Forty Guns [1957] – An Audacious and Exciting Revisionist Western


Samuel Michael Fuller was one of the greatest maverick American film-makers whose unpredictable genre movies oft posed incendiary critiques on the decadent and hypocritical nature of the American Establishment. As a master stylist with a penchant for social justice, Samuel Fuller inculcated revisionist spin on genre set-ups or stock story-lines. Since he perpetually assailed the inherent bigotry and prejudice of the American collective consciousness, he was less regarded at home - especially at the height of cold war when he turned out his best works - and more celebrated at the European countries, mainly in France. Fuller did a cameo in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Pierror le fou”, explaining what is cinema at a Parisian party.


Forty Guns


In a Guardian article,celebrated German film-maker Wim Wenders states, “Some men look at the world and all they ever see is money. Others see nothing but real estate. For others again, it all boils down to power, fame, or honour……For Sam Fuller, the world condensed into stories. That's what he saw wherever he looked. Whatever reality, incident, fact or event presented itself, he saw it as narrative material.” Born in August 1912, Fuller roamed across US to write for newspapers during the Great Depression (his firs job was newsboy). He was a crime reporter in New York at the age of 17. 


This passsion for pursuing after stories eventually turned Fuller into a scriptwriter and novelist. He enlisted after Pearl Harbour and worked as an infantryman rather than safely positioning himself as a war correspondent. The copious notes he took during his war experiences perhaps pushed him to make one of the greatest war films – The Big Red One (1980). Fuller made his directorial debut in 1949 with I Shot Jesse James. Fuller’s cold war noir movie Pickup on South Street (1953) was his first critically acclaimed feature.


Before Pickup on South Street, Fuller made The Steel Helmets (1951), one of my favorite American war films (set during Korean War), which showcased the true patriotism of the soldiers while also exposing the incredulity of sending its citizens to fight a war on faraway lands (something that was unprecedented at 1950s Hollywood). Fuller was repeatedly criticized or simply dismissed for tackling B-movie storylines. Although his movies like Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss (1964) had an exaggerated, pulp-ish storyline, the viscerally dynamic and complex camera movements pushed the thematic boundaries of the simple plot. For example, the fascinatingly radical scene in Shock Corridor that chronicles the fate of Trent, an African-American student who is driven insane by rampant racism in the South and now envisions himself as a Klansman. The great Martin Scorsese once said, “If you don’t like Samuel Fuller, you just don’t like cinema”.  Despite the scorn that’s showered upon Fuller’s plot and dialogues, his idiosyncratic visual signature captivatingly presents us an intense world where the hysterical struggle for survival is ubiquitous and love is a scarcity.



Samuel Fuller’s revisionist Western Forty Guns (1957) saw the filmmaker operating at the height of his storytelling powers. Critics categorize it as a ‘matriarchial Western’, since lik Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952) and Nicolas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), the film had a strong female character who doesn’t want to succumb to the familiar ethos of American Frontier culture. Forty Guns, filmed in glorious black-and-white widescreen canvas, had the technical panache and eccentricity (including the relentless sexual innuendo) of Ray’s Johnny Guitar and the emotions of a Sirkian melodrama. 


The film opens with US Marshall Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) and his brothers – Wes and Chico -- riding a cart across a vast stretch of land. The brothers suddenly pull up and with a dazed expression they watch Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) draped in full-black riding high on a white stallion, followed by 40 men upon a uniformly galloping horses. She is ‘a high ridin’ Woman with a whip’ sings the town’s balladeer. The encounter leaves the Bonnell brothers to be covered in dust and later discuss their plans to the familiar local guys at the bathhouse. The brother characters were pretty much confirms to the myth of Wyatt brothers, especially Griff Bonnell who like Wyatt Earp inspires glorious, tall tales. Griff has a warrant for the arrest of Howard Swain (Chuck Roberson), a simple job complicated by the fact that he is one of the 40 men working for Jessica.


Jessica who is respectful to Griff doesn’t seem to be posing any trouble. She is a very influential rancher in Tombstone. But her weak-minded, trigger-happy younger brother Brockie Drummond (John Ericson) is whole another matter. Immediately after Griff’s entry into the town, Brockie and his cohorts shoot up the town in a drunken stupor. Then comes a beautiful mix of tense montage shots, which precedes Sergio Leone’s elaborately detailed stand-offs, as Griff slowly marches toward Brockie, fixedly staring at him from the town’s center. However, Brockie doesn't draw the gun who is well aware of Griff’s reputation. 


Griff simply pistol whips the boy that lands him in a jail cell. Jessica is naturally outraged, but she’s more interested in protecting her only brother than opposing the famous ‘legal killer’. Later, Griff totally earns her respect when he saves Jessica from a horrible dust storm. There are different subplots too: an outrageously raunchy romance between Wes Bonnell and a young Gunsmith; Chico wants to follow the path of his courageous brother and doesn’t want to be just a third leg. All these ultra-familiar elements of Western narrative tropes, however, are embellished by the persistently brilliant visual language. Griff imprisons the man he seeks and even develops a kind of intimacy with Jessica. But the troublemaker Brockie, devoid of tenderness, brings irredeemable tragedy.



Forty Guns stands as a testament to Samuel Fuller’s master craftsmanship. Working on a very low budget ($300,000), Fuller’s visual expressions earnestly attempts to recreate the authentic Old West. The fact that he made a very effective tornado/dust storm scene remains as a marvel. Fuller’s rich sense of styling continually sets it apart from the typical western. From the enchantingly wild close-ups to point-of-view shot through the barrel of gun to the masterfully kinetic crane and tracking shots to capturing the unrelentingly violent shoot-outs, the director extracts much style from the scenario to make it much more than a generic Western feature. 


Although the film confirms to the strict rule of bloodletting, the deaths and sudden burst of violence are portrayed in a fairly shocking and realistic manner (the final gun battle was the most surprising). The cuts and dissolves are the other alluring aspect of Fuller’s films. In one scene, a minor character’s death in the jail cell is immediately cut to the shot of Griffin standing inside the cell (to examine the body), suggesting his now-imprisoned emotional state. Later, to suggest the upcoming downfall of Jessica, Fuller dissolves from a shot of her face to the shot of horses’ frenzied galloping.


 The dialogues were unapologetically raunchy for its time, especially one encounter beteween Griff and Jessica: “May I feel it?” she asks pointing to the pistol, “It might go off in your face” warns the man, to which she replies, “I will take a chance”. The interplay between Wes and the gunsmith girl he loves is also doused with sexual innuendos (“I’d like to stay around long enough to clean her rifle” sighs Wes). The performances are uniformly good (not excellent). Fifty year old Barbara Stanwyck is more tender-looking than the enticingly dangerous femme fatale roles she did in noir cinema. It’s an interesting bit of trivia that Stanwyck did her own stunts (the dangerous one upon a horse). But Jessica's character is underwritten (mostly in the 2nd half) compared to Joan Crawford’s Vienna (Johnny Guitar).


Despite its light running time of 80 minutes, Forty Guns attempts to transcend certain fixed elements of the Western genre framework. Bolstered by Samuel Fuller’s masterful film-making style, the film is one of the understated, cult classics in the Western canon.


Hopscotch [1980] – A Relentlessly Playful Espionage Comedy


British Author John le Carre’s legendary character George Smiley is anti-James Bond. He fights enemies with intelligence and his battlefield is a drab office interestingly referred to as The Circus. Unlike the revered on-screen man-child intelligent agent, Smiley has erudite grasp on using the double-edged sword known as violence. American novelist Brian Garfield with his 1975 novel Hopscotch about a bored ex-spy also deviates from the Western adolescent fantasy life of James Bond. The veteran field agent of Garfield too doesn’t carry a gun even in life-threatening situations and smoothly resolves the conflicts by relying on intelligence. But Garfield’s novel is a light-hearted riff on spy genre without much of the hard-hitting, closer-to-reality tightrope situations experienced in John le Carre’s novels. In Garfield’s logic-defying espionage scenario, the utterly hopeless predicament of the protagonist is transcended through feisty, humorous games (pretty much like the one hinted in the title) rather than violent combats.



Brian Garfield’s Hopscotch originally went up to Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda. But when WalterMatthau - the master of cantankerous comedy - came onboard to play the protagonist, the script was re-written out and out as a wry comedy. British writer/director Bryan Forbes (Whistle Down the Wind, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, The Whisperers) was initially set to direct the movie (he co-wrote the script with Brian Garfield) but he was later replaced by fellow British film-maker Ronald Neame. Mr. Neame was one of the important figures in British cinema who has collaborated with cinematic masters like David Lean (as co-writer & producer for Brief Encounters, Blithe Spirit, Great Expectations) and Alfred Hitchcock (worked as assistant cameraman). 


Venerated as director’s actor, Mr. Ronald Neame efficiently juggled between the roles of director and cinematographer, bringing out career-best performances from fine actors -- Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), Alec Guiness in Tunes of Glory (1960) and The Horse’s Mouth (1958), Hayley Mills in The Chalk Garden (1964), and Judy Garland in I Could Go On Singing (1962). Director Neame has associated himself with projects of different genres – from action adventure, comedy to thrillers and biopic dramas. Before directing Hopscotch, Ronald Neame has made two intriguing comedies – The Horse’s Mouth (1958) & Gambit (1966). While Hopscotch wasn’t a singularly outstanding work in the long career span of both Bryan Forbes and Ronald Neame, it certainly is a very entertaining spy comedy, unlike some of the bland genre exercises in contemporary Hollywood cinema.


Walter Matthau plays an ageing CIA field agent Miles Kendig, cloaked in trench coat and his face wearing a persistent frown. He is stinging a group of Russian spies wandering around Munich’s famous Oktoberfest; back when cold war reached threshold point and when Munich was in West Germany. The sting is a success as Kendig perfectly corners his Russian counterpart Yaskov (Herbert Lom). He gets back the stolen intelligence from Yaskov, but lets him depart with a cordial greeting. Kendig’s hard-bitten, no-nonsense boss Myerson (Ned Beatty) who doesn’t understand the subtlety of quid pro quo (or backscratching methods) punishes Kendig with a desk job. 


It’s hinted that Myerson has sucked up to Nixon administration and rised to the top ranks of CIA by taping influential people. Kendig’s don’t-give-a-damn attitude fires up as he concocts elaborate plans to get back at Myerson. Kendig begins the game by shredding his personnel file and by threatening to write detailed memoirs which may embarrass all the intelligent agencies involved in the cold war. When Myerson and his clueless cohorts takes Kendig’s bait the narrative moves through uniquely hilarious situations. Helping Kendig on his lucrative final mission is the former-agent & ex-lover Isobel (Glenda Jackson). Heading the operation to hunt-down the old, rogue spy is Joe Cutter (Sam Waterston), Kendig’s protégé who is always one-step behind in figuring out Kendig’s globetrotting adventure.


Hopscotch is more watchable for Matthau’s rendering of smug and unapologetically decadent Miles Kendig. Listening to Mozart while shaping his memoir on a typewriter, uproariously humming opera at the border checkpost, and completely failing at mimicking different accents, Matthau’s Kendig is a very idiosyncratic movie spy. Unlike modern rogue spies, Kendig doesn’t boast any noble intentions for his unpredictable revenge trajectory. He makes it clear that it’s an act of selfishness and a display of arrogance. But Matthau adds lively, miniscule touches to his portrayal that we persistently root for his anti-authoritative stance, irrespective of the eventuality. 


Bryan Forbes and Brian Garfield’s writing may lack some spark to make it spectacular (it’s too relaxed at times), but their character sketches and nuanced comedic situations are nothing short of impeccable. Ned Beatty’s enraged yet inept Myerson makes up the perfect counterpoint to Kendig. The revenge solely channeled at Myerson is punctuated with undeniably funny punchlines, the highpoint being the encounter at Myerson’s estate where Kendig smartly hides. Some of the plot turns remain elemental compared to the brilliantly conceived verbal jousts (for instance, the confrontation between Kendig and Cutter in the hotel room balances comedy and poignance). The other winning aspect of the movie is the unforced chemistry between Matthau and Glenda Jackson. Their amorous teases somewhat serves as an emotional crux of the narrative. 


Hopscotch (105 minutes) may encounter the complaint of possessing standard-fare or bare-bones plot structure and predictable happy ending. But it retains a sense of charm that may wholly please viewers of dry, quirky comedies.