Samuel Fuller has got an eye for style, cinematic scope, and at times, subversive mayhem. It’s no coincidence that Forty Guns was shot in Cinemascope, and it is one of the enjoyments of watching this film, which constantly bounces back and forth between long shots and close-ups. To start things off, Barbara Stanwyck is Jessica Drummond, the “High Ridin’ Woman with a Whip,” and she is the heiress of a self-made frontier empire. It helps to tote forty guns around with her, but she is not as unethical as she would appear at first glance. On the other side are the Bonnell brothers, former gunslinger Griff (Barry Sullivan), number two man Wes (Gene Barry) and then the baby Chico. After they arrive in town, on behalf of the Attorney General, the nearsighted sheriff (Hank Worden) is gunned down by a drunken troublemaker who just happens to be Drummond’s kid brother. Then his buddies proceed to trash the town all in the name of good fun.
Soon Griff straightens Brockie out and Jessica comes into town to retrieve him. Next, Griff comes with a warrant to Jessica’s ranch and in a memorable scene, literally made for Cinemascope, the warrant gets passed down the table. Jessica wants no trouble but soon a crooked sheriff named Logan (Dean Jagger) want to finish off Griff. It doesn’t go so well and he gets more and more jealous of Jessica’s increasing love for the oldest Bonnell brother. Ultimately, Brockie ends up in the clink, but he uses his sister as a shield in an attempt to escape. For once Griff loses his cool and sprays him with bullets and that’s not all. For good measure, Fuller has Griff ride solemnly off in his buckboard only to have Jessica scamper after him. The power dynamic see-sawing once again.
Yet again, Fuller never seems to do anything conventionally or demure. His film has a reformed gunfighter who calls his former profession that of a freak. The leading female character dominates most everyone else and has a ballad written about her. There are tornadoes that envelop the screen. Then, only Fuller would have the audacity to kill someone during their wedding ceremony, and he does it without skipping a beat. Among other things, it is a film about guns, brothers and sisters, and love. Griff packs a gun on him. Jessica always has guns behind her. Griff has a younger brother who has much to learn. Jessica’s brother will never learn. That being said, the inventive visuals, typical brutality, and the memorable casting of Stanwyck were all in a day’s work for Samuel Fuller.