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With: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Gene Barry, Robert Dix, Jidge Carroll
Written by: Samuel Fuller
Directed by: Samuel Fuller
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 79
Date: 09/01/1957

Forty Guns (1957)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Whip Smart

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Samuel Fuller's finest Western takes more than a few cues from Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954), notably its heavy Freudian symbolism and its strong central female matriarch (Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar and Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns). Rancher Jessica Drummond (Stanwyck) commands a loyal crew of forty men but has a soft spot for her trouble-making brother Brock (John Ericson).

When Brock shoots the town sheriff in cold blood, she bails him out, but inadvertently starts a war. Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) is the tough ex-marshal who falls for Jessica and causes all the trouble. Fuller constantly equates guns with phalluses and evokes manly images whenever possible. In one scene, a man actually strokes the handle of a gun while eyeballing the beautiful female gunsmith.

In one of the film's best scenes, Jessica makes her forty hands get up from the table and leave the room so that she can have a word alone with Griff. The huge table and Fuller's clever framing give Jessica a strong masculine power. Storywise, the film moves along in nervy fits and starts, and it's sometimes difficult to tell the generic supporting actors apart. But Stanwyck is as stunning and fiery as she was all the way back in Baby Face (1933), and she helps make this one of the best Westerns of its day.

I'd seen Forty Guns a couple of times in a pan-and-scan version on a VHS tape provided to me by a friend in the video business. But of course, Fuller used the Cinemascope frame to its maximum extreme, and the pan-and-scan version is virtually useless. Letterboxed or on the big screen is the only real way to see it. Just check out the thundering opening scene as Jessica and her forty thieves ride around a slow buckboard on a trail outside of town. A few years ago, I was able to get my hands on a British import version, which was at least letterboxed.

In May of 2005, Fox Home Video released the Region 1 version of Forty Guns. It's not much different from the import, save that it has a trailer and optional English or Spanish subtitles. It also comes with two English audio mixes (5.1 or 2.0) and an optional Spanish-language track. It also comes with an option to view the pan-and-scanned version, which, frankly, I've seen enough of.

In 2018, the Criterion Collection released a superb Blu-ray edition, with a glorious new transfer of this film's widescreen, black-and-white picture (a bit flat sometimes, but with electrifying exteriors) and an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Extras include a new interview with director Samuel Fuller's widow, Christa Lang Fuller, and daughter, Samantha Fuller; a feature length documentary, A Fuller Life (2013); an audio interview from 1969 with Samuel Fuller at London’s National Film Theatre; a new interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith, author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City; a stills gallery; and a liner notes booklet with an essay by film scholar Lisa Dombrowski and a chapter from Fuller’s posthumously published 2002 autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking.

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