Forty Guns (1957): Barbara Stanwyck Whips The Wild West

The first film I saw starring with Barbara Stanwyck was The Lady of Burlesque (1943) where the actress was playing a thinly veiled version of Gypsy Rose Lee who had written the original novel. It detailed the rivalry between Stanwyck’s Dixie and dancing diva Princess Nirvena, and the whole thing plays out like prehistoric Showgirls, all of the cat fighting none of the vulgarity. Stanwyck managed to rise above the material, and her striking good looks really carried the film. So when I heard about a Western that starred Stanwyck as a black clad, whip wielding, iron fisted rancher, my interest was piqued. When I found out it was directed by Sam Fuller, then I knew I had to see Forty Guns (1957).

Stanwyck stars as Jessica Drummond who rules her Arizona county with the help of a phalanx of 40 loyal gunman, but when reluctant gun for hire Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan) and his two brothers, Wes and Chico, ride into town to serve a warrant, her grip on the town is tested after her brother Brockie (John Erikson) guns down Griff’s old friend, the town marshal. Griff throws Brockie in jail, but Jessica uses her pull to spring him out. This sparks a love/hate relationship between the rancher and the visiting gunman, but when Brockie guns down Wes on his wedding day, Griff will go through anything, even the woman he loves, to get his revenge.

Barbara Stanwyck was forty nine years old when she took on the role of Jessica Drummond, but even so she still has a striking a beautiful look. The harder edge that age had given her only made her more suited for this role as a hardened, independent woman who had become powerful in a male dominated world. The image of the black clad Stanwyck riding across the plains with her line of forty gunmen is a striking image, and serves as a great introduction to the character. It should also be said that there is some great riding in the film, and most of it was done by Stanwyck. In fact, one scene required her character to be dragged by her horse. When her stunt double refused, Stanwyck did the stunt herself coming away with only a few bumps and bruises.

Over the course of the film, Jessica Drummond does soften, and Stanwyck still performs admirably even though the love story portion of the film does come a bit out of left field. The film actually contains two love stories, one between Griff and Jessica and one between Wes and the daughter of the local gunsmith. One of the most interesting things about the film, and Sam Fuller’s original script, is how peppered it is with double entendre and insinuation. Here’s the best example of what I’m talking about:

Jessica Drummond: I'm not interested in you, Mr. Bonnell. It's your trademark. [gestures at his gun, purring] May I feel it?
Griff Bonnell: Uh-uh.
Jessica Drummond: Just curious.
Griff Bonnell: It might go off in your face.
Jessica Drummond: I'll take a chance.

There’s no real question as to what they were getting at there, and there are several other sexual references in the film. The dialog is all very crisp, and it has a much less langid style as compared to other Westerns of the same period. It sounds like what it is, a Western written entirely by a city dwelling former newsman turned director.

Fuller wrote, directed, and produced Forty Guns, and it feels like a Sam Fuller movie through and through. From the square jawed hero pose that Barry Sullivan struck to the shades of grey that infiltrated the Western genre when black and white hats were de rigueur at the time, Fullers film took portions of the standard Western film and tweaked them to his view.The film also benefits from some great cinematography. The town looks and feels alive and the streets and people are covered with a layer of dust, and the level of detail and choice of shots are all so well done. It gives the film a unique look that is very different from other Westerns. The only reservation I have about Fuller’s Western film revisionism is the inclusion of a singing cowboy in the proceedings. While it is one of the background character, it really felt jarring when the film would be going along smoothly only to be interrupted by a song. When it happened once and seemed to function as a theme song, then I was willing to look over it, but the fact that it happened three more times in a 80 minute film felt like a mistake.

Forty Guns does get bogged down in its own melodrama, but thankfully the short running time, great visuals, and strong performances fend this off. Fuller crafted a film that was outside of the box, but in a way it is the spiritual forefather of films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. By casting Barbara Stanwyck as such a powerful, strong character, Fuller broke a mold that still strikes people as a novelty when films like The Quick and the Dead are mentioned. If you like the Western genre, then I think this offbeat classic should get a watch, but it probably is too heavy on the drama and light on the gunplay for everyone’s taste.

Bugg Rating

Couldn't find a trailer so here's a nice clip


  1. This is one of my fave Fuller films. It makes no apologies for its two-fisted, pulpy vibe right down to the shocking showdown. I couldn't believe it the first time I saw it. Great stuff...

  2. Yay! Another Fuller fan! I really enjoyed Forty Guns, but so far Pickup on South Street is still my top pick. Caught Underworld USA recently and that was very good as well. The wife got me a copy of White Dog some time back, but I've been waiting for the right time to review it. Not that there is a great time to review a movie about a racist dog. Anyway, thanks for the comment JD good to know there are other Sam Fans out there.

  3. Oh yeah, I dig Sam's films in a big way. Tough to nail down my fave but if pressed I would say THE STEEL HELMET. Gotta be one of THE best war films ever made, I prefer it even over Fuller's own THE BIG RED ONE.

    WHITE DOG is a good one, too. Tough film to watch, though. I would be interested to hear yer thoughts on it.


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