“What’s happened to us is like war… easy to start… hard to stop.”
A wordless intro before the opening titles, so no dialogue until 4:30… and it’s only an 80 minute movie, so that’s significant. Once the action starts, of course, it barely lets up, led by a hero named Griff who talks like a hero should talk (sorta like the host of a news magazine show). The star is Barbara Stanwyck but she’s not in the movie half as much as Griff, which only serves to make her more of a presence when she is around.
Anyway, Griff is one of those western heroes who’s amazing with a gun, unbeatable, but hates to use it, haunted from having killed a guy some years ago. He’s an oxymoronically peaceful bounty hunter with his two brothers in tow – nice-guy Wes who falls in love with a local gunsmith girl and eager Chico who wants to be a gunfighter. Griff swaggers into town as Stanwyck’s unhinged little brother Brockie is shooting up the streets, and busts the violent asshole brother’s nose in one of the baddest-ass western showdowns ever filmed. This and Griff’s humiliating public arrest of one of her “forty guns”, a man wanted for robbery, causes a balance-of-power problem with Stanwyck, who formerly owned this town uncontested. But of course… the two of them fall in love.
Charlie Savage (played by John Wayne’s stunt man) and Brockie (John Ericson of Bad Day at Black Rock):
John the marshall is a slow-talkin’ goodly old man with bad eyesight whom Brockie shoots (not to death) just for the hell of it, but the cowardly nasal-voiced sheriff Logan and the local judge are friends of Stanwyck’s, so when Brockie is arrested he’s quickly let out. They have a harder time protecting Swain, the wanted man, since he’s got a federal warrant on him, so Charlie Savage kills him in his cell before Swain can say too much. Griff is on the case right away, knowing it’s Charlie because he’s the best shot in town (although why does it take the best shot in town to blast a guy through a prison window?). Charlie sets a trap for Griff, but young Chico interferes and kills Charlie.
“Now what did I do wrong?”
“Now you’ve killed a man.”
I’m out of sequence here but it doesn’t matter. Griff and Barbara have a symbolic love scene during a tornado and bond over their wild little brothers. Griff bathes in a barrel (but does not get shot up a la House of Bamboo). The movie breaks into a song about Barbara (“She’s a high-ridin’ woman with a whip”). And whenever a man and a woman are alone, the innuendo cranks way up, higher than I thought it could go in the 50’s (well, I suppose Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter was the same year). There’s talk of the death of the wild west, of a peaceful, civilized future.
But the kids still wanna play shoot-’em-up. Wes is predictably but still terribly, killed on his wedding day by Brockie, and that’s not the kind of thing Griff can let go. He shames the sheriff, who fails to kill Griff and so loses Barbara. The famed ending, in the writer/director’s own words:
Brock knows Griff loves his sister and surely won’t shoot a woman. He’s wrong. Griff plugs Jessica in the leg and, as she slides to the ground, empties his pistol into the bastard brother.
Griff doesn’t kill Brock out of vengeance. He’s eliminating a cancer that’s terrorizing the community. But he’s disgusted with himself. By resorting to guns, Griff sees the last ten years vanish in a flash, as he becomes the killer he’s renounced.
My original script had Griff killing both Jessica and her brother, stepping over their corpses in a daze, throwing his gun down – this time for good – and walking up the dusty street without a pause. Nothing and no one exists for Griff anymore. The End. That version ran into trouble at the studio…
Instead Chico ends up marshall and Barbara runs after Griff as he’s leaving town and they ride away. A few months after China Gate (and somehow Run of the Arrow came in between them), the filmmaking is smooth as hell – scenes playing out in single long takes with powerful fast cutting during the action scenes.
Barbara, in her final year as a headlining movie star:
My story hinged on America’s pervasive fascination with guns. Hell if I know why people think guns are sexy. I cooked up a helluva lot of sexual metaphors playing with the idea.
Our gruff hero Griff (far left) is professional tough guy actor Barry Sullivan (The Bad and the Beautiful). Gene Barry (on right, star of China Gate, played a fake Mexican in Red Garters) is brother Wes. Robert Dix (writer/star of Five Bloody Graves) is Chico, and in the light coat is Sheriff Dean Jagger (the beloved major in White Christmas, also in Lang’s Western Union):
With Forty Guns, I’d really hit my stride. I considered it one of my best efforts so far. Sure, there were some compromises – like the ending, but it came pretty close to my original vision. At the time, very few people were given the opportunity to write, produce, and direct their own movies.