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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.