Forty Guns (1957) opens with a stagecoach making its away down through the cinemascope frame. The coach, carrying a trio of Federally employed gunmen, ambles slowly across the vastness of the American West. Then, as the soundtrack becomes a flutter with falsetto strings à la Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries, a woman with a whip dressed all in black sitting astride a white horse leads a train of forty men into view. It’s Barbara Stanwyck leading the charge as they cut off and race passed the stagecoach. In one dramatic swoop filmmaker Samuel Fuller has not only given Stanwyck the entrance of her career, but he’s also announced that Forty Guns is not going to be an ordinary western.
In Fuller’s first feature I Shot Jesse James (1949) the director reframed the subtextual queer coding of the western genre as text in a subversive act of genre revisionism twenty years before that strategy was en vogue. With Forty Guns Fuller attempts this trick again by inverting as many cliches as he can to make a western that, in its day, was startlingly feminist. Fuller’s coup de grâce is in casting Stanwyck in a role that combines two essential archetypes of the genre. On the one hand Stanwyck’s character Jessica Drummond is the Lee J. Cobb role, the “heavy”, a powerful cattle baron. On the other hand Drummond fills the role of the “whore with a heart of gold” function in the narrative.
It’s clear from the start that Fuller is drawing on Fritz Lang’s masterful western Rancho Notorious (1952) for inspiration. The difference between these two early revisionist westerns is the difference between their stars. Marlene Dietrich has always cultivated a more androgynous persona which enabled her throughout her career to play characters that overtly challenged or bypassed the gender roles of the day. Stanwyck, while just as affecting as a femme fatale as Dietrich, rarely strayed far from undeniably feminine roles, often with strong maternal signifiers. Fuller can only elaborate on Lang’s feminine image of the western rather than the more nuanced feminine character of Lang’s film.
As effective as Forty Guns is as a proto-feminist text Fuller has to seemingly back peddle away from the more progressive first half of the film in the second half. A film that opens so gloriously with Barbara Stanwyck leading her men ends with her running down the main street of town pleading for her leading man Barry Sullivan to stay. It’s a disappointing conclusion but it doesn’t diminish the power of the images that dominate the first half of the film. It’s almost as if Fuller intentionally made the first half of the picture more visually arresting for this very reason.
Forty Guns is one of the great canonical western films. It took what Lang did in Rancho Notorious and brought it closer into the mainstream of cinematic discourse. From Forty Guns one can easily trace a line to Lina Wertmüller’s Italian western The Belle Starr Story (1968). One can even see Robert Altman’s love affair with zoom shots suggested in Forty Guns (which are quoted in Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller). Outside its genre, the influence of Sam Fuller and Forty Guns in particular, can be felt in how Jean-Luc Godard stages violence in his early crime centered pictures. Godard was one of the first of many critics and filmmakers over the years to recognize the raw and defiant power of Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns.