Birds chirp in the distance as the shadow of a cloud passes over the Arizona grasslands. A wagon pulls up to a stop as the three men aboard listen to the thunder of galloping horses roll closer. They exchange confused looks before the cavalcade comes racing over the crest of the hillside. Forty men on 40 horses led by a cowboy on a white steed go rushing past the bewildered wagon, a cloud of dust trailing behind them. The camera cuts back to the cowboy on the white horse and his 40 men as they fan out over the valley in full CinemaScope glory. From behind the movie’s opening titles — “Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns” — the cowboy comes into focus: She is Jessica Drummond, boss of Cochise County, smiling from the saddle as she leads her 40 horsemen across the chaparral.
Thus opens director Samuel Fuller’s 1957 western about cattle queen Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) who falls for Griff Bonnell, a federal lawman in town with a warrant for one of her hired hands. Drummond’s jealous men and trigger-happy brother aim to come between the two, as the pair also comes to terms with their dim futures (Drummond’s fortune is dwindling; Bonnell is a relic from a bygone era of the West). Described by Fuller as an examination of “America’s pervasive fascination with guns,” Forty Guns exemplifies the best and worst of the director’s work: colorful but underdeveloped characters, a strong emotional thrust but too many plotlines to fit in the film’s 79 minutes. Despite being “stuffed with phalluses” (as Fuller described it in his typically charming way), the director claims that women came running up to him after the movie was shown, saying it was the most feminist film they’d ever seen. Tellingly, the original script was titled “Woman with a Whip,” and indeed there is something exceedingly satisfying in seeing Drummond reign over a table of 40 tough guys like the baddest don to ever cross the Mississippi.
Born to two Eastern European Jewish immigrants in 1912 and raised in New York City, Fuller became a newspaper copy boy at age 12. By 17 he had worked his way to full-fledged reporter, dropping out of school to cover the crime beat for the tabloid New York Evening Graphic. In the 1930s, he began writing pulp novels and screenplays until World War II, when he joined the army as an infantryman, fighting in Europe and North Africa. While at war, his mother sent him his first camera; the first footage he shot was of his regiment’s liberation of a concentration camp.
Fuller’s Korean War flick, The Steel Helmet, established him in Hollywood; its portrayal of soldiers shooting unarmed POWs and discussion of Japanese-American internment established his FBI file. Fuller directed 23 films in total and inspired filmmakers at home — Scorsese, Tarantino, Jarmusch — and abroad — Godard, Wenders. His movie-making style was heavily influenced by his days at the tabloids: He worked swiftly and instinctually, like a reporter on deadline, rarely shooting more than two takes of a scene. As the film scholar Peter Stanfield put it, Fuller “engaged with the world through provocation, arousing middle class ire; [he] provoked through a lack of regard for the conventions of the well-made story and traditions of good taste.” In other words, Fuller made movies of the B variety. His work tended to be low budget, brisk and melodramatic, with an opening sequence devised to titillate like a New York Post headline.
In addition to his pre-exploitative style, Fuller was also known for his confrontation of racism in American society. In China Gate, a soldier rejects his son with a biracial woman because he doesn’t look white. In The Crimson Kimono, two detectives fall for the same woman and, in the end, she chooses the Japanese-American one over the white one. In Run of the Arrow, he cast Native Americans to play Native Americans. One of his most powerful characters was the African-American student Trent in Shock Corridor who suffers a mental breakdown as a student at a newly integrated southern university and now thinks he is a white KKK member.
Although it was this insistence on examining racism that became one of Fuller’s trademarks, his work also borders on feminist. Fuller’s female characters were often just as complicated and fearless and ugly as their male counterparts. They were prostitutes and strippers and thieves and snitches and alcoholics, on par with the male lowlifes who inhabited his work. There was Moe, a professional stool pigeon living on the Bowery who died before giving up information to the Communists (who Fuller disdained) in Pickup on South Street. She was one of several spinster characters in Fuller’s movies. The wizened woman dispensing advice to the younger protagonists, like the whisky-loving beatnik painter Mac of The Crimson Kimono or bar owner Sandy in Underworld, U.S.A., is a cliched character, but Fuller never let the audience pity his. Women could be homicidal (The Crimson Kimono) or altruistic, like Lucky Legs who sacrifices herself in order to blow up a Viet Minh ammunition cache and complete the mission of the French Foreign Legionnaires she is guiding in China Gate. In a scene that didn’t make the final cut of 1961’s Underworld, U.S.A, a prostitute attempts to unionize the city’s sex workers. If Fuller’s female characters weren’t “working girls,” they were women working less traditional jobs as artists, scientists or gunsmiths. Rare was the housewife or secretary, and this was during post-WWII America, when women were encouraged to leave the workforce to make room for returning soldiers.
As Lisa Dombrowski put it in her book on Fuller, If You Die, I’ll Kill You: “A great admirer of women, Fuller likes his female characters smart and tough. (Even when they’re working girls who regularly get beat up, as in Pickup on South Street or Underworld, U.S.A., their resolve never wavers.) [In Hell and High Water] Denise deflects the submarine crew’s resentment and unwanted sexual attention through her intelligence and resiliency; like Lucky Legs in China Gate, she proves she can contribute to the mission without pretending to be ‘one of the boys.’”
Feminist characters took the lead in two of his movies: the aforementioned Forty Guns and The Naked Kiss. In The Naked Kiss, call girl Kelly (played by Constance Towers) attempts to leave the business and start over as an “honest” woman in a small town. She ends up working as a nurse in a children’s hospital and falling in love with the town’s wealthy and respected bachelor J.L. Grant, who asks her to marry him even after she confesses her previous profession. When Kelly visits Grant to show him her wedding gown, she walks in on him molesting a young girl. Upon being discovered, Grant tells her that that’s why he asked her to marry him, because they were both “abnormal,” equating prostitution with pedophilia, something Kelly can’t stand for. She clocks him with a phone, killing him, and is arrested for the crime. From her jail cell, Kelly finds the victim and persuades her to confess what happened, exonerating her and gaining back the townspeople’s admiration. However, Kelly has had enough of their hypocrisy and leaves, presumably to return to the straightforward world of prostitution.
This isn’t to say that Fuller’s representations weren’t problematic at times. Racism and sexism are complex issues, and Fuller wasn’t known for his nuance. He was a straight white man and prone to exoticizing, as with his portrayal of Japanese culture in House of Bamboo; in The Naked Kiss, he also exploited the mother/whore dichotomy by making the reformed prostitute Kelly a nurse who sings lullabies to crippled children. Furthermore, it took very little to make him stand out: In 1950s Hollywood, keeping the black soldier alive until the end of the war film or having two female characters who talk to each other about something besides a man was progressive.
Fuller has said it was never his intention to create feminist work; it was merely a natural result of how he saw the world. Discussing the women of his films, Fuller said: “I love the whole idea of any women on the screen having balls because generally they do have balls. Unfortunately man’s rule and man’s beliefs, not the Lord’s, have made them the inferior sex and subjected them to slavery in a form without any stripes, in a jail without any cells. That’s why I’m nutty about any situation in which a woman has big balls and waves them and makes a noise like the clanging of two big shells in bells on any street.”
It may not have been the most P.C. way to assert his support of gender equality, but that was Samuel Fuller. A master storyteller rarely without a cigar, he was a man as singular as his characters. He dedicated his filmmaking career to challenging bigotry but — for better or worse — was never politically correct about it. It was what effectively ended his career when his last American film, White Dog, was shelved by Paramount after the NAACP threatened to boycott it, fearing the movie would incite racists to train dogs to attack African Americans.
The film was eventually distributed to a wide audience when the Criterion Collection released it on DVD. Criterion has also released several other films by Fuller, which were previously difficult to find as the critical and commercial success of his pictures varied.
Today, Fuller’s influence lives on in the genre pastiche of Quentin Tarantino and as a model for other crime-reporters-turned-entertainment-writers-with-a-conscience, like David Simon. And as the film industry continues to fall short in its portrayal of race and gender, Fuller’s work remains as relevant as ever.