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#110. Forty Guns - Review

Forty Guns film posterWhile many directors took advantage of the western to thematically examine social issues of their time, director Sam Fuller, quite unashamedly, exploits the typically testosterone-soaked genre to investigate America’s (on-going) fascination with sex and violence. A film like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), a brutally violent western whose own success owes a great debt to Fuller, was by all accounts a somewhat heavy-handed metaphor for the United States’ shameless mercenary-esque presence in Vietnam. While perhaps even more deliberately on the nose, the connection between arousal and violence is so apparent in Forty Guns (1959) that Forty Phalluses may be a more apt title. Innuendo is key, and Fuller’s script is stuffed with overt symbolism and double entendres. One of the defining scenes in the film is during a conversation between the film’s stoic lead Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan), a former gun-for-hire and now U.S. Marshall in town to make an arrest, and Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), the powerful matriarch that governs the dusty Arizona town and commands her personal posse, the titular Forty Guns. Taking a cue from the ponderously censored noirs of the 1930s-40s, Griff and Jessica hide the immediate and obvious sexual tension between them through conversations like when she playfully asks to feel the lawman’s pistol and he wryly grins and responds, “it might go off in your face,” to which she knowingly replies, “I’ll take a chance.” Built on a foundation of play-on-words, the film’s plot is only essential to support its greater themes. Fuller, it seems, is far more interested in allegory than continuity, willingly sacrificing sense for his own sensibilities.

Even for all of its narrative faults and contrivances, Forty Guns succeeds at delivering a tonally and emotionally varied film. Within a few select cuts Fuller masterfully changes the films temper; moments of sincere romance like the candid scene shared between Griff and Jessica after the sandstorm effortlessly transition to roguish showdowns and shoot-outs. Fuller never strays from his sexual curiosities, structuring the film not unlike the lurid act itself. At first the director introduces the players and plot in an exciting foreplay of bullets, blonde hair, and machismo, all in an effort to entice and excite the audience. Slowing down in the 2nd act, Fuller takes his time to build up stimulation and anticipation with promises of blood, finally delivering in the film’s 3rd act a hot-blooded and melodramatically charged expulsion of violence and passion that does not fail to satisfy.

Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns

Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns is a successful attempt at mashing as many B-movie clichés into a single genre film as possible. Equal parts western, romance, and gangster picture, Fuller has no problems throwing Raymond Chandler inspired hardboiled vernacular and low-budget special effects into the mix, and even sprinkles his own avant-garde sensibilities atop the film to finally create a truly one of a kind western. As entertaining as it is different from other films in the genre, Forty Guns’ unexpected obsession with the correlation between sex and violence only enhances its pleasure, offering a most unique cinematic experience. 

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