Friday, September 4, 2015

Classic Movie Review: Jubal

Jubal (1956)
Directed by: Delmer Daves.
Written by: Russell S. Hughes & Delmer Daves based on the novel by Paul Wellman.
Starring: 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).

Not long ago I reviewed the 1954 Western Broken Lance as part of this series, and said it owed a great deal to Shakespeare’s King Lear. Now, I come to Delmer Daves’ 1956 film Jubal – which owes a lot to Shakespeare’s Othello. Themes of sexual jealousy are nothing new, but it certainly was for the Western genre back in the 1950s. This is usually the genre of good guys, and bad guys, savage Indians, and the men who won the West. Jubal is more intimate Western than that – basically a four character drama, with some background characters thrown in for good measure. It is a fascinating Western, if not quite a great one. My biggest wish is that they put the Othello character at the center of the movie, and made him more complex. Instead, the title character of Jubal isn’t the Othello character at all – he’s Cassio.

Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford) is crossing the mountain, and nearly freezes to death when he is discovered by Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine) – a local cattle baron. He takes Jubal in, feeds him, clothes him and offers him a chance at a job. When Jubal proves himself better than anyone else Shep has, he even makes Jubal the foreman. This doesn’t sit well with Pinky (Rod Steiger), who is used to being top dog. What sits even worse with Pinky is that the bosses’ wife Mae (Valerie French) is making eyes at Jubal – eyes she used to make at him. The good hearted, naïve Shep doesn’t know what type of woman he is married to – but Pinky is there to start planting the seed of doubt in his mind about his wife and Jubal – even though Jubal has rejected all of her advances, and when they were offered to him, Pinky did not.

The performances are the real reason to see the movie – they help to add complexity to roles that could have been rather one note. I’ve always found Glenn Ford to be a rather underrated actor – perhaps because he is always so understated in his performances. As Jubal, he plays a simple man, who wants to be left alone and go about his job. He likes Shep – and feels loyal to him, too loyal to simply get up and leave which is probably the smartest thing he could have done. Ernest Borgnine is the most sympathetic character – a big, naïve, lovable lunkhead, who cannot see what is plain to everyone else around him. I do wish he was given slightly more complexity – and that he didn’t go from trusting to murderously angry quite so quickly – but this is the type of role Borgnine was born to play, and he does so well. Rod Steiger makes a good Iago – his is easily the best performance in the movie (it is, after all the best role), as he spews his poison at anyone who will listen. The movie even finds some sympathy for Valerie French and her performance as Mae – who unlike Desdamona – really has betrayed her husband, and wants to continue to betray him. But she was a small town Canadian girl, who didn’t quite know what she was getting herself into – no matter what you think of her, she deserves a better fate than she gets here. A strange subplot involving religious group really isn’t necessary – although it does give Charles Bronson a fine, early role.

Personally, I would have like to see a little more complexity in the movie. The late, great Roger Ebert referred to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull as a modern version of Othello – and he has right. That film addressed the same issues of jealously, violence, sexuality and rage as Shakespeare’s play, and although the language is course and vulgar, it has a poetry to it. In Jubal, everything is a little too straight forward. Not wanting, I guess, to have a conflicted character at its core, it makes the Othello character a supporting player – and puts the undeniably virtuous Jubal at its core.

This isn’t to say that Jubal is a bad movie – far from it. Issues like the sexuality on display in Jubal weren’t really addressed that often in 1950s movie – certainly not in a genre like the Western. It’s also somewhat unfair to expect the film to be as good as Shakespeare’s play – or as good as Scorsese’s movie for that matter.

Jubal has largely been forgotten, so it’s good that the Criertion Collection recently brought out a DVD edition of the film. While it’s not as complex as I would like, it’s certainly more complex than most Westerns of its time.

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