Jubal, 1956, Delmer Daves
Western films are templates to tell a wide variety of stories, whether melodrama, action, or even an acid western like The Shooting. Many of them were adaptations of previously written material, some of which thinly veiled, and some not (like The Magnificent Seven adapted from Seven Samurai.)
Jubal is a more straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, a play that has been adapted several times in film. The Moor of Venice may not seem like a fit for the Western frontier, but the basic love triangle and betrayal fits perfectly. The film strays from the play, mostly to adhere to the Western formula, but the core characters of Othello (Ernest Borgnine’s Shep), Iago (Rod Steiger’s Pinky), Desdemona (Valerie French’s Mae) and finally, Cassio (Glenn Ford’s Jubal) are the same. Just like Iago and Cassio, Pinky is envious of Jubal’s unqualified rise to being promoted to foreman, and he plans a scheme to accuse Jubal of having an affair with Mae, thereby turning Shep against him. The rest is no surprise to people familiar with the play. The broad strokes are mostly the same until the final act.
Jubal was shot in the shadow of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It may not be as distinctive or common as Ford’s Monument Valley, and that adds to its charm of a location. The Upper Midwest is seldom used in Hollywood films, probably due to the distance from Hollywood. The Southwest frontier, whether in California or Arizona, has been used so many times that it is nearly a cliché of Western films. The towering monoliths of Jackson Hole provide for a welcome backdrop. They are aesthetically gorgeous and give the film a unique flavor. It may not be Venice from the original Othello, but it is comparatively exotic for a Western film. Some of the best shots are when they are on location, even if they are brief transitions from scene to scene.
The acting is the true spark, particularly Borgnine and Steiger, whose contrasting acting styles play off of each other well. Steiger was one of the definitive method actors, and this worked with his fiery, volatile way of reciting -– no, barking — his lines. Borgnine was not a method actor, and instead tried to reach into the emotion of his character. He had just done so successfully the year prior, bringing home his only Oscar for Marty, playing a similar character as Shep. Steiger was only a couple years removed from his notable portrayal of Charlie Malloy, opposite Brando’s Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront.
Like Marty, Shep is a gregarious and pleasant guy, but self-conscious and not as self-assured. He has a big laugh and is pleasant company for the guys, if not for the woman (Mae). He has a sense of morality, looking for people he can trust, which he finds in Jubal and appropriately rewards him. He sees through Pinky’s pomposity and finds he would be a good worker, but a poor leader. This decision, however logical, sets off the dispute that will lead to strife later. He just wants to live comfortably on his land, working productively and having a good time. While these are all admirable character traits, they also result in some naivety. He has a rosier picture of life than reality and is blind as to what happens under his nose.
Mae is a philanderer. Her character represents the loneliness of the push west. She married Shep because she knew he had a vast tract of land, only to find that the land is mostly empty. She is bored, not only of her life, but also of her husband. To be fair, Shep’s naivety extends to his own home. He misses the signs of his wife’s world-weariness and has some habits that annoy her. She chooses to live by carousing behind Shep’s back. We can tell early on that Pinky used to be her paramour. She shuns him for the new arrival of Jubal.
Compared to the rest of the cast, Glenn Ford is more of the straight man. This could be said for a lot of his roles. He was a good actor, but did not chew scenery like Steiger or delve deep into his character’s inner self like Borgnine. Instead he plays his character stoically. He is stuck in the middle and has the most integrity and the best of intentions. He resists Mae as much as he can, and while he eventually wears down, he does not take the relationship beyond the breaking point. He respects Shep and does not want to double cross him however tempting Mae’s pursuits. He flirts with her early on, showing her a brand and joking that she “better stay away from this or you might get burned,” a line that foreshadows future events.
The tension between Pinky and Jubal is palpable and played to great affect. Steiger’s outbursts, however inarticulate at times, speaks to the pernicious nature of his character. He continually pushes his rival, provoking him with dialog or more aggressively by firing a gun near him, pretending to aim for a nearby wild cat. There is an energy when Steiger is on screen, whether he is whittling away at Jubal, or manipulating the situation to come out on top. As he notices Mae and Jubal ride off during a poker game, he asks, “think your luck has changed, Shep?” He curiously looks at the pair take off, his mind at work, and for a change speaks softly with, “we’ll see.” Steiger is a terrific Iago, wearing both the emotion, the capriciousness, and the deviousness on his shirt sleeve.
I have not mentioned the religious group that takes refuge in Shep’s land. Pinky wants them to be on their way, but Jubal overrides him. In an act of kindness, he agrees to let them stay, to rest and regain some health before pushing further west. This group is used to develop Jubal as a benevolent character. He finds a love interest in a young girl, the daughter of one of the elders, who is promised to marry another member of their worshippers.
These scenes are useful for developing Glenn Ford’s inner conflict as a leading man, but because Ford does not have the same acting chops as Steiger or Borgnine, this is the least interesting part of the movie. Anytime the film veers away from the brewing conflict, it becomes tedious. The third act diverges from the play and relies more on Ford and the religious group to bring the story home. That makes it end with a whimper rather than a bang. If they had stuck to the play, even without the traditional Hollywood ending, the movie could have been much better.
Film Rating: 6.5/10
This is the first of several discs I’ve reviewed that has no supplements. For these I’m deducting 2 points from the film rating to get my Criterion rating.
Criterion Rating: 4.5