Director: Delmer Daves
Screenplay: Russell S. Hughes & Delmer Daves (based on the novel Jubal Troop by Paul I. Wellman)
Stars: Glenn Ford (Jubal Troop), Ernest Borgnine (Shep Horgan), Rod Steiger (“Pinky” Pinkum), Valerie French (Mae Horgan), Felicia Farr (Naomi Hoktor), Basil Ruysdael (Shem Hoktor), Noah Beery Jr. (Sam, Horgan Rider), Charles Bronson (Reb Haislipp), John Dierkes (Carson, Horgan Rider), Jack Elam (McCoy, Bar 8 Rider), Robert Burton (Doctor Grant)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1956
Country: U.S.
Jubal Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
JubalAn intense drama whose Shakespearean tensions are embodied in the enormity of the Grand Tetons beneath which it unfolds, Jubal is an almost forgotten psychological western that, despite obvious differences, warrants comparison to the contemporaneous works of Howard Hawks and John Ford in terms of mastery of the genre. The film’s director, Delmer Daves, was a gifted and completely unpretentious craftsman whose strong sense of place was matched by his keen understanding of the complexities of human emotion. We can see this with particularly clarity in Jubal, which involves a tortured love triangle modeled on Othello (although the immediate source material was a section of Paul I. Wellman’s much longer novel Jubal Troop) that derives its tension from the inherent conflict among the different characters’ values.

The film’s title character, an itinerant cattleman played by Glenn Ford (in the first of three collaborations with Daves), appears in the film suddenly and without warning, stumbling and then falling down a steep hill. We don’t know who he is, where he came from, or why he is in such bad condition, and while we eventually learn some things about his background, other aspects remain a mystery. Jubal is discovered by Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine), the boss of a nearby cattle ranch, who takes him in, gives him a job, and eventually promotes him to foreman after recognizing his integrity and natural leadership.

Unfortunately, those qualities are not recognized by “Pinky” Pinkum (Rod Steiger), one of Shep’s longtime cattlemen who feels that he should be the foreman and resents Jubal’s presence (upon first meeting him, he immediately insults Jubal for his willingness to work on a sheep ranch). That tension escalates dramatically when Shep’s wife, a sultry Canadian beauty named Mae (Valerie French) who is clearly miserable having been brought to the wilderness to live with a ranch boss and had previously found release in Pinky’s arms, sets her sights on Jubal. Mae is infuriated when Jubal is drawn to Naomi (Felicia Farr), a young woman in a group of religious “rawhiders” who temporarily set up camp on Shep’s land. Thus, the seeds of tragedy are planted, as Mae pursues Jubal, he refuses out of honor, and Pinky recognizes and exploits the situation to suit his own ends.

Shot in Technicolor in the full CinemaScope aspect ratio (2.55:1), Jubal is nothing if not a gorgeous film. Daves and veteran cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr., who shot Orson Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai (1947), but was particularly renowned for his dexterity shooting outdoors, meld the story’s intensifying drama and suspense with the grandeur of the landscape. At its heart, Jubal is an intimate film, almost a chamber drama, focused intensely on human desire, frailty, and misunderstanding, and it could arguably be set anywhere at any time (hence the easy comparisons to Othello and its timeless themes of jealousy and emotional myopia). Yet, by setting the story within the beautiful, but untamed western landscape, Daves instills the film’s dramatics with a sense of rugged physical grandness, elevating the emotional battle among Jubal, Mae, Pinky, and eventually Shep into a particularly resonant portrait of flawed humanity (at one point in the film, a character says, “You know, sometimes I think it’s givin’ the good Lord the worst of it to say He invented people,” a sentiment the film both reinforces and complicates).

Pinky is the easier character to vilify, especially the way Steiger plays him as a conniving bully and instigator whose drawn out syllables give the impression that he feels disgust toward everyone around him. He is the closest thing the film has to an outright villain, yet he is complicated with shades of pity, as his desperate attempts to discredit and later frame Jubal come across as a pathetic need to assert that which he doesn’t have. Everything he wants to be Jubal embodies, and he can’t stand it. That would seem to make Jubal into a one-note hero, but he is also a conflicted character: honorable and honest, yet saddled with a dark history that makes his ability to connect with others virtually impossible. His ultimately tragic relationship with Shep, which has both parental and fraternal overtones, is possible because Shep is the one person who recognizes Jubal’s best qualities and, as a result, believes in him. The irony is that Shep is otherwise tone deaf when it comes to people, especially his wife, who he loves dearly, but treats like a possession. He is a man who wants to do right, but whose rough edges and emotional simplicity help sow the seeds of his own destruction.

Not surprisingly, the film works largely on the strength of the performances. Glenn Ford plays the stoic protagonist in way that accentuates his nobility without turning him into a granite statue. Jubal has his own blind spots, and they nearly cost him his life. Borgnine, who has just won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in Delbert Mann’s Marty (1955)—a role that, ironically, Steiger had originated on television—conveys Shep’s poignancy and likability without minimizing his flaws and limitations. Steiger has often been criticized for his performance, as his unique cadence and drawn-out diction seems ill-suited to the western genre, but then again, his character is a perennial outsider who feels that he should be in charge, but can’t get any traction. Pinky’s tragedy is that, if he had a better sense of himself, he might have been a good man, but instead he is brought down by own delusions of grandeur and his need to persecute those who threaten his misguided sense of self. Even Valerie French, who would seem to have the thankless job of playing the lying, unfaithful wife (the western’s version of the femme fatale), is able to inflect Mae with shades of gray. Her adulterousness is a symptom of her misery with Shep, a bear of a man she to whom she is fatally ill-matched.

With its moral complexities and memorable characters, Jubal packs plenty of emotional power, but also quite a bit of suspense, as the various narrative strands tighten and tighten, with Jubal caught in the middle. And, even with an ending that feels a little too neat in the way it wraps up all the dilemmas and punishes those who are most clearly in the wrong (this is, after all, a product of the Production Code era), Jubal sticks in your memory with its messiness, the way it refuses to completely demonize anyone and instead conveys with great conviction the intricacies of human emotion and the difficulties of genuine loyalty.

Jubal Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Jubal is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio2.55:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 2.0 stereo
SupplementsEssay by film scholar Kent Jones
DistributorThe Criterion Collection
Release DateMay 14, 2013

Criterion’s presentation of Jubal comes from a new 4K high-definition scan of the original 35mm negative. The image is quite gorgeous, boasting an impressive rendering of the film’s ultra-wide 2.55:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio and intense Technicolor hues, although the colors seem a bit more subdued than I’m typically used to for this era, which was most likely the intent of the filmmakers (brighter, more unnatural colors might have taken away from the drama). Digital restoration has removed all but the smallest artifacts and signs of age and wear, but without compromising the film-like presentation. There is a good presence of grain throughout the film, with some shots seeming decidedly grainier than others (especially during transitions, where optical printing has magnified the grain). Detail remains strong and contrast is good, with only a slight bit of muddiness in the darkest sequences. The soundtrack is presented in a clean, lossless Linear PCM two-channel stereo mix that provides the musical score with a decent amount of heft.
No supplements are included on the disc.

Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3.5)

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