If you haven't seen it, there's no way I can convey to you how strange this 1957 Samuel Fuller Western is. I can tell you it's about a mythically powerful woman who rides the territory of her ranch with forty hired guns, like an escort of armed valets. She is a primal variant of the femme fatale, wreaking havoc on a world of collapsed males. Her type is not unknown in films of the Fifties, especially in film noir, but here she takes on the dimensions of a Greek goddess, terrible and timeless.
Her power is contested, and ultimately overcome, by a man willing to stand up to her, reducing her to a state of pliant femininity — which rarely happens in film noir — but at the same time she's such a vivid embodiment of the nightmare of the collapsed male that the triumph of the hero here feels provisional. She might have been vanquished in last night's dream, but she'll be back in tomorrow night's dream — you can count on it. The threat she poses is eternal. (Fuller had a darker fate in mind for his fatal femme but the studio vetoed the idea.)
What I can't convey is the American-Gothic vision of the Old West Fuller has concocted — it's as though Poe has lit out for the territory and found the same sickly-sweet decay in the Western myth that he found in the European myths back east.
Fuller deconstructs the classic beauty of the best-looking Western films, of Ford and Wyler and Hawks, by pushing their methods into realms of extreme self-consciousness. His camera travels endlessly on tracks, swoops deliriously on cranes, exaggerating the conventions into a new form, one with no restraints on style.
This is a Rococo Western, in which style breaks loose from narrative goals and serves only archetype.
It's a very odd and very beautiful film, and not like any other I know. By the time directors like Godard began to embrace Fuller's daring methods of self-conscious filmmaking, they were ready to abandon genre itself, except as an ironic referent. (It's worth noting, however, that Godard quoted a shot from Forty Guns in Breathless — it was clearly on his mind as he began to forge his own style.)
Fuller stays inside the Western genre in Forty Guns but lays waste to it mercilessly from within. Only a man who loved the form could have done this, just as only a man who loved women could have feared them as much as Fuller fears the commander of the forty guns, the high ridin' woman with the whip.