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Jubal (1956)

jubal-poster-2

In the decade of the 1950’s the western was at it’s peak in popularity between movies released theatrically and the overwhelming amount of shows being made for television like Gunsmoke and Maverick. While the western was and is mainly looked at as a venue for action themed plots there is a sub genre known as the “adult western.” Stories that dealt with brooding characters and shone less light on the stoic hero. A realism in the violence and brutality, sexual tension and as with this film, “the method.”

Delmer Daves’ Jubal (Criterion disc 656) is my selection for the Criterion blogathon kindly being hosted by a trio of film fans and historians. Kristina of Speakeasy, Ruth from Silver Screenings and Aaron over at Criterion Blues.

“What might we call yah?”

jubal borgnine

Under the guise of his home studio during the contract days, Glenn Ford stars here in the title role of Jubal Troop. A drifter always looking over the next hill until he is rescued from near death by a kindly rancher played by Ernest Borgnine who at this time was fresh off his recent Oscar winning hit Marty. Big hearted Ernie welcomes Glenn to the ranch taking an instant liking to Ford and his ever present honesty.

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Not taking an instant liking to Ford is Ernie’s lead hand Pinky played with a thuggish brutality by “method” specialist Rod Steiger.

Steiger is just downright vicious as Ernie’s self appointed foreman. He bullies those around him and clearly sets his sights on Ford who it turns out had lent his cowboy talents to herding sheep. Rod’s anger is quick to point out that a real cow hand would rather die than herd sheep. When Glenn responds, “Show me one?” he both embarrasses Steiger and endears himself to Ernie and the others in the bunkhouse played by the likes of stalwarts Noah Beery Jr. and John Dierkes.

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Showing up Steiger sets the stage for what is yet to come. When Ernie makes the sure handed Ford his ranch foreman, Steiger isn’t about to take it lying down and sets the plot spiraling towards a sad and tragic turn.

What our kindly ranch owner hasn’t realized is that his trophy wife from the wilds of Canada played by sultry Valerie French has grown to despise the uncouth and far from housebroken Ernie Borgnine. She’s been carrying on behind his back with Steiger’s Pinky. With a new man on the ranch, French has turned her attentions upon Ford turning up the heat on both Glenn and Steiger’s seething hatred of Ford. For a 1950’s western, French increases the quotient of sexuality normally seen on screen.

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French isn’t all bad and when she corners Ford in the stables she speaks of her girlish dreams and what she thought she was leaving the north for.A life of luxury instead of being stuck in 10,000 acres of lonesomeness. Yet she still won’t leave Ford alone and it’s his respect and admiration for the big hearted Borgnine that keeps him from joining her in the hay.

felicia-farr-jubal

Contrasting the woman of the world in French is Felicia Farr as a young girl traveling with a band of peaceful people across the continent and living their lives by the word of God. She brings a tenderness into the movie and Ford’s life. It’s also while coming across this band of wagons that Ford meets and befriends a drifter much like himself who is a peaceable, likable man. Surprisingly it’s played by Charles Bronson who at this time was mainly playing villains in both gangster pics and westerns like the previous Delmer Daves oater Drum Beat.

With Steiger nearing his boiling point he is about to ruin the lives of many sending the peaceful valley into a storm of hatred and violence. He’ll be leading the witch hunt for Ford and Bronson with another snarly western favorite by his side, Jack Elam.

steiger and elam

Not one to play spoiler I won’t go any farther into the plot yet I will point out that this is a film that gets better with each viewing. That’s mainly due to the depth of the performances on screen. They do a wonderful job at drawing us in and stirring our own emotions to both highs and lows.

Glenn Ford is the silent hero. Strong with a solid belief in his convictions. He won’t wrong a friend. Once again Ford is delivering a likable portrait of a western hero. Glenn is one of those actors that I’ve always felt deserves a larger following as he could play most any genre and did.

Jubal-1956

Borgnine plays off his Marty characterization as a well meaning man though not that wise in the ways of the world beyond the borders of his ranch. His is a tragic figure that is set on a course of destruction by Steiger.

While Rod Steiger gives us a character that is so easy to despise it’s a wonderful study in evil. This is a character that should be elevated up the ladder of well known western villains. Daves does a great job at certain points in the film catching the Steiger glare allowing us to see him plot his cruel course of action.

Visually this is a stunning film that was captured on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It’s a calming backdrop to the violence that will erupt before the final fade out. Having said that the violence of this western is far different from most others. There is hardly a shot fired in it’s 100 minute running time despite many actors on screen who made a reputation for themselves at brandishing firearms.

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Director Daves was just embarking on a run of solid westerns beginning with Drum Beat in ’54. Before the decade was finished he’d add another great Glenn Ford flick to his portfolio with 3:10 to Yuma (also with Felicia Farr) as well as the offbeat Cowboy teaming Ford and Jack Lemmon. He’d also helm Gary Cooper’s The Hanging Tree among others.

The irony of Steiger and Borgnine appearing here together is that both we’re acclaimed for the same role of Marty Piletti. Steiger on the original television broadcast and Ernie in the theatrical release. Both actors would re-appear on camera in the future with eventual box office star Bronson. Steiger in Run of Arrow and Love and Bullets. Ernie most notably in The Dirty Dozen.

bronson in jubal

Jubal is a western that for me continually flies under the radar when the great westerns are discussed and lists of the ten great ones are argued over. I’m not one for ranking films because my top ten list inevitably has 100 titles in it. On a list of westerns Jubal would have to fit into that top 100.

Jubal has actors that I have idolized since I was a kid joined by a great cast of “faces” that helped to popularize westerns of the day. Paging Jack Elam and Noah Beery Jr. It’s great script with a flawed hero trying to live by a self appointed code and an actor that delivers a mesmerizing performance as a cold blooded bully. This one’s not to be missed and a great addition to anyone’s shelf of blu rays from the people at Criterion.

21 Comments »

  1. What an amazing cast! You’re right – this film doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves, and a person (i.e. me) ought to see it and blog about it.

    I really liked your analysis of the acting. It’s something I’ll keep in mind when I watch it.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon, Mike!

  2. One of Daves’ finest and one the strongest westerns to come out of a decade of bests. Daves really got deep into the psyche of the western and produced a terrific run of pictures throughout the 50s. I think it’s no coincidence he used Ford so frequently as the actor was gifted with that self-awareness that allowed him to play complex characters with added nuance.

    Daves also made great use of Felicia Farr, her contribution to 3:10 to Yuma leaves us with one of the most touching and evocative moments in cinema. Her role here isn’t quite as effective but it’s not far off – the way she is able to draw out Ford’s character and allows him to confront the pain of his past is an indication of the significance of her part.

    Borgnine does well too, nailing both the expansiveness and the sensitivity of his character. The shattering of his illusions has a powerful effect on him, and on the audience too as a result of the way Borgnine portrayed him.

    The only one I have a bit of a problem with is Steiger. Amid all the subtlety and shading elsewhere, he tends to come across as loud and obvious, not as grating as could sometimes be the case but it’s still there and becomes more noticeable in the latter stages of the film.

    • Well done and thought out. I find in a decade of greats this one gets lost in there as “we” all tend to focus on Ford and Mann and more recently Boetticher. 3:10 to Yuma is great as well and better known though that may be due to the remake for modern film goers.
      You really feel for both Ford and Ernie in this one. The supposed betrayal is crushing and Ernie captures it perfectly. Crushing scene and results.
      As for Rod, I’m a fan of his and though he can go too far at times I love to hate him here and that alone makes him a winner for me this time out. Perhaps it’s the mixture of the method and the western that you don’t find works too well. Other than Brando in One Eyed Jacks I don’t think it was a common union.
      Later in the film he seems to escalate his acting but I always felt that was in character as he knows he’s in a race to hide his guilt and the opportunity comes that he can put everything at Ford’s feet. So he moves the aggression up a notch. Typical bully.

  3. I really like this one too, it’s powerful and deserves to be much better known. Like Colin notes it’s a complex drama and one of those movies I would recommend to anyone who doesn’t think they’d like westerns. Thanks so much for joining us in this blogathon!

    • Colin was very astute on this one. Like you I love most anything with Ford and company but this one is a little extra special with some fine work by all. It’s also far from a typical western. Just a great drama that takes place in the old west.

    • Thanks for the nice compliment. That’s really what my writings are generally about. My love of film and when I talk of one like this I try to get that across so glad to hear it worked this time out.
      And yes it is an unforgettable western with a great cast.

  4. This sounds like a cool one, Mike, and I really love that cast! If I’m able to track it down I’ll give it a look…the themes and attitudes you discuss are what I like to see in Westerns.

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