Did Samuel Fuller make a Western, or did a Western make a Samuel Fuller movie?
Fuller’s stamp as a filmmaker was so personal and pronounced on everything he touched, from war movies (“The Steel Helmet,” “The Big Red One”) to noir (“Pickup on South Street”) to Westerns (“I Shot Jesse James” and “Forty Guns”) that genres seemed to bend to suit him.
“Forty Guns,” now out in a new Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection, feels like a 120-minute Western pared down to 80 essential minutes. Everything is pushed to the hilt – the violence, the tenderness, the moral complexity, comedy – with different emotional extremes sometimes colliding in the same scene. The result is a lustrous CinemaScope black-and-white Western that also feels like an idiosyncratic Fuller movie.
The 1957 film turned out to be Barbara Stanwyck’s last big hurrah as a movie star, and Fuller gives her an entrance worthy of her stardom. She comes riding into view on the plains, dressed all in black, leading a thundering stampede of forty men on horseback. She looks like she’s having the time of her life.
Stanwyck is playing Jessica Drummond, a powerful landowner and rancher who controls her corner of Arizona with an iron fist. There’s a very funny scene at a giant dinner table where the camera tracks across all forty of her lieutenants, like they’re a giant family of adult sons, before reaching Jessica at the head of the table.
Drummond would ostensibly be the villain of any other Western, but Fuller presents her as a complex character, ruthless because a woman has to be to survive in the man’s world of the frontier. Jessica has a big soft spot – her sociopathic younger brother Brockie, who drinks and fights and lets his older sister mop up after him.
Things come to a head when a new Marshal, Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan), rides into town with his brothers Wes and Chico. The Bonnell brothers are there to arrest one of Jessica’s lieutenants, but quickly run afoul of Brockie. Much of “Forty Guns” follows the escalation between the Bonnells and Jessica’s men, including a beautifully-constructed ambush sequence that Fuller builds out of a series of repeated shots, each one revealing new information.
Unexpectedly, Griff and Jessica fall for each other. Fuller is rather tender in showing how these two middle-aged people, each with pasts they’d rather forget, try to overcome their suspicions of each other. But their young, rash underlings threaten their last chance at happiness together, making “Forty Guns” something of a tragedy as circumstances maneuver Griff and Jessica towards a confrontation.
Fuller plays this romance against a movie that’s full of shocking violence and hard-boiled dialogue (“You’re not a gunfighter, you’re a mouth fighter” is a favorite line). Fuller is unafraid of heightening the contrasts; a goofy scene of the gunslingers taking a bath together is followed by a brutal shooting at a wedding. You never know what’s around the corner in a Samuel Fuller movie.
The new 4K restoration on the Criterion Blu-ray looks flawless, and the disc is packed with extras. “A Fuller Life” is a feature-length documentary on Fuller by his daughter, Samantha Fuller, and the disc also includes a new interview with Samantha Fuller and Fuller’s widow, Christa Lang Fuller. There’s also a 1969 audio interview with Fuller that plays underneath the film as sort of a commentary track and a chapter from his autobiography.