The plot of FORTY GUNS is set in motion when Federal officer ‘Griff Bonell’ (BARRY SULLIVAN) with his two brothers ‘Wes’(GENE BARRY) and ‘Chico’ (ROBERT DIX) comes to the town of Tombstone with a warrant for one of ‘Jessica Drummond’s (BARBARA STANWYCK) men for robbing the mails.
Jessica has a huge empire and runs it ruthlessly. She has a brother ‘Brockie’ (JOHN ERICSON) who uses her power to do whatever he likes. He’s a loose cannon who is going to bring her down.
That fantastic opening scene before the credits, as ‘Jessica’ on her white stallion leads her 40 riders . Where they are heading isnt clear but it doesn’t matter, it’s just so impressive.
Especially since there is no music, just the deafening sound of the horses’ hooves.
The three brothers, in a buckboard , are heading for town, and are overtaken on the prairie by the galloping riders who pass them and leave them in a cloud of dust.
Then the credits and the music soundtrack begin. One of the best openings I’ve seen of any film.
Does the rest of the film live up to this thundering start? I’d argue,no.
It’s a film of impressive moments which doesn’t quite add up to a satisfactory whole. Great beginning, poor finish. And all the work of SAMUEL FULLER who wrote, produced and directed the film.
Another great scene which ,in just a couple of minutes, shows us that Jessica is the law in Cochise county, with the sheriff and the judge in her pocket. Griff and his brothers look on in quiet bemusement as Jessica’s brother Brockie (who has shot the half blind sheriff (HANK WORDEN) is released from jail.
Gene Barry as ‘Wes’, is the easygoing brother who’s always there as backup (the second gun) for Griff. When he falls (instantly!)for ‘Louvenia’ (Eve Brent), he decides to stay in Tombstone, but fate has other plans.
That shot, justly famous, where Gene Barry as ‘Wes’ looks down the barrel of a rifle at Eve Brent who plays the gun shop owner’s daughter .
Eve Brent was active , mostly on TV , till her death in 2011. Not sure why she didn’t get more film roles, though she felt typecast after playing ‘Jane’ twice In Tarzan films.
Hank Worden has a couple of good scenes as the marshal with failing eyesight who is shot by a drunken Brockie.
Dean Jagger does his best with a character ,’Ned Logan’, whose sole purpose in life is to follow Jessica’ s orders while secretly being in love with her. He tries to kill Griff and when he fails, he finally tells Jessica of his feelings. She tries to buy him off with a cheque and he goes into the next room and hangs himself!
Jessica and Griff hear a noise next door – it’s the sound of Logan’s boots against a wall. Wow!
Brockie has murdered Wes , just after Wes’s wedding to Louvenia. He’s found guilty but can’t believe Jessica when she tells him she can’t do anything for him.
Brockie breaks out of the jail and takes his sister as a hostage. But he has to face Griff. And that leads to another great scene in the movie.
Griff is a crack shot and he shoots Jessica, initially making us think she is dead as she drops to the ground.
Brockie can’t quite believe it. He aims at Griff but is outgunned. Griff keeps pumping him with lead and we hear Brockie saying, ”I’m dead, Mr Bonell!”
Quite a change for John Ericson who usually played quieter roles. Born in 1926, he was active mainly in television. In 1955, he played Anne Francis’ s brother in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. He would later costar with Anne in her tv series HONEY WEST.
Griff walks past Jessica and Brockie and utters the iconic line,
“Get a doctor. She’ll live!” (He has shot her in the leg.)
Of that amazing scene, Fuller said, “My original script had Griff killing both Jessica and her brother, stepping over their corpses in a daze, throwing his gun down – this time for good – and walking up the dusty street without a pause. Nothing and no one exists for Griff anymore.”
(Incidentally, Stanwyck and Sullivan had costarred the year before in “The Maverick Queen” , and Barbara died at the end of that one !)
The tacked on happy ending has Jessica running after Griff as he leaves town.
The CinemaScope film would have looked even more sensational in colour.
There’s a silly , though dramatic scene of the evening meal at Jessica’s ranch, with her forty ranch hands seated at an extremely long table, all dressed in their Sunday best as though they had just been to church!
And there’s a ballad from JIDGE CARROLL, ‘High Ridin’ Woman’ which he sings in the film.
Another great scene has Jessica and Griff caught in a colossal tornado. Jessica falls off her horse and is dragged along as her foot is trapped in the stirrup.
The dialogue is a bit ripe at times. When Jessica offers Griff a job, she says, “I need a strong man to carry out my orders.”
He replies, “And a weak man to take them.”
Barbara got to show off her horse riding skills. Could this have been her own horse?
My blu ray disc was the 2015 release by Eureka in their ‘Masters of Cinema’ series. The Criterion release of 2018 has more extras which are tempting, including a documentary on Sam Fuller by his daughter, a 30 page booklet and a chapter from Fuller’s 2002 autobiography.
Definitely a film worth seeing, but, for me, not one I’d add to my list of favourite westerns.
It isn’t a great part for Barbara Stanwyck. I much preferred her role in TROOPER HOOK, made the same year.