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: ****

White Feather (1955)

When it’s on: Thursday, 26 February (4.45 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The similarities between White Feather and the earlier Broken Arrow are impossible to ignore. Both cast native Americans in a sympathetic light and told stories about the efforts to broker a peace treaty between them and the encroaching white settlers. Delmer Daves was involved in the two films, directing Broken Arrow and writing the screenplay for this one. Both cast white actors as Indians, Jeffrey Hunter featuring prominently in White Feather, whilst in each film Debra Paget plays the love interest squaw.

Where Broken Arrow succeeded and this one falls is in the male leads. James Stewart was brilliant in the earlier film, but here we have a very young Robert Wagner playing a civil surveyor whose path crosses with the neighbouring Cheyenne tribe. At first hostile, the tribe comes to welcome his character, Josh Tanner, into their village, just as the nearby US cavalry outpost attempts to persuade their chief, Broken Hand (Edmund Franz) into signing a deal to secure peace and move them south so that gold prospectors can move in. Things get complicated when Tanner comes across the comely Appearing Day (Paget). Though promised to another, she quickly falls for his civilised charms and leaves the tribe, bringing the wrath of the Chief’s son, Little Dog (Hunter), upon them both and threatening any chance of a lasting settlement.

Wagner’s a problem. Though his performance is fine to an extent, he doesn’t possess any of Stewart’s presence and it becomes hard to believe in his forced delivery as the film’s focal point. This weakness undermines the entire production, and it seems a real shame that the charismatic Hunter wasn’t cast as Tanner instead. The latter’s great, alongside Hugh O’Brian’s American Horse showing all the youthful exuberance of a warrior that has been lost by Broken Hand. The chief instead claims some dignity with a measured turn that exhibits all the wisdom of his years, coupled with sadness over the knowledge that the peace treaty is, in reality, a withdrawal from lands his people have occupied for centuries.

There are issues with the somewhat leaden direction by Robert Webb, better known as an Assistant Director (he won an Oscar for In Old Chicago in 1936) and here unable to build up a suitable degree of tension as the climactic fight between Little Dog and Tanner just happens after a sequence of lengthy talking scenes. There’s a degree of padding also, ninety minutes of action stretching to over one hundred as the attempt to show where the film’s budget was sunk results in long shots of ranging cavalrymen and migrating native Americans.

Veteran Western cinematographer Lucien Ballard does good work, using Cinemascope to fine effect with some lovely composition, those rich greens of Durango, Mexico, showing up beautifully as unspoiled virgin countryside before it was taken over by the settlers. I also liked the score by Hugo Friedhofer, which suggests a level of exciting, epic action not always represented by what’s taking place on the screen.

The claim that White Feather is a true story pushes its luck somewhat. Whilst it’s accurate that the Cheyenne were relocated, with the film’s 1877 dating also being correct, the rest of the story is entire fiction. What we get is a sometimes sentimental Oater that tries to be more than the sum of its parts. All the same, the ending, which goes for a low key, dignified conclusion over the typical mass battle, is rather touching.

White Feather: **

Broken Arrow (1950)

When it’s on: Friday, 18 May (2.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

This is the story of a land, of the people who lived on it in the year 1870, and of a man whose name was Cochise. He was an Indian – leader of the Chiricahua Apache tribe. I was involved in the story and what I have to tell happened exactly as you’ll see it – the only change will be that when the Apaches speak, they will speak in our language. What took place is part of the history of Arizona and it began for me here where you see me riding.

Remembered for its trailblazing portrayal of Native Americans as something other than mindless savages, Broken Arrow throws in an intelligent narrative of the Frontier’s troubled relationship with Indians that makes it worth a second watch. This isn’t a forerunner of Dances with Wolves. The people with which our hero interacts aren’t open and essentially fine, neither are the Americans cardboard cut-out nasties. Delmer Daves offers a real sense of two societies living on the edge – the threatened Apache tribe and the settlers trying to scratch out a life in the western-rolling big country. The two sides have been at war for about as long as they’ve known each other. The Apache leader, Cochise, once accepted peace terms but this was betrayed, leading to more bloodshed. Now the town of Tucson struggles to grow as long as the shadow of the Indians looms over it. Nothing gets through – no mail or supplies, without being ambushed en route.

Enter Tom Jeffords (James Stewart), who narrates the story (the above quote is his opening delivery) and is first seen nursing an Apache boy back to health whilst prospecting in contested territory. Through the child and the Indians who come to take him away, Jeffords realises the natives have families, cares and dreams, just like he has. Spotting an opportunity, he brokers a treaty whereby the mail service will be left alone, doing so with Cochise (Jeff Chandler) himself after he enters the Apache camp, along the way falling for a young squaw named Sonseeahary (Debra Paget). Whilst nothing else makes it through the road to and from Tucson unmolested, the US Mail rider is left alone. This success leads General Oliver Howard (Basil Ruysdael), known as the Christian General, to partner Jeffords in forging a more permanent, extensive peace. Steadily, Jeffords works himself deeper into Apache society, and into Sonseeahary’s arms…

Broken Arrow is based on a true story. Jeffords and Cochise both existed in real life, though the film’s inter-racial love is tossed into the mix and the Apache leader didn’t look like a white man. All the same, this is Chandler’s movie. A big, imposing actor, he brings a steady, statesmanlike quality to the role and dominates as one of the few people on either side who sees the potential in keeping peace. Even when members of his tribe (including Geronimo, who undermines the settlement by continuing to harass American wagons) depart because they don’t believe in his cause, most stay and Chandler’s performance contains the sort of charisma that would make it possible.

Stewart’s fine also, in one of his early western vehicles and before his partnership with Anthony Mann made their films together such standout fixtures across the decade. This kind of part is a Stewart staple, of course, but coming with it is a hard edge, which is teased out more during the film’s devastating closing acts and precurses some brilliant, morally muddled roles he took on during the fifties.

But what lingers most is the portrayal of the Indians as a group. It’s made clear early in the film that they aren’t nice guys just waiting for some fork-tongued white men to rip their ground out from beneath them and shove them onto a reservation. They’re harsh, vindictive and, most importantly, level headed. Theirs is a real world view, formed by double dealings with the duplicitous Americans. Whilst the film urges us to connect with the visionary Cochise, there’s a definite sense of melancholy to his character, a feeling that he knows no matter the path he chooses, his way of life is drawing to a close. Given that, who do we feel more empathy for? Cochise? Or Geronimo, as played by Jay Silverheels, who at least chooses to fight for his very right to exist? Either way, the optimistic note delivered at the somewhat abrupt close, whilst sitting well within the film’s scope, says nothing of the Apache defeat that followed.

Broken Arrow: ***