Friday, 12 June 2015

forty guns

a lone carriage trundles across a huge, empty plain, its three passengers dwarfed by the vast countryside. in the distance a sound, like thunder. the three men look up, but what they see coming is not a storm but forty men on horseback being led across the plains by a black-clad woman with a whip. this is the breath-taking, iconic opening to forty guns and it only gets better from here.

jessica drummond (barbara stanwyck) is a wealthy and influential landowner who essentially owns the nearby town and the people who live there as well as her land and the lives of her forty henchmen. things are going great for drummond until gun-for-hire griff (barry sullivan) and his brothers wes and chico roll into town in search of an outlaw under drummond’s protection. but it’s not until griff has a run-in with drummond’s brother brockie that things really start to spiral out of control.

director samuel fuller has become legendary for his stylistic flair and he makes use of every opportunity to use it here. early on we are introduced to a blind sheriff and fuller makes us painfully aware of his condition by shooting some of his scenes in blurry pov. later he films a seduction through the barrel of a rifle. then there’s the moment where griff first confronts brockie; a symphony of cross-cutting and close-ups that really ramps up the tension. there are other stylistic choices too, like the moment chico first kills a man and then in the following scene appears wearing black like his two older brothers, the uniform of the cold-blooded killer.

fuller is equally adept at taking on huge technical challenges, like the scene in which griff and drummond are caught in the path of a tornado (also an excellent visual metaphor for their relationship). then there’s the scene in which the corrupt sheriff (dean jagger of white christmas and later vanishing point) sets griff up for an ambush. we watch jagger describe the plan with glee, and then fuller ramps up the tension once more in a suspense-fulled set-piece that would have impressed hitchcock.

fuller also wrote the script, which at its heart is a dark, unforgiving love story. drummond and griff are portrayed as lost souls, broken by their experiences and the things they have had to do to survive. there are moments in which it feels like they’re made for each other, balanced by moments where it becomes apparent that neither of them can exist in the same world. both stanwyck and sullivan put in great performances here and really sell the idea of two people haunted by their past lives.

there is one other element that really makes forty guns stand out. i’ve mentioned stanwyck’s entrance, and the film never holds back on portraying her as a tough, uncompromising leader forced to make difficult decisions. in a time when it feels like Hollywood is still struggling to break female stereotypes, fuller and stanwyck managed to do it in 1957. what really strengthens stanwyck's character is that she’s not portrayed as an anomaly; she doesn’t have a moment where she puts down the whip and admits that all she wants is the love of a good man (although to be fair, the film does come worrying close to that on a couple of occasions). drummond is what she is, and she’s also not alone. there is one other female character in the film, a local woman named eve. you would expect that the other female lead in the film would be portrayed as the opposite of drummond, a showgirl maybe, or a pretty farmer's daughter. instead, eve is a gunsmith and spends most of her scenes wearing overalls and talking to griff’s brother wes about guns. to have two such characters in a film would be considered progressive by today's standards, and perhaps the sad thing is that in 1957 i suspect it was closer to the norm. yes, dear reader, when it comes to gender equality in films we are moving backwards. forty guns is proof of that.

there is a little more to it than the female characters challenging stereotypes. though they are onscreen less than the men, the film often feels like it’s about women; that it’s telling a story about a woman’s struggle. there is a moment towards the end where drummond and eve meet and talk briefly about their respective tragedies. it’s the most dramatic, touching and real moment of the film and it sums up everything that’s happened in the story and everything that the film is about perfectly. unfortunately, this theme of women being left to pick up the pieces while the men play with guns doesn’t run through to the end.

i won’t spoil it here, but the ending was apparently changed from the one fuller wanted to go with. if you want my advice, stop the film after the last gunshot, you’ll know when it happens. if fuller had been allowed to cut there, this would be a perfect movie.

it’s worth mentioning that as with all the masters of cinema releases the picture looks superb and there are some really interesting extras including an insightful interview with french film critic jean-louis leutrat. not only will you see one of the best westerns ever made, you might even learn something too.

forty guns will be released on dvd and blu-ray by eureka! entertainment on 22nd june 2015

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