Shakespeare and westerns really don’t sound like they go together. However, in the case of the former, the universality of his themes means that the location and period in which the drama takes place is largely irrelevant. And as for the latter, the genre is so flexible that pretty much anything can be tackled within its framework. William Wellman’s Yellow Sky has been described as a reworking of The Tempest, while Jubal (1956) sees the ideas central to Othello transported to a ranch in Wyoming. In a way, the isolated simplicity of the west provides an ideal backdrop for the presentation of such timeless concepts. Like an uncluttered stage, the absence of the trappings of civilization helps to better focus attention on the more important aspects of the story.
Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford) is a wanderer, a man who has spent his life running; he claims that he’s been trying to escape the bad luck that’s always dogged his steps. In reality though, he’s been running away from himself, or rather his own perceived inadequacies that stem from traumatic childhood experiences. When ranch boss Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine) takes him in and offers him a job and a chance to make a fresh start, it looks as though his streak of ill-fortune may be coming to an end. In spite of Jubal’s initial optimism, he soon realizes that he’s actually walked into a highly volatile situation. Shep is one of those salt of the earth types, brimming with hospitality and geniality yet lacking certain social graces. It’s this cheerful disdain for (or ignorance of) the niceties of polite society that has apparently pushed his young Canadian wife, Mae (Valerie French), away from him. I say apparently, because Mae merely uses this as an excuse – it’s clear enough that the remote ranch life and lack of social contact play an equally significant role in shaping her dissatisfaction. Almost as soon as Jubal arrives on the scene Mae begins to show an interest in the newcomer. On top of all this, there’s the problem of Pinky (Rod Steiger), Shep’s current top man and the previous recipient of Mae’s attention. Where Jubal resists Mae’s advances on the grounds that it would be a betrayal of the one man who ever handed him a break, Pinky never displayed such qualms. Now that he’s been sidelined by the new arrival, his resentment and natural antagonism bubble closer to the surface. Due as much to his own petty and spiteful nature as Jubal’s dedication to his job and his boss, Pinky finds himself falling out of favour both as a lover and an employee. It’s this displacement that triggers Pinky’s pent-up jealousy and latent misanthropy. When the opportunity arises, he slyly plants the seeds of doubt in Shep’s mind. And it’s from this point that the classical tragedy at the heart of the story starts to develop fully.
Delmer Daves had a real affinity for the western, his films within the genre all displaying an extremely fitting sense of time and place. In addition, he also had a great eye for telling composition and the use of landscape. His best movies look beautiful, and Jubal takes advantage of the breathtaking vistas that the location shooting in Wyoming offered. The exteriors have a kind of clean, bracing quality to them reminiscent of the mountain air their backgrounds suggest. These wide open spaces are representative both of the freshness of Jubal’s new life and also the remoteness of Shep’s ranch. However, Daves was no slouch when it came to interiors either; he, and cameraman Charles Lawton, create some extremely moody and tense imagery when the action moves indoors. It’s not always easy to achieve effective depth of focus and shadow density when filming in colour, yet Daves and Lawton manage to pull it off time and time again. When you’re telling a story as thematically dark as this it’s vital to keep the mood of the visuals in tune with the plot – Jubal always looks and feels just right at all the critical moments. What’s more, although Daves’ endings had a tendency to be a letdown in comparison to what went before, this movie maintains the correct tone right up to the rolling of the credits.
Glenn Ford was an excellent choice to play Jubal Troop, his edgy affability and that slight unease were well suited to the role. The character has an innate nobility and honesty, but there are demons lurking there too, torturing the man with personal doubt and a devalued sense of self-esteem. Ford had a gift for projecting all these qualities on the screen; perhaps that’s why he seemed at home playing in both psychologically complex westerns and film noir. In the following year’s 3:10 to Yuma, Ford and Felicia Farr played out one of the most touching and affecting romantic interludes it’s been my pleasure to see on film. This picture also features a romance between the two, just not as memorable or emotionally loaded as what was to come. Part of the problem is the weaker role handed to Ms Farr, but she still manages to convey something of that bittersweet tenderness in her scenes with Ford that would prove so effective in their next collaboration. The other, and much more substantial, female role was that of Valerie French. There was certainly nothing likeable about the part of Mae, whose infidelity (both real and imagined) sets three men at each other’s throats. Her frustrated sexiness is well realized and, by the end, in spite of her deceit, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her fate. Ernest Borgnine’s cuckolded husband draws even more pity though; the way he positively radiates a love for life means that his betrayal really hits home. His brash good humour makes him a favourite of the men, but also leaves him blissfully unaware of the coldness of his wife. When it suddenly dawns on Shep just how much of a fool he’s been, Borgnine’s highly expressive features show very clearly how deeply Mae’s playing around behind his back has affected him. Rod Steiger was always an extremely showy actor, forever in danger of allowing his intensity to spill over into inappropriate grandstanding. As the scheming and reprehensible Pinky, he just about manages to stay the right side of the line – although his tendency towards showboating does raise its head as the movie nears its climax. Among the supporting cast, Charles Bronson makes a strong impression as a hired hand who befriends Ford, and whose intervention at two critical moments help save the day.
Jubal has been available on DVD for a long time via Columbia/Sony in the US. The disc boasts a very good anamorphic scope transfer that looks rich and colourful. There are no extras offered, unless you count the preview snippets for other western titles from the company. The film remains an excellent example of Delmer Daves’ skill at telling a mature and thoughtful western tale. I think the fact that both the director and the star went on to make the better known 3:10 to Yuma a year later has overshadowed this picture to an extent. I’d say that anyone who enjoyed that movie will also appreciate the work on show here. This is yet another strong entry in the western’s golden decade, and fully deserving of any fan’s attention.