Approved. You know, 1957 for a movie that most people could watch. My kids caught the last fifteen minutes of this movie. If I was a better parent, maybe I wouldn't let my kids watch a movie where people shoot each other. I don't know why that is more tame than watching it in glorious Technicolor, but I'm not losing sleep over it either.
DIRECTOR: Samuel Fuller
I have a subroutine running in my head. (I don't know why in this narrative I'm an android, but it is a good way to put this entire idea that I'm playing with.) I don't like when people pigeonhole genres. I know a lot of folks don't really love Westerns. If I'm honest, I tend to dislike a lot of Westerns as well. But I also really dig some. When I watch a Western, I need it to be great. I want to be able to throw it down and say, "See? This movie is amazing." Even though this movie is one of Sam Fuller's, I can't scream it out and say that it is amazing. I watched this movie on Monday and it's Friday. I've already forgotten a lot of it. That might not be a good sign for the quality of this film.
I love Sam Fuller's noir titles. As a film nerd, that's not the most shocking statement that someone could make. In fact, if I said anything opposite, I might get my film cred revoked. So when I saw that Sam Fuller had made this movie, I buckled my seatbelt. I knew that this movie was going to be something special. The opening of the movie kind of supported that. It had this really cool cold open where a wagon is overwhelmed by the titular forty guns. (This might really be the only time that the title comes into play with the rest of the movie, so let's put that out there.) I was really jazzed. But then the movie did what I really didn't want to do. It spiraled into a bunch of Hollywood Western tropes. The bad guys were bad because they were bad guys. Literally, the inciting incident is a bunch of the guys in the gang want to start shooting up the town because that sounds fun. There is little motivation outside of the fact that there is no one to stop them. Sam Fuller is kind of the king of cool. He always seems to make really cool antagonists, but these guys were dressed like Hollywood outlaws and their only motivation is to cause trouble. When a gunslinger walks into town and takes care of what the sheriff ignores, that's what gets the ball rolling. Admittedly there are some plot elements that work better in this story, like the reasoning for the sheriff's cowardice. But that is setting up the film on a pretty weak foundation. The story only gets more ridiculous from there. A lot of that that has to do with Barbara Stanwyck's character, Jessica Drummond. Jessica Drummond is playing another Hollywood stock character as the leader of the gang. You know that she's the leader of the gang because she's wearing an all black version of what everyone else is wearing. Only, you know, ladyish. (The 1950s version of sexy. I use that term very liberally.) But her character is absolutely a sexist portrayal of a character.
Barbara Stanwyck starts as this rough and tumble leader who takes no nonsense from no strangers. (ENGLISH TEACHER!) But she is easily manipulated to the side of good because of her relationship with Barry Sullivan's Griff Bonnell. (Another issue I had with the movie is that the movie had three brothers who all filled the role of the lawmakers in town. Fuller decided to dress them alike because of reasons. They all looked exactly alike and I started to get confused about which brother I was watching. I'm pretty sure it was Griff, but if I was wrong, just write about it in the comments and I'll put an edit somewhere in this review.) I know, I'm shouting at the '50s for not having its act together when it came to equal rights, but it is pretty shameless how Jessica had no real personality that was able to determine things for herself. There is one moment where Drummond and Bonnell are riding through a sandstorm where she can handle getting dragged by a horse and then she is this passive little waif who looks to Griff for all of the choices that she's used to making. Remember, the name of the movie is called Forty Guns? She has this whole gang that looks to her for choices, but she's hanging out with the law, making doe eyes and having fancy dinners. What? C'mon. I'm not saying that Stanwyck was ever that convincing when it came to appearing in charge, but I want to have a little more struggle than simply surviving a sandstorm together.
That's not to say that there aren't really cool parts in this movie. The Bonnell brothers are pretty awesome. There's this B-plot where the older Bonnell brothers don't want to let the younger brother be one of the lawmen because Chico (the younger brother?) is the future. He hasn't killed before, but he looks up to his brothers who have done more killing than they are happy with. There is this throughline that reminded me of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance because it talked about the decline of the old West. Griff has this realization (that is totally Sam Fuller just talking to the audience) about how his era is dead and that the Old West is a thing of the past. I know that he's partially commenting on the famous gunslingers who ended up selling their talents to travelling shows, but he might also be commenting on the death of the genre. Westerns would still survive a number of years after this, outside of the novel outliers like Unforgiven, but there seemed to be a movement away from the cheaply made old timey Western. Perhaps Sam Fuller was just reading the lay of the land, but he is doesn't predict the whole Technicolor era of Western film. But talking about Technicolor...
...I love how this movie was shot in CinemaScope. That made me happy. While a lot of moments were pretty generic in terms of how the town was designed and the mise en scene in general, the CinemaScope did give it this epic scale that made it somewhat special. It looks like a real pretty movie and there is this weird element that I'd like to explore. This movie has a musical like element. Lots of Westerns have a balladeer crooning some old timey song all over. That's fine. That doesn't make it a musical. However, wherever that this one character went, someone was scoring what he was saying. I guess I can chalk it up to style. The style isn't overt, but it does share similarities with Baby Driver where the music is in-universe, but not necessarily realistic. You know that questions that people always ask when a musical is going on? "Why does everyone seemingly break into song and dance and how come they know all the words and dance moves?" There's a suspension of disbelief with an understanding that musicals exist in a different reality than ours. Forty Guns and Baby Driver are simply a heightened version of reality. People are actually playing this song. Maybe the people of the town are very cool with the idea that this guy likes to sing and are just wildly accommodating to his situation.
This movie is in my 501 Must See Movies, but I don't exactly know why outside the fact that Sam Fuller directed it. There is one sequence that I really dig and it's pretty SPOILERY, so I'm just going to warn you now. The killing of the brother in this movie is pretty great. The relationship with the brother and his girl is absolutely insane. They do this very odd James Bond gunbarrel moment with her head, but it is supposed to be romantic. I don't think that necessarily works. But the whole idea of Wes getting gunned down was a very cool sequence. There's this other moment where the sheriff tries to murder Griff by having a stooge pretend he's Charlie Savage that's pretty clever too. But these moments are really the exception to the rule. The movie is pretty short, so it doesn't really drag. But the scenes don't necessarily lead to a cohesive narrative.
I wish I liked this movie. I'm always happy when I find a Western I love. I find it absolutely bizarre that I don't love a Sam Fuller movie, but I also know that I'm not supposed to just love a movie because a great director is attached to it.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.