Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 07 August 2009
Source 35mm print, screened at the American Museum of the Moving Image
The chapter devoted to Forty Guns in Samuel Fuller’s autobiography is entitled “stuffed with Phalluses,” a good indication that this film is as brash, unsubtle, and pointed as Fuller’s best work. With its bravura camerawork and withering social conscience, the film also stands among a number of Westerns of the 1950s that sought to dismantle the mythology of the cowboy and re-envision the frontier with a modern sensibility. Along with the works of Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar is an obvious model), Forty Guns is a kind of a paradox of filmmaking, an open criticism of the urge for violence that is at the very heart of its genre.
That Fuller has stuffed his film with phalluses is part of his point about the sexual nature of America’s fascination with violence. “Hell if I know why people think guns are sexy,” Fuller states in his autobiography, and the film presents myriad, sneering (and often hilarious) permutations of the gun-penis metaphor. Fuller’s tack here is characteristically blunt. Many filmmakers (Hitchcock and Kubrick among them) have chosen the sinister connections between sex and death as their subject matter, but few have displayed the link so openly, with such lack of restraint or of cold remove as Fuller.
Indeed, Fuller’s point is hard to miss. Following a romantic encounter with the salesgirl in a gun shop, Gene Barry’s character, Wes, remarks that he would “like to stay around long enough to clean her rifle.” When the local cattle baroness, Jessica Drummond, flirtatiously asks gunfighter Griff Bonell if she can feel his pistol, Bonell warns her that it might go off in her face.
However, in spite of this occasionally mischievous tone, brutality is always imminent. A blind man is shot lying down, a criminal is gunned down in his jail cell, and Griff’s brother is murdered outside the church on his wedding day. In Forty Guns, violence is cruel, ugly, and guns are the tools of desperate and foolish men. The story’s principal concern is Bonell, a renowned gunfighter (now a U. S. marshal) who has come to town with a warrant for just such a desperate and foolish man. Griff and Wes, his brother and partner, become entangled with a gang of forty gunmen, who answer only to the powerful and manipulative Jessica (played by Stanwyck), who holds a kind of sexual dominance over the town. She is the “high ridin’ woman with a whip” of the film’s theme song, and “no man can tame her.” In the film’s first phallic image, Jessica (clad in black leather) is seen riding at the head of her cavalry of forty guns, snaking through the valleys and canyons of the frontier in a long line of horses with Jessica at the front, leading them on.
Part of Griff’s mission in the film is not only to mete out justice, but also to “tame” Jessica, the woman he loves. If this seems somewhat sexist, it is; however, Fuller’s broader point is not that women in particular need taming, but rather that “the West,” with its mythos of sexualized violence, needs civilizing. In no character is this more evident than in Brockie, Jessica’s young, juvenile delinquent brother, who is responsible for much of the film’s bloodshed. It is his adolescent, even pubescent, attraction to violence that is the film’s (and Griff’s) target. Fuller implies that ours is a society of Brockies, boys who lack the maturity to control their wilder instincts and instead (as Griff advises his younger brother, Chico) to go home and cultivate the land.
As in Mann’s The Far Country and other Westerns from the period, Forty Guns’ theme is the physical and ideological limit of the frontier and the progression of society toward civilization and order. As aging representatives of the “Old West,” Griff and Jessica feel this civilizing pull strongly. Bonell himself acknowledges the dawn of a “new era,” where he will be “a freak … out of the past Jessica tells him, “This is the last stop, Griff. The frontier is finished… It’s time you broke yourself.” Griff is therefore as much a wild animal, to be broken or tamed, as Jessica herself. Like the character of the same name in Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, Griff is deeply divided in his ethics. The Griff character is, in each film, the sole representative of law and order, and yet his principles of civic justice and sexual morality are as chaotic as that of the world around him. In Forty Guns, Griff resists the use of violence until, in the film’s brutal final scenes, he is forced to kill. Even though Griff’s final act of violence is needed to restore the status quo, it is unclear from the film’s ending (which was tacked onto the film for the benefit of the studio’s marketing department) whether Griff can truly be “broken” and civilization be maintained.
Along with other similar films of the 1950s, as well as the Westerns of Peckinpah and many others, Forty Guns completely revises the interpretation of the Western film-mythology, stripping it of its glamour. It is therefore no wonder that elements of the film directly inspired one of the last great examples of the genre: Unforgiven. Eastwood’s film and Fuller’s film both feature corpses in shop windows, symbols of the commodification of violence and its wholesale integration into everyday American life. And each film has a Ned Logan, although Dean Jagger’s slippery, pathetic Ned could hardly be more different than Morgan Freeman’s earthy, beatific character. More pointedly, each film concerns an aging gunfighter whose romantic past of gunslinging is seen as little more than an ugly lie. Like Griff, Eastwood’s William Munny also heads to California at the end of the film, as though the only fate for either character is to retreat as far into the West as it is possible to go, to find the very ending of the frontier.
This reversal of the Western mythos is perhaps the reason that the once hugely popular genre has all but vanished from contemporary cinema. Hollywood occasionally attempts to resuscitate it with a new spin, and politicians still invoke “frontier justice” in efforts to appear uncompromising, but in general, romanticized depictions of the West may now be seen as outmoded or “freakish,” as Griff predicted. Nonetheless, there is little indication that American society’s fascination with guns and violence has abated, and Fuller’s indictment of that fascination is even today persistently searing and relevant.