Thursday, September 29, 2022

Jubal (1956)

Jubal is a 1956 western directed by Delmer Daves who also co-wrote the screenplay with Russell S. Hughes.

The classic way to start a western is to have a mysterious stranger ride into town. That’s more or less the way Jubal starts except that it’s an isolated cattle ranch rather than a town and the mysterious stranger, Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford), arrives on foot having lost his horse.

The ranch belongs to Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine). When he discovers that Jubal is a cattleman he takes him on as a ranch hand. For some reason this really displeases one of the other hands, a guy named Pinkum although everybody calls him Pinky (played by Rod Steiger). We will soon discover why Pinky immediately sees Jubal as a threat.

Shep Horgan is a bit of a rough diamond but he’s a decent guy and he takes a liking to Jubal. Jubal is a good cattleman and Shep has decided he’s a man who can be trusted. Jubal also takes a liking to Shep. In a way Shep becomes a kind of father figure and we will later find out why Jubal is looking for a father figure.

Pretty soon Shep makes Jubal the ranch foreman, which upsets Pinky even more.

Shep has a pretty young wife, Mae (Valerie French). It’s a lonely life for a woman. There doesn’t appear to be another woman in the entire district or in the neighbouring one-horse town (which is not even a town since the saloon seems to be the only building in the town). Some women may be cut out for the pioneer life in the wilderness but Mae is not one of those women. She’s obviously not very happy in her marriage. That’s what starts the trouble.

The entire plot revolves around Shep Horgan’s marriage and Mae’s dissatisfaction with that marriage.

It doesn’t take long before Mae starts to put the moves on Jubal. Jubal is determined not to get involved with her, partly because he has his own reasons for wanting to avoid any trouble and partly because of his loyalty to Shep. It is however obvious that he’s not entirely indifferent to Mae’s feminine charms.

It slowly becomes clear that there had at one time been something between Mae and Pinky. Now she despises him but Pinky is determined to have her. Pinky sees Jubal as a dangerous rival who must be disposed of somehow and Pinky seems to have some plan in mind for gaining possession of Shep’s wife and Shep’s ranch as well.

There’s a slight complication in the form of Naomi, a girl from a travelling religious sectarian group to whom Jubal is clearly attracted (and the attraction is mutual).

There’s obviously a bit of Iago in Pinky. Pinky clearly resents the fact that Shep has a ranch (and it’s apparently a pretty prosperous ranch) and a young and pretty wife. The parallels with Othello are fairly clear.

Jubal will find himself in a very sticky situation indeed. One of the things I really like about the script is that Jubal lands himself in so much trouble that it’s hard to imagine how on earth the writers are going to get him out of it. He seems to be comprehensively trapped. I found myself desperately hoping that the writers wouldn’t mess things up at the end. In fact I think the ending works fine.

While Jubal is ostensibly the hero the four main characters - Jubal, Shep, Mae and Pinky - are all equally important and all four characters are reasonably well developed. We get enough of a backstory for Jubal and Mae to understand why they act the way they do and the motivations of Shep and Pinky make sense as well.

Jubal clearly intends to be a grown-up western with a willingness to confront grown-up subjects such as female sexuality. It’s female sexuality, in this case Mae’s sexuality, that really drives the plot.

Jubal was made during the Production Code era when grown-up treatment of sex was just about impossible. As far as the Production Code was concerned any woman who had sexual feelings was automatically a wicked woman who would have to be subjected to savage punishment. The Production Code also allowed no flexibility at all when it came to storytelling. The plot had to end with virtue triumphant and the wicked punished.

It’s obvious that this movie could have been a great deal more interesting had it not been constrained by the straitjacket of the Production Code. Having said that, within those constraints it manages to be reasonably successful.

And the characters have real complexity. Shep is a good man and he’s fundamentally kind. He just has no idea about women. He loves Mae and he tries to treat her well. The ranch house, by the standards of ranch houses in the middle of the wilderness, is quite comfortable and cosy. He buys Mae pretty dresses. He really does want to make her happy. Unfortunately he thinks that patting Mae on the bottom in public is a normal way to express husbandly affection, Mae of course finds it humiliating. And Shep just cannot see that Mae feels no sexual attraction towards him (and the movie is pretty open about that). Shep just doesn’t suspect that Mae might try to satisfy her sexual urges elsewhere.

While the movie obviously cannot condone Mae’s actions it does at least make them very comprehensible. Her marriage to Shep was a mistake. She’s a woman with strong sexual feelings and we can see why she finds Jubal irresistible - he’s kind and gentle but at the same time very masculine. We can also see why she made the mistake of having an affair with Pinky (and it’s made quite clear that they did sleep together). Pinky is a pig but he would certainly be more sexually attractive to a woman than Shep would be. We can see why she fell for his sexy bad boy persona. The movie doesn’t demonise Mae quite as much as you’d expect.

Valerie French does the femme fatale thing quite well. Glenn Ford was always a solid reliable actor. Ernest Borgnine is perfectly cast and manages to convey to us the fact that Shep is a good-natured oaf where women are concerned, but Borgnine does it without making Shep seem pathetic. Rod Steiger as usual displays all the weaknesses of Method acting - he’s too hammy and much too stagey in his performance.

Charles Bronson does well in a supporting rĂ´le as as Reb, another mysterious stranger who finds work at Shep’s ranch. Felicia Farr manages to make Naomi not too insipid.

I’d seen a couple of the movies of Delmer Daves but hadn’t really thought much about him until the subject came up on the Riding the High Country blog. Jubal has also been reviewed at that blog.

Jubal succeeds pretty well as a western sex melodrama. There’s hardly any action at all but there’s excellent suspense and lots of sexual tension. Highly recommended.

Jubal has been released on DVD by Umbrella Entertainment in Australia in their excellent Six Shooter Classics series. It cost me just five bucks and the DVD offers a truly lovely 16:9 enhanced transfer. There’s also a hideously expensive US Blu-Ray release.


  1. I'm pleased to see you got to this movie. I'm extraordinarily fond of it and my regard for Daves as a director has grown steadily over the years, the passage of time managing to wipe away some reservations I once felt about his endings - there is a strong and clear redemptive theme that runs right through his work and a simple faith in the essential value and goodness of the human spirit. I find this appeals to me more and more.

    1. I was quite happy with the ending of JUBAL. I admire Daves for not going for a totally conventional "big shoot-out" ending.

      I'm certainly open to the idea of seeing more of his movies.

  2. Dee, I felt that you would like JUBAL(filmed 1955, released 1956). This movie is one of my favorites of all time. As a viewer, an individual can glean a lot from this age old story of the human condition.

    References and comparisons can be made, taken from Shakespeare's OTHELLO, but there is an older story taken from the Bible that doesn't seem to ever get mentioned in reference to JUBAL, and it can be found in the book of GENESIS Chapter 39, which is the story of Joseph and Potiphar along with Potiphar's wife Zuleikha, who attempts to seduce Joseph. Also, this story became a very common subject in Western art during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

    Jubal is a Biblical name of Hebrew origin, which means "stream." In the movie Jubal Troop(Glenn Ford) tells his early life story to Naomi(Felicia Farr) about being born on a barge on a stream of water, which was the Ohio River. Did the writers know this? Who knows, but its interesting to think about. I read Paul I. Wellman's JUBAL TROOP(1939) years ago and I can't recall if that particular story is in the big sprawling epic of a book, or not.

    I would recommend viewing any movie that Delmer Daves made, especially his movies with Glenn Ford and THE HANGING TREE(filmed 1958, released 1959) with Gary Cooper and Maria Schell.

    You've asked about Pre-Code Westerns. Here are some titles, if you can find them: IN OLD ARIZONA(1928) with Edmund Lowe and Warner Baxter. The first all talkie Western and they do almost non-stop talking. WOLF SONG(filmed 1928, released 1929) with Gary Cooper and Lupe Velez. The original 80 minute version with a sound musical track and with some talkie sequences is supposed to be lost. Although there is a 65 minute version online with no sound. A partial sound track can be found on YouTube. this movie was daring for the time. THE TEXAN(1930) with Gary Cooper and Fay Wray, which wasn't shown on tv until 2020 on the Starz Encore Western Channel. THE SPOILERS(1930) with Gary Cooper and Kay Johnson. I don't think this one can be found, except maybe for the 1936 re-release version. FIGHTING CARAVANS(filmed 1930, released 1931) with Gary Cooper and Lili Damita. CIMARRON(filmed 1930, released 1931) with Richard Dix and Irene Dunne.

    Randolph Scott starred in 10 Zane Grey Westerns from 1932-35 made by Paramount Pictures. TO THE LAST MAN(1933) was restored in 2014, so there is a good print out there. Esther Ralston, Jack Le Rue, Buster Crabbe, and Shirly Temple co-star with Randolph Scott. This movie is rather daring for the time.

    1. the above Anonymous is me Walter S.

    2. Walter, thanks for those recommendations. I definitely would like to see more Delmer Daves/Glenn Ford westerns. I'm tempted by 3.10 TO YUMA which I've never seen. Expensive, but it's the widescreen DVD from Criterion.

      And I'm very much tempted by TO THE LAST MAN.

      I can't afford to buy both, but of course I probably will anyway!

    3. You should definitely prioritize 3:10 to Yuma, it is a wonderful film with so much going on and savor.
      I'll happily second Walter's recommendation of The Hanging Tree. I think it is a remarkable work and still sadly underrated.

    4. Colin, I definitely want to buy 3:10 to Yuma but getting hold of a copy is proving to be a bit of a challenge. The Criterion DVD seems to be unavailable and the Criterion Blu-Ray is mind-bogglingly expensive (several hundred dollars). There's a barebones Sony DVD release that is cheap and is hopefully in the correct aspect ratio.

  3. That Sony DVD is in the correct ratio and looks pretty good too. I had it for years myself but bought the Criterion Blu when it became available as i was a favorite film of mine. The BD looks very nice and has some attractive supplements but there's nothing wrong with the old DVD.

    1. I managed to find a copy of the Criterion DVD that wasn't too expensive. $40, which is better than $229 for the Blu-Ray.