Forty Guns occupies that rare position of simultaneously playing like a parody of itself without being any campy fun. It’s a perfect storm of budget, cast, story, era, technology, earnestness, and director Fuller.
Oh, and it’s a singing cowboy Western. Well, singing bathhouse owner. Men’s only, which leads to a couple weird scenes where Fuller is palpably chomping at the bit to start a musical number and have everyone bust out. Sadly, the musical number never arrives, and instead it’s always just Jidge Carroll walking around and singing with some guy nearby playing a guitar.
Carroll has one song about Barbara Stanwyck (High Ridin’ Woman (With a Whip)) and a funeral song (God Has His Arms Around Me, which is an exceptionally problematic hymn about God gaslighting you after abusing you). They’re awful songs. And they’re silly. And Carroll’s not good enough to make them worth it. During the funeral song, it’s clear Fuller doesn’t have a bad idea here; he just doesn’t have the time, money, or onscreen talent to figure it out.
For the first act, Forty Guns feels a little like Fuller saw Seven Samurai and decided to American-it-up, meaning multiply the title by six and then do an entirely different movie.
Guns takes place in Tombstone, Arizona, where a Wyatt Earp-type (Barry Sullivan) comes to town to serve a warrant only to fall for local battle baroness Barbara Stanwyck. Sullivan’s got his sidekick brother, Gene Barry, and his baby brother, Robert Dix, along, though Dix is supposed to be moving out to California to be an “agricultural cowboy.”
The good guys are there on federal business, so when local marshal Hank Worden (a nice but not good cameo) begs Sullivan to help him stand up to Stanwyck, Sullivan gives him the “ain’t my wife, ain’t my life” and goes on his way. Only then Stanwyck’s shitty little brother (John Ericson) assaults Worden, burning out his eyes with coffee and shooting him; Sullivan decides he might have to do something about it.
The film quickly becomes a battle of the “wits” between Sullivan and Stanwyck, who don’t seem to know when they’re supposed to be flirting or not. Like their first substantial encounter: Stanywck’s got a great flirt going, and neither Sullivan nor Fuller acknowledge it. Later on, she’ll be hurrying through, and he’ll be trying to slow it down. Very strange, though it has a few good moments, which is a surprise since Sullivan’s terrible and Stanwyck’s doing everything she can to be terrible. It’s the part, however.
Stanwyck’s part is as follows. She’s a strong, self-made woman who went from cattle rancher’s daughter to most powerful land baroness in the state. She has forty riders with her at all times (her Dragoons). She dresses like the hostess at an extremely racist Mexican restaurant where only white people work. Her costumes will change, however, like when forty-nine-year-old Stanwyck—who does her amazing horse-dragging stunt in this movie—starts wearing around Southern belle outfits to show she’s in love with Sullivan.
Only they never say anything about her character arc. It’s terrible, it’s problematic, but it’s entirely offscreen because Fuller’s not interested.
I’m resisting looking up the trivia to see if he was stuck in some contract, hated the studio, and didn’t like Stanwyck, so Fuller made this movie.
Most of the acting is bad. Sullivan’s a lousy lead. The script’s not there but, wow, does he not have any charisma. Or the ability to walk distinctively, which is apparently crucial in the singing cowboy universe of Forty Guns. Barry’s a little better, though he’s got a romance subplot with Eve Brent, and he’s older than the actor playing her father (Gerald Milton) by a few years, and it’s obvious. He’s still rather bad. But he and Brent do have a couple reasonably effective lusty scenes together.
If it weren’t for the third act, Dean Jagger would break the movie. Jagger’s the corrupt numbskull sheriff who tries to save the day and makes things worse. He’s atrocious. Ditto Ericson.
Wait, is anyone not terrible?
Brent and Milton are okay, I guess.
Fuller’s good direction ranges from okay to excellent, obviously less excellent stuff than okay, but he’s also got some silly moves and some bad ones. He’s indifferent to the performances and Joseph F. Biroc’s competent but flat black-and-white photography. Since it’s so bombastic, it ought to be in color.
Fuller and editor Gene Fowler Jr. cover a lot in the cuts, but it’s still good cutting of bad scenes.
Harry Sukman’s music is familiar, varied, and tedious.
So, yeah, Forty Guns. Definitely could be in the “seen to be believed, but shouldn’t be seen” pile, but it’s so much comfier in the “what the hell was Sam Fuller thinking?” one.