Occasionally, someone brings something truly unexpected to our sessions. Sheila Ellis did just that with FORTY GUNS (1957), an offbeat, operatic, and very enjoyable Western.
Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan), a former gunslinger, now working as an agent for the Arizona attorney general, arrives in Tombstone with his two brothers, Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix). Griff is after Howard Swain (Chuck Roberson) for mail robbery. He’s told Swain works for Jessica Drummond, (Barbara Stanwyck), the iron-fisted, whip-toting, cattle ranch owning boss lady of Cochise County. Her hot-headed drunken bully of a brother, Brockie (John Ericson), shoots the nearly blind town marshal (Hank Worden), an old friend of Griff’s, in the leg and then he and his friends start shooting up the town for fun. Griff starts up the street toward Brockie. One of Brockie’s buddies recognizes Griff saying, “only one man walks like that,” and rides off taking the others with him. Brockie yells at Griff to stop and Griff pistol-whips him. This is only the first ten minutes. It’s like a train that’s left the tracks but just keeps going.
Written, produced, and directed by Samuel Fuller (THE BARON OF ARIZONA, THE STEEL HELMET), it’s part Earp brothers-inspired, with a dash of HIGH NOON and even a nod to THE WIZARD OF OZ, (though a tornado in Arizona seems unlikely).
Fuller used Cinemascope astonishingly well, particularly in his opening sequence with long shots of a line of riders galloping over the hills following a woman on a white horse. They are the forty guns of the title hired by Jessica Drummond. They also join her at her very long dining room table for supper. It’s an amusing bit. Fuller’s sense of humor is also displayed in a delightfully naughty scene of double entendres where Jessica asks Griff about his gun.
This was Stanwyck’s last big screen Western, and she is exceptional, fearless even. When a stuntwoman refused to do a scene with her boot caught in a stirrup while being dragged by a running horse because she thought it too dangerous, Stanwyck, nearly fifty, performed the stunt. Fuller wasn’t satisfied until the third take.
Shot in black-and-white by Joseph Biroc (ULZANA’S RAID) on locations in Arizona, the film runs 80 minutes. It’s available on YouTube, Blu-ray and DVD.
Along with Sheila, our group includes Johnny D. Boggs, record nine-time Spur Award-winning and Owen Wister Award-winning author whose latest work is LONGHORNS EAST, Kirk Ellis, Emmy winning screenwriter and producer and also author of the book RIDE LONESOME about the production, themes and historical relevance of that classic Western film, David Morrell, award-winning author and New York Times best-selling author of FIRST BLOOD that introduced the character Rambo, and Robert Nott, award-winning journalist and author of several books on Western films, including his most recent, THE FILMS OF BUDD BOETTICHER.