Forty Guns: High-Riding Woman

“It’s sad to say, but women do not have much importance in westerns,” observed Anthony Mann, a master of the genre, in a 1957 Cahiers du cinéma interview. Made that same year, Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns begins with a whopper of a scene that tells a different story. A small wagon plods across a vast landscape, still and quiet save for the rolling clouds and chirping birds. “Whoa!” calls the man holding the wagon reins, as a thunderous sea of hooves appears. Forty horsemen advance over a ridge at full gallop, led by a woman dressed in black astride a white stallion. Her riders rapidly bear down on the wagon like a lion on its prey, splitting to form a moving gauntlet on either side. The scene cuts between high- and low-angle shots as the men in the wagon cower from the dust and the harnessed horses rear, trapped and squealing, their vulnerability amplified by the visceral construction of space and contrapuntal sound. Then the woman and her forty guns are gone, as fast as they arrived. The men in the wagon gaze at the receding dust trail in shock. “That was no ordinary woman,” they seem to be thinking. And we realize: this will be no ordinary western.

Over the course of more than fifty years, Samuel Fuller surprised and provoked audiences with boldly original, convention-bashing films rooted in action-oriented genres. Already an accomplished journalist, novelist, and screenwriter and a decorated World War II infantry­man by the time he began directing in 1949, Fuller cut his filmmaking teeth at Lippert Productions in the world of B movies, learning how to exploit limited resources to produce the maximum punch. The hard-hitting realism and outsize success of his Korean War film The Steel Helmet (1951) earned him a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox in the waning days of the studio system. Fuller got along well with Fox’s production chief, Darryl Zanuck, and directed such standout features as the seminal film noir Pickup on South Street (1953) and the visually sublime policier House of Bamboo (1955), but by 1956 he had eagerly left the studio in search of greater creative freedom. 

It is Fuller’s most entertaining and audacious assault on classical and generic conventions up to this point in his career.

Forty Guns is one of six sensationalistic pictures Fuller subsequently completed through his independent production company, Globe Enterprises, between 1956 and 1961. The Globe years saw Fuller flinging off the corset of quality controls that had shaped his studio releases, embracing more loosely constructed plots, offbeat humor, jarring tonal shifts, and frequently daring content. Financed and distributed by Fox for $429,000—far less than Fuller’s typical outlay when he was under contract at the studio—Forty Guns was produced independently on Fox’s back lot and released at both the top and bottom half of double bills. The picture received positive reviews for its solid cast and fast-paced action but was not a box-office performer. Today, however, we recognize it as Fuller’s most entertaining and audacious assault on classical and generic conventions up to this point in his career—loopy, jarring, and, more than once, jaw-dropping. There’s even a tornado!

At the center of the film are the two main figures from the opening scene: the Wyatt Earp–like federal marshal at the reins of the wagon, Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan), and the “high-riding woman with a whip,” Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck). Griff arrives in Tombstone with his younger brothers, Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix), to deliver a warrant. They find their suspect under the employ of Jessica, a land baron­ess and the boss of Cochise County, who is weighed down by a younger brother of her own, the unhinged Brockie (John Ericson). A renowned lawman who has forsworn gunplay because he “can’t miss,” Griff hesitates to get involved in local matters but finds himself drawn to Jessica. Jessica is attracted to Griff’s confidence and capability—they mirror her own—but wants him to work for her. The pair’s romantic and familial loyalties come into seemingly insurmountable conflict when Brockie kills Wes on his wedding day, leading to a final showdown where Griff shoots through Jessica to kill Brockie. 

While the story sounds rather tidy in summary, the plot of Forty Guns is rife with intrigue and action—juggling political corruption, theft, betrayal, an unwanted pregnancy, a serious maiming, three romances, four murders, and a suicide. Fuller had first submitted the screenplay in 1953, during his tenure at Fox, but Zanuck had found it excessive, unfocused, and overly violent, with too many subplots and villains detracting attention from the central love affair and the two sets of sibling relationships. In script notes, Zanuck zeroed in on the character of the “strong woman who runs the empire” as especially unconvincing: “It becomes too extreme when you develop the size of her dynasty and furthermore when you involve her in a dictatorship control not only over her own ranch but over the politicians and townspeople and everything else. This is just too much to swallow.” Yet Fuller largely retained the plot elements Zanuck found too unruly when revising the script for the Globe production, an illustration of how he used his creative control as an independent producer to expand the boundaries of convention—particularly those having to do with genre and gender.

The most playful way in which Forty Guns engages with genre is through campy double entendres that self-consciously exaggerate metaphors rooted in western iconography. Jessica berates Brockie for beating his pregnant girlfriend, snapping, “If you can’t handle a horse without spurs, you have no business riding,” while she later tells Griff about a cabin, “I was bitten by a rattler in there when I was fifteen.” He replies dryly, “Bet that rattler died.” As Wes develops an attraction to Louvenia (Eve Brent), the gunsmith’s daughter, he tells his brothers: “She’s built like a .40-40. I’d like to stick around long enough to clean her rifle.” After Wes and Louvenia kiss for the first time, she asks, “Any recoil?” (Their kiss dissolves from a shot, from Wes’s point of view, of Louvenia through the barrel of a rifle, a sexually suggestive ellipsis reworked as an homage by Jean-Luc Godard in Breathless three years later.) An even more explicit exchange occurs after Jessica asks Griff to replace her right-hand man: “I’m not interested in you, Mr. Bonnell. It’s your trademark. May I feel it?” When she reaches out her hand for his gun, Griff shakes his head, “Uh-uh.” “Just curious,” she innocently replies. He warns her: “It might go off in your face.” Along with the two communal bathing scenes (a Fuller thing), such exchanges provide unexpected moments of comedy within an otherwise dramatic narrative. 

Fuller’s experimentation also extends into the realm of style, as he visually deconstructs three conventional western scenes: the showdown, the marriage, and the funeral. Griff’s initial confrontation with Brockie, after the latter shoots the local marshal in the leg, is not a classic showdown, won by the man who draws first and shoots straight. Instead, as Griff boldly strides toward the out-of-control Brockie, a rhythmic progression of shots builds, intercutting the approaching lawman’s legs, face, eyes, and point of view. The repetition of images develops suspense, while the percussive score and extreme changes in scale create an element of hysteria. Finally, Griff comes face-to-face with Brockie and pistol-whips the bewildered lad—a showdown won without a shot fired. 

The presentation of Wes and Louvenia’s wedding is similarly daring, as Fuller turns the celebration into a prologue to the funeral. The nuptials themselves are not seen—only the couple’s joyful emergence from the church. Then a shot rings out while the families pose for a picture. Images of Wes and Louvenia are rapidly juxtaposed as they collapse to the ground. The bride lies trapped beneath her dead husband, crying like a wounded animal: “Wes! Wes!” The high-spirited, flirty young couple are married for all of thirty seconds—the end of which is about as extreme a tonal shift as we see charted in Fuller’s work. A slow dissolve then segues into Wes’s funeral. Typically, western funerals emphasize communal grief and the vulnerability of settlers on the untamed frontier. In Forty Guns, the three-shot scene reduces the ritual to its barest iconography: the widow, the hearse, and the act of mourning, here depicted through the town balladeer, Barney (Jidge Carroll), singing “God Has His Arms Around Me.” While Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (also 1957) respectfully engaged the tropes of the cavalry-and-Indian western while expanding their thematic application, Forty Guns utterly transforms its genre in startlingly novel ways.

Equally memorable is the character of Jessica Drummond, as written by Fuller and performed by Stanwyck, a sharp contrast to the typical helpmate or moral-conscience role fulfilled by most female protagonists in westerns. Fuller consistently worked tough, strong-minded women into his pictures—whether as supporting characters, such as Thelma Ritter’s streetwise Moe in Pickup on South Street, or as protagonists second to no man, such as Angie Dickinson’s canny smuggler Lucky Legs in China Gate (1957)—and from the very opening of the film, Jessica’s dominion over men is on display. When Griff goes to her house to deliver the warrant for her hired hand, the camera follows the paper as it is passed down the table, the length of the shot (and of the table) a visual illustration of the sheer number of men Jessica commands—not just the forty guns but also the politicians, judges, and marshal who are present. As Jessica and Griff languidly make love after the melodramatic appearance of the tornado, she tells him, “I need a strong man to carry out my orders.” “And a weak man to take them,” he replies, the deep shadows of Joseph Biroc’s high-contrast photography crisscrossing their bodies and spelling doom. Sullivan and Stanwyck clearly have fun with Fuller’s dialogue, their easy flirtation a reminder that they had shared the screen just a year before in Republic’s The Maverick Queen, also playing characters on opposite sides of the law. Stanwyck’s tough-cookie persona and a string of earlier turns as fierce women in westerns—The Furies (1950), Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), and The Maverick Queen among them—made her a natural fit for the part, but she gives this character subtle shading throughout, bringing not only determination and anger but also real desire, tenderness, and remorse to the role. Stanwyck did all her own riding and stunts for the film, including three takes of the vividly staged tornado sequence, in which she is dragged behind her horse. Fuller was quite impressed by her dedication, describing her as “a helluva gal” in his autobiography. 

The thrilling appeal of a woman in command of a western empire is partially undercut by the film’s ending, however, a compromise Fuller would come to regret. After Griff wounds Jessica in order to kill Brockie, he assumes she will no longer love him. “You have to be big to forgive,” he observes. But the final scene finds a white-gowned and wounded Jessica running after Griff’s wagon as he leaves town, with Carroll crooning the film’s theme song: “But if someone could break her / And take her whip away / Someone big, someone strong, someone tall / You may find that the woman with a whip / Is only a woman after all.” Shorn of the land, money, and influence she used to try to secure freedom for herself and Brockie, and without the markers of prestige—the forty guns, white stallion, and black riding gear—that distinguish her throughout the film, Jessica retains only abstracted and feminized signifiers of power: she is strong because she can forgive and love. The ending’s affirmation of traditional gender roles does nothing to erase the rest of the film’s audacity, yet Fuller recognized it as unsatisfying. In later interviews and his autobiography, he suggested that he wanted to conclude the film with Griff shooting both Brockie and Jessica dead, then throwing away his gun in disgust; it was Fox’s marketing department, he claimed, that insisted a picture where the hero killed the heroine would never sell. Though both Fuller’s original script and the draft he used to produce Forty Guns contain the final scenes as shot, it is perfectly plausible that he received pressure from executives to create a more conventional conclusion. Regardless, Andrew Sarris reported that Fuller later so strongly preferred the alternate ending that he once publicly screened the film without the reconciliation of Jessica and Griff—his own version of a director’s cut. Can you imagine what it must have been like that night to see the film end with Griff killing the woman he loved in order to murder her brother? The finale would have been utterly unexpected, a little nuts, astonishing—and thus completely Fuller.