Barbara Stanwyck packs ‘Forty Guns’ on Criterion Channel

There was no director like Samuel Fuller, the former journalist, pulp writer and soldier who became a director of energetic genre pictures with mad passion and driving energy. He was America’s kino-fist with a tabloid sensibility and his 1957 western Forty Guns (1957) is his purest blast of his cinematic thunder and melodramatic excess.

Barbara Stanwyck stars as the “high riding woman with a whip” (as she’s described in the film’s theme song) Jessica Drummond, a black clad rancher baroness who hires a private army of gun-toting cowboys to protect her Arizona empire. Barry Sullivan is Griff Bonell, the cynical gunfighter who signs on as town marshal and immediately clashes with the territory queen.

The plot plays like a whacked-out variation on the Earp-Clanton feud (with Gene Barry and Robert Dix lining up in the “Earp” side as Sullivan’s brothers) but it’s just the setting for the sexual energy and psychotic violence. It’s not romance, it’s pure sexual tension that stirs their power plays over territorial authority. At one point, as cattle baroness Jessica and Marshal Griff ride into the plains, a tornado whips up out of nowhere, the natural equivalent of the emotional hurricane brewing between these dynamic personalities. It’s the most overt example of the passion exploding onscreen in staccato editing, darting camerawork, and the maddest expressions of love this side of Duel in the Sun.

This is a western of operatic emotion and pulp style, a true maverick production that leaps out of a culture of classic westerns.

Dean Jagger and John Ericson co-star, Fuller regulars Paul Dubov and Neyle Morrow have small roles, and Jidge Carroll sings the theme.

Black and white

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Forty Guns (The Criterion Channel) [Blu-ray]
Forty Guns (The Criterion Channel) [DVD]
Forty Guns [DVD]

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Criterion’s special edition Blu-ray and DVD editions are mastered from a 4K restoration and feature the 2013 documentary “A Fuller Life,” new interviews with Christa Lang Fuller and Samantha Fuller (the director’s widow and daughter) and critic Imogen Sara Smith, and an audio-only archival interview with Sam Fuller from 1969.

Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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