema of this era. Guns are such strong metaphors for phalluses that it's easy to see potential intent for that sort of interpretation. But this particular scene, with its verbal wordplay of Stanwyck asking "can I touch it?" and Sullivan cautioning that it "might go off in your face," is rarely matched in its fantastic degree of being over the top. The sheer amount of "cinema" Fuller packs into roughly 79 minutes of running time is remarkable.
He directed four westerns, all of which are worth seeing, but the jewel is easily Forty Guns. It has constant subversion bubbling underneath the surface, where Fuller seems to direct the viewer into approaching the material with an open mind. It's like he's asking us to not just accept the expected tropes and givens of the genre. This in itself remains exciting, where a director wants more from his contemporary audience and future viewers end up benefiting. Fuller reveled in the broadening of convention and breaking of boundaries. Forty Guns is undoubtedly one of his most successful examples of this, and the film's jarring, unexpected ending helps to define this. It's not what we've been conditioned to look for or accept, and that makes the sudden reality of it all the more memorable.
Forty Guns makes its Blu-ray debut in the UK (and it's not yet available stateside either) via Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series. It is, like nearly all of MoC's releases, locked to Region B. The single-layered BD is joined in this Dual Format edition by a DVD.
The wide CinemaScope frame is used to great effect by Fuller and cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc, and it looks fairly good on the disc. This certainly isn't reference-level quality, and I don't know if that's a fair standard to be using with any frequency to be honest, but there are still definite improvements here over the existing DVD. Detail doesn't elevate to what we've seen on some black and white studio films of this time period. Nonetheless it's a solid viewing experience with nary a glaring flaw in the presentation itself.
Audio is modestly mono. The English language LPCM track spits out dialogue sufficiently and handles the accompanying score without struggle. Subtitles in English for the hearing impaired are optional.
A small collection of extra features has been included by MoC. It starts with an audio interview of Fuller recorded in 1969 at the National Film Theatre in London. This can be heard as an alternate audio track, kind of a commentary while the feature plays. Fuller was such an engaging and vibrant storyteller, and this recording does a marvelous job of conveying that. He runs the range of his entire career here, from his first film I Shot Jesse James all the way up to Shark, with many other things touched upon across the hour-plus. It's a marvelous listen.
There's also an older video interview (16:56) with critic Jean-Louis Leutrat. It's in French, subtitled, and seems to have been from an earlier DVD release as it's dated 2004. The film's theatrical trailer (2:08) rounds out the disc's extras.
Finally, an included booklet runs 36 pages, and contains a new essay by Murielle Joudet that runs for 10 of those. Also here is a short piece by Jean-Luc Godard written for Cahiers du Cinema in 1957 and a lengthy book excerpt from Fuller's autobiography A Third Face. The encouragement in the booklet for all readers to obtain a copy of it is good advice. A nice selection of stills and credits for the film and release fill out the remainder of the insert.