The eponymous cowboy hero of Delmer Daves’s Jubal, played by a typically elusive Glenn Ford, tumbles down from a hill in the opening moments of the film, exhausted and haunted by a stormy, unknown past. Upon meeting Shep (Ernest Borgnine), a benevolent ranch owner, we learn that Jubal served as a sheepherder, but he remains essentially a mystery, a private man who wants little more than food, shelter, and employment, all of which Shep provides him. Of course, this makes him a suspicious man in the cruel west.
His origins, and ultimate triumphs, are reportedly more fully explained in the source material by Paul I. Wellman, but Daves dedicates his attentions to just a portion of Wellman’s story, a bit of trouble Jubal falls into when Shep’s straying wife, Mae (Valerie French), begins lusting for him. Her previous lover is Pinky (Rod Steiger), Shep’s erstwhile second in command, and if Jubal’s past as a sheepherder, an occupation of low regard at the time, piques Pinky’s distrust of his new co-worker, Mae’s open flirtations with him gets Pinky champing at the bit to exploit Jubal’s weaknesses. Daves ingeniously plays the simple but powerful dynamic as a variation on Othello, one told from the perspective of loyal Cassio and stripped completely of its racial elements, and the result is a uniquely lean and forceful western, made epically tough and lonesome in DP Charles Lawton Jr. and Daves’s stunning CinemaScope landscapes.
There’s an invigorating sense of post-McCarthy righteousness in Daves’s tale, as Steiger’s Pinky connives with manipulative whispers and commanding rhetoric to insinuate and preemptively damn Jubal of two separate crimes, one moral and one mortal. After convincing Shep of an affair between Mae and Jubal, leading to an exhilarating shoot-out wherein Jubal kills Shep in self-defense, Pinky incites and leads a posse of locals, all of whom presume that Jubal murdered Shep in cold blood. Indeed, Daves highlights the power of enlightened, persuasive speechifying to elicit the most primal, reckless emotions and inclinations. Just as Ford’s villain in 3:10 to Yuma whittled away at Van Heflin’s resolute hero with infective, confident talk, Steiger’s jealous coward draws out a hunger for quick, bloody violence and retribution in a group of aggressive reactionaries.
As Pinky sides with his mob of xenophobic gun-slingers, Jubal befriends and allows a caravan of wayward Christians to stay on a sliver of Shep’s land until they can move on. The moral clarity of the film and the streamlined narrative belie the tremendous, complex emotional power of the performances and the Wyoming vistas that seem to reach out to the ends of the world. Jubal is a hero, but Ford’s portrayal and Daves’s script, co-written by Them! scribe Russell S. Hughes, never portray his good deeds or his generous nature as uncommon. In the spacious, deeply American environs, Daves makes this compact tale feel boundless and universal. Keeping with the story’s sense of progress, Jubal’s shrouded past matters less than his good-hearted presence, one which alienates him to the proxy family he finds with Shep, but also ultimately secures him a caring, helpful community that respects him. Daves’s striking Jubal is of a hard-won, essentially secular wisdom, one that clearly prefers reason to emotions, words to weapons, action to inaction, and humble goodness to cathartic vengeance.
It’s a shame Criterion hasn’t put more focus on westerns, especially big, colorful ones such as this. All the more reason to prize their hugely impressive A/V transfer of Jubal, which does well by the blue skies and sun-baked earth of Delmer Daves’s Wyoming vistas. Detail and textures are very good, especially in the wardrobe, which also highlights Daves use of color. The reds of Mae’s dresses and the bright blue of Shep’s checkered shirt look brilliant, and there’s little mark of processing in the transfer. As for sound, David Raksin’s score and effects are powerfully felt in the back while the strong dialogue is clearly and crisply out front. Someone get Criterion the complete Anthony Mann catalogue, stat!
Other than Kent Jones’s expectedly thoughtful and revealing essay on the film, there’s sadly nothing here to add context to the film or help explore Daves’s style and stature.
Criterion may not adorn Delmer Daves’s stunning Jubal with much more than a reliably top-shelf transfer, but the salvaging of a lost masterpiece is reward enough.