Samuel Fuller made the most of what little he had, not unlike those scrappy pioneers that tamed the West. He made an art out of taking what might have been slight B-pictures and terraforming them into substantial genre/gender/generation-challenging films.
40 Guns opens with a majestic Scope panorama of three men, the Bonnell brothers, riding through a valley. Soon they are not only dwarfed by the shadows of clouds passing overhead, but by the stampede of Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) and her titular posse of hired hands charging in the opposite direction. The men, coughing and wiping their eyes, are left in the dust to wonder what just passed. This brief prelude neatly sets up the dynamic at play in the film.
Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) reluctantly accepts being deputized by the town that he and his brothers have wandered into to respond to the whip that Drummond wields over them. Bonnell accepts his call to duty by way of a thoroughly exhilariting showdown between him and Stanwyck’s drunken brother, Brockie, who has been tormenting locals. Some of these townsfolk are portrayed by thoroughly unconvincing line-readers, evidence of the meager portions the studios were offering B-picture directors like Fuller. He made up for that handicap by editing the hell out of the showdown – cutting between close-ups of Bonnell’s steely, focused eyes and a pathetic Brockie scrambling for his gun, which leaves no question who’s in charge of the scene.
The next wow scene comes in the form of a windstorm, minus Auntie Em. Stanwyck, ever the poised bad-ass, and Sullivan are forced to help each other survive a grueling windstorm. There is no music to enhance the action and emotion of the scene. None is needed. The sound of the wind whipping the two of them around is visceral enough. The expert craftsmanship of pulling off an action scene like this, without the aid of CG, is enough to leave one’s mouth agape. And a convincing set-piece to bring the previously rivaling pair together, while also portending the destructiveness of their bond.
Fuller punctuates his film with well-placed songs. Jessica Drummond is introduced by a strolling troubadour, who touts the woman’s ability to command authority with her whip, but confines her to being ‘a woman, after all,’ a sentiment that haunts and eventually gets the best of her. A particularly poignant scene late in the second act features a dirge, which efficiently encapsulates the sense of loss felt by almost all of the characters.
Barbara Stanwyck (Brooklyn!) portrays her weathered landowner with a well-worn toughness. She has earned her forty goons, just has she has fought for every inch of land, every scar upon her brow. Some might find the fact that she ultimately rejects her independence and land for a simpler, quieter life with a man as regressive or at least dated. But I believe Fuller is up to something. It is important to remember that 40 Guns, Fuller’s last western, takes place in the twilight of the Wild West era. Not only is Stanwyck’s woman putting down her whip, but Griff Bonnell is also laying down arms, accepting his fate. Bonnell had been a gunslinger, feared for miles. While the townsfolk were happy to call on him for his skills, he always knew that there was really no place for a ‘freak’ like him amongst them. As the West became less ferocious, less wild, less West, the less room there was for men like Griff Bonnell and women like Jessica Drummond. Far from trumpeting the taming of this wild woman, Fuller was, I believe, lamenting the end of an era, the passing of the torch from the pioneers and the ‘freaks’ to the common, law-abiding, God-fearing, domesticated citizens. If anything, given their bloodied history together, Drummond and Bonnell’s future is as uncertain and potentially doomed as Ben Braddock and Elaine Robinson’s is.