Director Delmer Daves’ overlooked masterpiece Jubal(1956), starring Glenn Ford, Earnest Borgnine and Rod Steiger, is a loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy Othello transported to the old West
Director Delmer Daves is most famous for his 1957 western 3:10 to Yuma. But for me, his masterwork is the 1956 film Jubal ; which transported the basic themes of Shakespeare’s Othello: Possessiveness, Jealousy, suspicion and betrayal to the American west. The quartet of Othello, Desdemona, Iago and Cassio are re-imagined as Rancher Shep(Earnest Borgnine); his deeply disenchanted wife Mae(Valerie French); his envious Ranch-hand Pinky(Rod Steiger), and simple, stoic cowboy Jubal (Glenn Ford) respectively. But unlike the Shakespearean drama, were the story unfolds from the point of view of Iago and Othello, here, the Cassio surrogate Jubal happens to be the hero of the film. And the film become less about the machinations of Iago or Othello’s suspicions and subsequent suffering, but more about the struggle of a genuinely good man to keep his nobility intact in an hostile world infested by forbidden temptations, misunderstandings and betrayal. This is a pet theme of Director Dave’s and all his films\heroes; whether it’s Victor Mature in Demetrius and Gladiators (1954) or Van Heflin in 3:10 to Yuma, is about a good, Noble soul tempted into corruption by a seductive force- man or woman- and how he somehow manages to escape with his soul intact. The character of Jubal is rendered in all it’s complexity and intensity by Glenn Ford. Ford started out as an intense leading man in film noirs like Gilda in the 1940s and had seasoned into a natural western star by the time he was cast as the title character Jubal Troop. The film is officially an adaptation of the Paul Wellman’s novel Jubal Troop, but Daves and the writer Russell S. Hughes have taken just a small part of the novel for the movie, and by using Othello as a blue print, they have fashioned a taut, suspenseful western that delves deeply into the psyche of the lead characters. Another facet of Daves’ films is it’s great pictorial beauty. Like John Ford, he is a master at photographing the landscapes. And this film too is no exception. The film is magnificently photographed by Charles Lawton Jr in technicolor and cinemascope; the exterior scenes shot in Jackson Hole Wyoming are often breathtaking while, the interiors use the widescreen to superb spatial effect. The compositions of interiors are done pretty much in the film noir style which was very prevalent back then. Daves would take this even further in Yuma, which is a very dark Noir western. There are Noir elements in this film too, but they are not very overt and It remains a vivid western-melodrama.
The story focuses on Jubal Troop, a self-described victim of bad luck, who finds one good turn, only to be undone by another. The film opens with a tired, haggard Jubal collapsing on the range. Jubal is found and given shelter at a nearby ranch owned by Shep Horgan (Borgnine). Shep oversees Jubal’s recovery and offers him a job as part of his ranch team. This is met with objection by Shep’s leading man Pinky (Steiger), but Shep is undeterred and Jubal goes on to prove his worth in the position. Shep and Jubal get on great, but trouble is brewing because Shep’s pretty Canadian wife Mae (French), who is bored with her boorish husband, has taken quite a shine to Jubal. The biggest departure from Shakespeare’s tragedy is in the treatment of the character of Mae; who is not the virtuous Desdemona, but more of a Jezebel creating trouble between the men on the ranch; particularly the troika of Jubal, Pinky and Shep. She is wild, hot-blooded and determined enough to posses Jubal at any cost . But Jubal, steadfast in his loyalty to the man who saved his life, repeatedly turns down her advances. Mae’s affections for Jubal enrages Pinky, because he was having a clandestine affair with Mae behind Shep’s back till Jubal came to the ranch. Now, Mae’s obsession for Jubal has left him out in the cold.
Jubal strikes up a friendship with Reb (Charles Bronson in one his earliest film appearances), a drifter passing through the area. The two talk and Jubal asks him to stay and help him with the ranch work. Things heat up as Shep appoints Jubal as Foreman overlooking his old Ranch-hand Pinky . And as Foreman, Jubal uses his power in allowing a religious group – referred to as rawhiders by the Ranch-hands – to camp out on Shep’s land over Pinky’s objections . Sensing that he is losing his influence on Shep, Pinky slips into full on Iago mode and hatches a conspiracy, to discredit Jubal in Shep’s eyes. This unleashes a series of tragic events, and as in the play, both Shep and Mae end up dead . Jubal is almost lynched by Pinky’s mob, but, in the nick of time, Pinky’s conspiracy is exposed and Jubal is saved. In the end, Jubal rides away a free man and it is hinted that Pinky is going to be hanged by the mob for his crimes.
If Othello’s main vulnerability in the play was that he belongs to a different race – considered ugly and inferior at the time – than Desdemona (and the rest of the characters in the drama), Shep here is portrayed as a big bear of a boor, who has no idea how to treat a woman. He is big-hearted and trusting, but crude and uncouth; who loves Mae to death, but shows his affection for her by being a brute. Mae resents his brutish manners and yearns for the company of the gentle and soft-spoken Jubal. Jubal , though the noble hero ,is very much human and is tempted by Mae’s advances. But then he never follows it through and later, he finds love in the arms of a rawhider girl Naomi, played by Felicia Farr. Both Borgnine and Ford give compelling performances. Ford is neither a classically handsome man nor an actor with a great range, but is perfectly cast here. Ford , as an actor, is an epitome of minimalism; tightly coiled and intense, who talks very little and do very little as far as histrionics go, but has an ability to convey the sense of a guy who has gone through a lot in life with minimum effort. Through his faint smiles ,dignified silences and body language, he manages to convey a lot. He is also great at playing stoic heroes who are uncompromising in their principles; as seen in his best performances like the one in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat. But there, his nobility and righteousness acted more as a destructive force, while here its the opposite. He is also a great foil to the gregarious, over the top Borgnine, who practically eats up every scene he is in, though he is much more controlled here as opposed to his wildly over the top turns in The Dirty Dozen or Poseidon Adventure. Both Borgnine and Ford play off each other very well and their acting styles complements the characters they are playing. But Rod Steiger as Pinky is another matter altogether. he is so loud and screechy; stretching every word to its maximum that sometimes comes across as unintentionally funny, though it suits his performance in the final portions of his film ,where he becomes a rabble-rouser , stirring up the mob with his lies so they would lynch Jubal. Now that’s another aspect of this western that bears discussion. Like a lot of the 1950’s westerns made by Left-leaning filmmakers, Jubal is a typical McCarthy era western critiquing the activities of Senator McCarthy and HUAC. The film could be seen as a broad allegory of what was happening in United States at the time and especially in Hollywood: where the fear of communism was being stirred up to such terrifying levels, that writers and actors were being targeted and blacklisted for being communist sympathizers. Shep represent a benign and innocent side of America, who is extremely welcoming to outsiders like Jubal, while Pinky represents a McCarthy like figure ; using Xenophobia and fear-mongering as a weapon for his own ends. In the end Jubal is found innocent, but by then, both Shep and Mae had become collateral damage, pretty much like how a lot of lives and careers were destroyed during that time in Hollywood.
As already mentioned in relation to Delmer Daves’ film aesthetic, he is a great lover of nature , which is manifested in how well it is represented in the film. Unlike a lot of the westerns, the wild terrain – with its mountains and forests – is shown to be a enchanting and wonderful place. There is no threat from the Native American tribes, storms or avalanches . The threat of wild cats are repeatedly mentioned, but they never become a reality. Because, the real wild cats are within the farm, not in the wilderness. Human beings are the most dangerous animals here; Jubal is the only character who remains human throughout the film, while the other three principals transforms into beasts at one point or the other. The first altercation between Pinky and Jubal takes place after Jubal, who has just being named Foreman by Shep, orders Pinky to round up some cattle and bring them to the safety of the ranch and, to be careful of the wildcats while doing so. An enraged Pinky slyly fires at Jubal,, when his back is turned , telling him that he mistook him for a cat in the woods. Jubal fires back with a similar wry remark, accentuating the animosity between them. The biggest turning point in the film- where Pinky plants the seeds of suspicions in Shep’s mind about an illicit affair between Mae and Jubal- comes about on account of the fear of Wild cats. Shep , Jubal , Pinky and the rest of the hands are camping out in the wilderness at night. Mae comes to visit them and Shep insists that Jubal escort Mae home, as there are wildcats prowling all around. This gives Pinky the opportunity to fill Shep’s ears with his lies. Shep becomes enraged and rides home to confront Mae and Mae, who’s had enough of Shep’s brutish behavior, lie to him that she and Jubal are lovers. Shep, having lost all sense of reason, confronts Jubal; who had, stupidly, not returned to the camp and had gone into town for a drink. Shep challenges Jubal to a gunfight and Jubal is left with no option but to gun him down in self-defense. Later, Pinky brutally beats Mae to death, after she refuses his advances. But she lives just long enough to prove Jubal’s innocence and condemn Pinky to the mob.
Delmer Daves made nine westerns in all, starting with Broken Arrow in 1950 starring James Stewart; which was one of the first westerns that portrayed the native Americans in a sympathetic light. Daves, who started out as a screenwriter with credits like Love Affair and The Petrified Forest, had previously directed film noirs like The Dark Passage(1947) that starred Bogart and Bacall. Jubal, at the time of its making, was his most ambitious film, but later, the film would get overshadowed by the critical and commercial success of 3:10 to Yuma. Jubal launched a successful partnership between Daves and actor Glenn Ford. The film was the first of their three collaborations – all westerns . They teamed up again next year with 3:10 to Yuma and for the last time for Cowboy in 1958.