Jubal (1956)

When it’s on: Saturday, 9 January (7.00 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Whilst I’m a relative novice in covering the Westerns of Delmer Daves, one of the things that strikes me about his style are the relatively few action scenes. When they happen, as they do infrequently in Jubal, they’re devastating and they matter, but the focus seems to be more on the human drama, the tensions built through interactions between characters. This means that when someone dies in the film at a pivotal moment and as the culmination of all the carefully mounting suspense, it’s a shock because the people involved are those you’ve come to care about. The death has dramatic ripples that shape the rest of the story. I suppose the method adds an element of ‘noir’ to Daves’s Westerns – because the emphasis is on flawed people and the consequences of those flaws, there’s weight to the drama. Not for Jubal a crowd pleasing shootout; these are films made for adult audiences.

Glenn Ford plays the eponymous Jubal. At the start of the film he’s at his lowest ebb, weak and without a horse. The prospects of survival for this unknown man are bleak, but fortunately he’s discovered by Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine) who takes him back to his home and brings him back to health. Shep’s a good guy, artless but big hearted, and he offers Jubal a job working on his ranch, something in which the stranger begins to excel. The pair quickly come to like each other, Jubal appreciating the chance for redemption from whatever past sins he’s run away from, Shep admiring Jubal’s work ethic and raising him to foreman, in charge of the other farmhands. But naturally this creates problems, the biggest of which is Pinky (Rod Steiger), another employee who resents Jubal’s arrival and his growing influence. When Pinky, put out and spiteful, tries to evict a group of religious travellers who have stopped temporarily on the ranch to care for their sick, Jubal turns up and overrules him, creating further discord.

And then there’s Mae (Valerie French), Shep’s pretty young wife. More complications. Mae makes it clear very early that she’s bored, unhappy with being married to the unrounded Shep, dissatisfied by the attentions of the other ranch hands, notably Pinky with whom she’s clearly had some ‘previous’. From the moment Jubal arrives, she attempts to seduce him and is knocked back, but her desire hasn’t gone unnoticed by the petty-minded Pinky, who sees her feelings as having the potential for trouble. In the meantime, Jubal starts falling for Naomi (Felicia Farr), a girl with the travelling party to whom he opens up about his past. He also employs Reb (Charles Bronson), a young drifter who turned up on the ranch with the travellers and becomes a loyal friend.

Jubal has been described as Othello on the Range, and it’s easy enough to see why. Shakespearian plots have often lent themselves well to other genres and the themes are definitely present here, Shep taking the Othello role and Iago’s jealousies and plotting reflected in Pinky. But I see this as merely a jumping off point. Mae, the Desdemona of the piece, is no victim and charts her own downfall. She’s possibly the most interesting character in the film, a femme fatale whose motivation is boredom and wanting less and less to do with her husband. Just look at her expression when Shep talks about her as a ‘heifer’; it’s the language of the cowherder, and she’s appalled at the description. She isn’t a villain. Daves gives the character enough shades of grey to make her morally compromised rather than truly bad; escape from her lot is all she’s after, and French – a British actor who brings a beauty and sultriness to the role that is rightly out of kilter with Borgnine’s simple, rustic set-up – conveys that side of the character really well.

Steiger’s troublemaking performance is terrific. Daves photographs him well, often in semi-darkness or behind a fence to show the distance and barriers between himself and Jubal, but the actor – using the method style of acting – does the rest, tonally different to the rest of the cast, speaking in a southern drawl and dripping with venom. He’s violent towards Mae, openly malicious to Jubal and willing to deceive his own boss in order to achieve his ends. There’s a lot to like about Borgnine and it’s easy to see why he thinks he’s won the lottery in marrying Mae, and why she would see it quite differently.

At the heart of it all is Glenn Ford, at this time a regular name among the most popular stars in American cinema and brilliant at turning his character into an identifiable ‘everyman’ who just wants to be able to get on with his life. The decision to make Jubal a blank canvas for much of the film is an inspired one, allowing viewers to essentially paint themselves onto his part – wouldn’t we all like to see ourselves as a Jubal type, good hearted and committed to doing the right thing? Unlike Steiger, there’s nothing mannered about his playing of the title character, as though the actor is basically playing himself as Jubal, though of course that isn’t really true. It took skill to make it look as easy as that.

With some smashing photography of untamed American landscapes, Jubal is a very handsome looking film. The focus is ever on the melodrama, the riveting tensions that mount up and you leave realise how absorbing it’s been despite the lack of action. That’s good art for you; Jubal’s recommended

Jubal: ****