Monday, August 4, 2014

Jubal: Shakespeare and Male Bonding in the Old West

This post is part of the Build-Your-Own Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. To view the full blogathon schedule, click here.

Rod Steiger and Glenn Ford in Jubal.
Glenn Ford and director Delmer Daves collaborated on three Westerns made between 1956 and 1958. A common theme connecting this unofficial trilogy is the formation of mutual respect and trust among men. In 3:10 to Yuma (1957), an outlaw (Ford) grows to respect the rancher (Van Heflin) guarding him as they await a train and a likely deadly shoot-out. In Cowboy (1958), a veteran trail boss (Ford) begrudgingly takes on a tenderfoot (Jack Lemmon) during a hard cattle drive. During the arduous trek, the two men grow to admire each other and an unlikely friendship forms. That brings us to the first Ford-Daves Western Jubal (1956), which may be the most complex of their collaborations.

I love how director Daves visually conveys
 the divide between Pinky and Jubal.
Ford plays Jubal Troop, a drifter rescued on a mountain road by kind-hearted rancher Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine). Shep offers Jubal a job as one of his ranch hands. That doesn’t sit well with disgruntled employee "Pinky" Pinkum (Rod Steiger), who tells Jubal: “Let’s get this straight, mister. As far as I’m concerned, you still stink.”

Pinky isn’t Jubal’s only problem. Shep’s beautiful wife Mae (Valerie French) takes an immediate interest in the drifter. When she confronts him during a moment alone, Jubal informs her that “we’re ending this before it begins.” She replies provocatively: “Are we?”

Pinky's dislike of Jubal turns into hatred when Shep selects the newcomer to be his new foreman. Rejected by Shep and Mae--who both prefer Jubal--Pinky seeks revenge by suggesting to Shep that Jubal and Mae are sleeping together. That lie festers into an ugly situation that eventually results in three deaths.

Jubal is loosely based on Paul I. Wellman's 1939 novel Jubal Troop. Described in The Saturday Review as "Anthony Adverse all over again," Wellman's sprawling tale traces the exploits of a man who killed his mistress' husband at age 18, romanced many women, sold stolen cattle, and made and lost a fortune in Oklahoma oil. 

Borgnine as Othello...I mean, Shep.
Drawing on a plot thread involving Shep and Mae, Daves and co-screenwriter Russell S. Hughes transform the film version into a Western variation of Othello. Shep represents the Moor general Othello, who promotes Cassio (Jubal) over Iago (Pinky). The angry Iago retaliates by suggesting to Othello that Cassio slept with Othello's new bride Desdemona (Mae). This lie leads to tragedy, just as it does in Jubal. There are significant differences, of course. Mae wants to be unfaithful with Jubal, Pinky has previously slept with Mae, and Shep doesn't kill Mae. Still, the basic elements of Othello are clearly present in Jubal--a fact which has contributed to the film's cult status among the adult Westerns of the 1950s.

Although Jubal falls in love with Naomi (Felicia Farr), a young pioneer woman, the key relationship in the film is between Jubal and Shep. As Jubal confides to Naomi, Shep is the first person since his father to show him any kindness. Shep, for his part, admires Jubal for his intelligence, but values most his trustworthiness. Indeed, when explaining why he chose Jubal over the more experienced Pinky, Shep states flatly it was because he could trust Jubal. The extent of Shep's trust becomes evident when he reveals to Jubal that he senses Mae has become distant. This is a topic the rancher would never broach with any of his other employees (least of all Pinky). So, it's no wonder that Shep goes into a blind rage when he believes that Jubal--the one person he trusted--betrayed him. 


Valerie French looking seductive as Mae.
Of course, when given the opportunity, Mae chooses not to contradict Pinky's lie. Early in the film, she confesses to Jubal that she married Shep only because she thought he was rich and lived in a "castle." In reality, the "castle" is an impressive ranch and her husband spares no extravagance on his wife. However, Mae's ambivalence toward Shep has grown into disgust fueled by self-pity. She complains to Jubal that the ranch is "ten thousand acres of nothing, ten thousand acres of loneliness." Shep doesn't help matters either. When Mae complains that her husband treats her like property, it's hard to disagree. He playfully calls her his "Canadian heifer" and clearly likes showing her off.


Charles Bronson as Reb.
The standout in the fine cast is Ernest Borgnine, who earned a Best Actor Oscar for the previous year's Marty. His multi-layered portrait of Shep shows all sides of the character: Shep's generosity, his sexist attitude toward women, his insight into the men that work for him, and his rage when he believes he has been betrayed. Glenn Ford is fine as the conflicted hero and Valerie French sizzles as Mae. Charles Bronson lends solid support in one his first major roles as another drifter that befriends Jubal.

Surprisingly, Rod Steiger seems content to repeat his performance as Jud from Oklahoma! (1955). In the biography Glenn Ford: A Life, written by the actor's son, Ford downplays the "method school of acting" made famous by Steiger, Marlon Brando, James Dean, and others. Ford said: "'Doing nothing well' is my definition of a good actor. One of the great misconceptions about this business is that you get in front of a camera and 'act.' That's the very thing you should not do. Be yourself--people need to identify with you. If they're not able to, you're in trouble."

Jubal is not the best of the Glenn Ford-Delmer Daves Westerns. That distinction belongs to the thoughtful, tense 3:10 to Yuma, which is universally recognized as one of the best Westerns of the 1950s. However, with its Shakespearean slant and its focus on the frailty of human relationships, Jubal justly deserves reevaluation and greater recognition.


The fine music score in Jubal was composed by David Raskin, who is best known for his theme from Laura. Mr. Raskin is the connection to the next film in this blogathon: The Bad and the Beautiful, which is reviewed by one of our favorite classic movie bloggers at The Lady Eve's Reel Life.

13 comments:

  1. The emotions feel very raw in "Jubal" and somehow the gorgeous location filming seems to enhance that feeling. I wanted more from Steiger's performance. He seemed so obvious.

    "Jubal" is long overdue for a rewatch from me.

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  2. "Jubal" is an interesting character study. We see how boredom and loneliness envelop Mae while jealousy and anger contaminate Pinky. I love the picture you posted showing Pinky almost behind bars, yet able to spew forth the lie that can have no happy conclusion. The friendship that develops between Shep and Jubal is strong and thankfully Bronson's character also cares about Jubal or the conclusion would have been very different. This is a great choice to kick off the blogathon. Well done, Rick!

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  3. Nice, insightful post, Rick. I guess Rod Steiger was a great actor, because he absolutely fills me with loathing every time i see him!

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  4. Great post! I need to give this another watch. I'm excited for the other entries in this blogathon! Thanks for hosting!

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  5. I saw this in the theater when it first came out but I don't remember watching it since. Long time. I do remember that this was one of the more intense westerns I'd ever seen at the time. Why are men always so ready to believe a lie? Consider the source!! Didn't Ford and Farr marry at some point? Or maybe I'm thinking of someone else. Probably.

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  6. Saw this in the theater. I was too young to appreciate it at the time and didn't cafe for it.

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  7. Great opening post for the BYOBlogathon, Rick. I haven't seen Jubal and would be especially interested to see Borgnine and Steiger onscreen together. Both could play such menacing villains, though it seems Borgnine got the mostly nice-guy role in this one. Also of interest, Steiger originated the role of Marty in the original TV production.

    I recall reading in Marlon Brando's autobio that he remembered Glenn Ford as an incorrigible scene-stealer when they worked together on "Teahouse of the August Moon."

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  8. This looks like an amazing film. Can't believe I've never even heard of it! How can a person go wrong with Ford AND Borgnine AND Steiger? I've got to see this ASAP.

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  9. Like you, I think 3:10 to Yuma is one of the great westerns of the 50's but Jubal is a fine example of the mature kind of western being made at the time. Borgnine is superb and steal the film. A truly fine take on this film Rick.

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  10. Very insightful post on a fine 50s western, Rick! JUBAL lays a lot of dark, emotional material out there for everyone to see. It's a pretty heavily charged-up western with, as you point out, some Shakespearean elements. The cast is really strong in this one, and Glenn Ford excels in this sort of stoic, conflicted everyman role. Ford made so many good westerns...I'm partial to the lighthearted THE SHEEPMAN and COWBOY, co-starring Jack Lemmon (!) myself.

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  11. I've seen 3:10 to Yuma but not Jubal, which sounds very intriguing. The lifting of Shakespearean elements sounds very Anthony Mann to me, but clearly Delmer Daves wasn't afraid to get tragic and weighty either. Funny how well the old tragic hero plotlines translate so well to Westerns. Thanks for reminding me that I still need to see this one.

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  12. Please add me to the list of... "I can't believe I've never even heard of this film!"

    Borgnine, is one of my favorite actors. So, I know it is going to be a great western film.



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  13. Felicia Farr would become Mrs Jack Lemmon, though considering the reputation Ford had for coupling with co-stars, I don't doubt there was some sparks between the two, even if it was just one sided. Jubal is highly underrated in my books. Great reviews like this -- and I never saw the Othello similarities until you pointed them out -- will bring more people to appreciate it and Delmar Daves' films.

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