By James Knight.
In Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965), Jean-Paul Belmundo turns to man at a party and says, “you seem to be alone.” The man is of course Samuel Fuller, the writer and director of Forty Guns (1957). Via a translator Belmundo then asks Fuller what exactly cinema is, to which Fuller replies, “well a film is like a battleground. There’s love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word: emotions.” A year after Pierrot Le Fou, Godard dedicated Made in USA (1966) to, ‘Nick and Sam who taught me to respect picture and sound.’ Nick being Nicholas Ray and Sam being Fuller. Forty Guns begins with an image and silence. Birds begin to chirp, the gentle sound of a cart on gravel, then suddenly the pounding of stampeding horses as Barbara Stanwyck and her forty men with their forty guns storm into the shot and then off into the distance. Again, there is silence before Harry Sukman’s score swells into action and the credits roll, bringing to a close one of the most cinematic of film openings.
The sight of Stanwyck on a horse in the Wild West with forty men under her thumb is an image which Fuller barely dwells upon, as to Fuller, the abnormal is nothing but normal. Stanwyck plays Jessica Drummond, a dominant Arizonian ranch owner, who thanks to the many delinquencies of her hired posse of forty men, comes in to confrontation with federal marshal Griff Bonnell, played by Barry Sullivan. Sullivan is charming and laid back in the role, clearly comfortable in his acting skin, whilst Stanwyck, like Rita Hayworth or Kim Novak, manages to act with her full body.
Forty Guns is a film that could easily be placed amongst the category of screwed-up Hollywood Westerns, alongside Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw (1943), Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), and Edward Dmytryk’s 1968 film Shalako (the image of Brigitte Bardot with her thick French accent on a horse in the middle of the desert alongside Sean Connery with his thick Scottish accent is one of the most strangely brilliant moments in the history of the genre). As a filmmaker, Fuller was never much interested in subtlety—Hemingway’s iceberg theory is a foreign language to him. His films truly are battlegrounds where emotions explode right in front of the viewer’s eyes, shattering them with love, hate, violence, and death. Fuller’s characters talk bluntly, in quotes, like newspaper headlines, similar in style to the dialogue in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s films, who like Fuller was a newspaper man before entering the picture making business.
Fuller’s disregard for subtlety is evident in the scene where a bunch of Stanwyck’s men shoot up and vandalise the local town just for fun. Their evilness is plain for all to see, they even laugh whilst doing it. Barry Sullivan then arrives on the scene and what follows is one of the most brilliant editing sequences in the history of the Hollywood Western. Firstly, Fuller and his editor Gene Fowler Jr show Sullivan walking slowly and calmly towards the men as they shoot up barrels and barns and smash windows. As Sullivan walks, the camera pans and cuts between close-ups of his face, his feet, and the gun in his belt, before cutting to Brockie Drummond (John Ericson), the leader of the band of delinquents, who also happens to be the younger brother of Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond. The men see Sullivan walking towards them, one of them says to Ericson, ‘there’s only one man who walks like that,’ the men panic and run but Ericson stands his ground and readies himself for a showdown. Fuller and Fowler then cut back to a close-up of Sullivan’s face, then back to Ericson, back to Sullivan, then to a close-up of Sullivan’s walking feet, then back to Ericson as the camera pushes in on him, before cutting back to Sullivan’s face and on to a stark and harrowing close-up of his eyes, then back to Ericson as the camera pushes in on his gun, back to Sullivan’s eyes, back to Ericson’s gun, Sullivan’s eyes, Ericson’s gun, and finally to Sullivan’s belt as he reaches for his gun and hits Ericson over the head with it. It is an editing sequence of pure cinematic pictorial suspense and brilliance.
When Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and company were writing for Cahiers Du Cinema, one of their main critical arguments was that there was no difference between content and technique, that technique was content and content was technique. A closer inspection of Fuller’s films confirms this point of view especially in relation to Forty Guns, as whichever way you choose to look at it, either content gives birth to technique or vice versa. The film is littered with expansive overhead shots and daring camera moves. The contextual theme of doomed love and doomed fate (Sullivan fights hard to keep his younger brother, played by Robert Dix, from entering into a life of violence and fails), is mirrored in Joseph F. Biroc’s wonderful black and white cinematography; never before has black and white been as masterfully exploited in a Western as it is in Forty Guns. It is probably the most noir-like Western ever made.
Throughout the film, Fuller constantly keeps pushing the technical boundaries. There’s a shot that remains uncut for three minutes and sixteen seconds that begins in an upstairs bedroom before going outside and tracking the entire length of the town. Other moments of obvious brilliance are, one, where Fuller shows us the world from the perspective of a blind man by blurring the images. And secondly, Fuller cuts from a shot of Eve Brent framed down the barrel of a gun to a shot of her kissing Gene Barry, as love and violence are forever linked in Fuller’s world. In some of Fuller’s other films, most notably The Steel Helmet (1951) and The Big Red One (1980), the anti-war, anti-violence symbolism is nothing but clear. In Forty Guns, however, it is clearly obvious that the men in the film love their guns, but whether this is satirical symbolism or not is up for debate. Although, at one point Stanwych urges Sullivan to throw away his guns saying she’s in desperate need of a strong man, defining a weak man as someone she can easily order about.
At times Forty Guns has a neo-realist feel to it as well. The sets don’t feel like sets, the characters don’t feel like characters, and Fuller spends more than the usual amount of time, especially for a Hollywood picture of the period, focusing on moments that more often than not would have been cut or not filmed altogether. For instance, in one scene where Sullivan shows up at Stanwyck’s place with an arrest warrant for one of her men, he finds her sitting at the head of a long table. He hands the warrant to one her men sitting at the far end of the table to Stanwyck. We then watch as the warrant passes through the hands of each man sitting at the table before it eventually reaches Stanwyck. This offers a suspenseful and intriguing moment that left to a more ‘typical’ Hollywood director of the period would most likely not have seen the light of day. As with the opening sequence, Fuller tries to incorporate as much silence as he can into the picture. At times, Fuller shoots the Wild West more like the countryside with one particular sequence, that of a funeral, shot almost in complete silence, made to feel even more harsh and stark by how Fuller shot the black imagery of the funeral (the clothes, the horse cart coffins, etcetera) against the vast open whiteness of the sky above. Again, technique and content are all but the same.
Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond is a character who can order men about just by looking at them, men sing songs about her with lyrics like, ‘she’s a high riding woman with a whip,’ and she herself says things like, ‘I was born upset.’ In Hollywood, especially today, there is a forced effort to create strong female characters for actresses of all ages, but one of the pitfalls screenwriters and directors fall into is that they overly indulge on the strength of the female characters thinking that a strong female character needs to be simply that, strong and heroic, and as a result they become bland and insular. The fact is female characters don’t have to be as strong and heroic as the characters played by John Wayne or Clark Gable, they just need to have the same unique and dramatic and/or comedic flaws usually found in the roles that were fulfilled by male actors like Jimmy Stewart, James Dean, and Spencer Tracy. At first, Stanwyck’s Drummond comes across as just another bland heroic female but as the film progresses Fuller removes small layers at time until we see that she is much more than a ‘high riding woman with a whip.’
In the most tender scene in the whole film, Stanwyck and Sullivan find shelter from an oncoming tornado in an empty barn. There, Stanwyck reveals the soft and vulnerable side to her character, whilst Fuller’s camerawork again mirrors the content as he first positions the camera at a distance from the actors, but as Stanwyck further peels away the layers of her character, he gently pushes the camera in closer and closer—tender camerawork to match tender dialogue. Hollywood Westerns in general have always been more comfortable showing emotions between men (whether it involves friendship or rivalry) rather than between men and women, and the barn scene between Stanwyck and Sullivan is the exception to that notion. Before they enter the barn, fleeing to escape the oncoming tornado, Stanwyck falls from her horse, gets her foot tangled in the reins and as a result gets dragged across the ground for a considerable distance. Yet more de-familiarizing Fuller imagery.
At the time of its release, Forty Guns was very much a B Western. Today, the B picture is dead and the Western is almost dead as well (even despite the best efforts of Quinten Tarantino). But what’s most damaging is the disappearance of the B picture sensibility from Hollywood; the daring, the disparaging, and the downright strange, qualities more than evident in Fuller’s filmography. And even though the Western is almost dead, it lives on because a Western is not a physical location, it’s not the West, it’s a mood and a style. No Country for Old Men (2007) is a Western for instance, even though it’s set in the South. In an article that appeared in The Soho News in 1980, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that during an encounter with Godard, Paul Schrader said to him, ‘I think you should know that I took something of yours from The Married Woman (1964) and put it in American Gigolo (1980).’ To which Godard replied, ‘what’s important isn’t what you take – it’s where you take it to.’ In Forty Guns, Samuel Fuller takes a typical Western story and takes it to a new place with new techniques and a new point of view. In a way, the film transcends the genre because at times it feels like we are not watching a Western, but that instead we are watching cinema.
James Knight is a film critic residing in Wales, UK.