It's not often that you get to see a western made in the 1950's where a strong female character is to the forefront of the action but that is what we most definately get in Samuel Fuller's classic western "Forty Guns". While as a film it will probably never to revered as much as some of the John Ford westerns produced in the '40's and '50's it is significant in that it provided the legendary Barbara Stanwyck with one last gutsy female character to play on screen before sadly the movie roles dried up for her like they did for most veteran actresses in this period. Having to continue her career in television productions in order to keep working Barbara Stanwyck sadly had a five year break from the big screen after "Forty Guns", only reappearing for "Walk on the Wild Side", in 1962. "Forty Guns", is a most unusual western with a highly interesting set of lead characters but it is for Stanwyck's performance as the hard as nails "woman with a whip", that the film stays in the memory among the glut of "shoot 'em up",style westerns saturating the screen around this time.
Set in Cochise County, Arizona "Forty Guns", quickly introduces us to the unofficial ruler of the whole area in tough, non nonsense landowner Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck),who controls the running of the area with the help of her gang of "forty guns" who are paid to do whatever it takes to make sure Jessica remains in control. Local sheriff Ned Logan (Dean Jagger), is a spineless law provider in the town who secretly loves Jessica but doesn't have the power to control her or her hired thugs who pillage and murder as they please. When U.S Marshall Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan), a former gunslinger rides into town with his two brothers Wes (Gene Barry), and Chico (Robert Dix), to resore order a head on clash of wills and fight for power rises between Jessica and himself. Surrounded by weak willed men that do her bidding Jessica however begins to develop a passion for Griff especially when he wont buckle under her strong will like most of the men she knows do. While riding together out on the barren plains Jessica almost loses her life when she is thrown from her horse and dragged when the pair find themselves having to escape a tornado that suddenly blew. Forced together when they seek shelter in Jessica's old cabin nearby she and Griff begin to find out a bit more about what made both of them the people they are today further cementing an emotional bond between them. Meanwhile Jessica has a hard time controlling her younger brother Brockie (John Ericson), a hot head who is always getting into scrapes with the law usually over a girl and when Wes is shot dead on his wedding day to local gun maker louvenia(Eve Brent),Griff must bring in Brockie for trial which will undoubtedly see him hang. On the day of his trial however Brockie has other ideas and taking Jessica as hostage he attempts to shoot his way out of town however Griff temporarily abandons his newly acquired peace seeking ways, and using his expert shooting skills manages to shoot Brockie while only injuring Jessica. Now wanting to get away and move on to California Griff prepares to then leave town however Jessica has plans of her own realising that he is the man she truly loves who did what was best concerning her reckless brother. She pursues his wagon as he leaves and jumps aboard in order to join him in a new life together in California.
Written, produced and directed by Samuel Fuller, "Forty Guns", is unique in that it displays a strong central female character which gives it a unique and most welcome change from your traditional western lead character. Barbara Stanwyck is just the actress to do this strong female lead role total justice and she doesn't disappoint. From the opening scene where we see her galloping down the hillside full speed at the head of her band of "40 Guns", we just know we are in for something totally different. Barbara Stanwyck was superb at playing these tough as nails characters who are made that way by circumstances and for a western story a lot of time is actually spent on showing the development of her character. Stanwyck brings her usual non nonsense professionalism to the role of Jessica Drummond and for a woman already in her fifties at the time of filming she is amazing in her energy and in her ability to handle a horse. She even did her own stunts in the famous tornado scene where she is dragged by a horse over rough terrain believing that it would be more effective and believable on screen that way. Barry Sullivan up against the Stanwyck powerhouse does as well as expected as the new law enforcer in town who comes up against the female land baron only to find himself falling for her. His is a largely passive role however he works well with Stanwyck and has some interesting contradictions to his character having been a killer turned law enforcer. While "Forty Guns", is dominated by the fierce Stanwyck performance the supporting cast is also an interesting one with the standouts being the always good Gene Barry fresh from his recent triumph in the classic "War of the Worlds", playing Sullivan's younger brother Wes, John Ericson as Jessica's hot headed brother Brockie and Dean Jagger in a very uncharacteristic role as untrustworthy and weak willed sheriff Ned Logan. Another interesting and non traditional role is also created for another female character in "Forty Guns", where Eve Brent takes on the part of the gun making Louvenia who loses her husband Wes on her wedding day. Her's is a most unusual female character for the 1950's and the western genre in particular which she plays very well and she has a great scene when Barbara Stanwyck comes to pay her condolences. Of course the great look and feel present on screen in "Forty Guns", is very much the result of a collaborative effort between Samuel Fuller and his main production staff. Special credit needs to go to Oscar winning cinematographer Joseph Biroc for his stunning photography of the Arizona region captured beautifully in breathtaking cinemascope, the renowned Charles le Maire for his authentic 1860 period costumes for both sexes in the story, and especially to the team of L. B. Abbot and Norman Breedlove for their stunning special effects efforts work. Their recreation of the savage tornado sequence in particular is amazing in its realism and even today it is still quite rightly regarded as a benchmark for such efforts on film.
Disappointment has sometimes been levied at Fuller's supposedly sell out ending that follows the conventional course of having former land baroness Barbara Stanwyck chasing after Barry Sullivan's wagon as it rolls out of town. While that could be viewed as conventional in the movie sense of how many similiar stories conclude Samuel Fuller still manages to illustrate the ever present strength of the Jessica Drummond character here where she is willing to risk everything for something that she knows she wants but still on her terms. When critically looking at "Forty Guns", the story, cinematography, and for the most part non stereotyped character construction makes it an exceptional western which strangely is not well known and not often revived nowadays. Samuel Fuller really provided Barbara Stanwyck with one of her last strong film characters here and the film is a worthy addition to any retrospective of the amazing body of work achieved by both Barbara Stanwyck and Samuel Fuller in their exceptional careers. Highly recommended viewing for western genre enthusiasts.