In 'Jubal,' Delmer Daves turns the western genre theme of civilizing and domesticating the rough and wild frontier inward, into a study of the people occupying this open space of unrefined, unruly terrain. Based on the 1939 novel by Paul Wellman, whose other books have led to popular favorites like 'The Comancheros' and 'Apache,' the script by Daves and Russell S. Hughes condense the larger scope of the novel and expand one section of it into a single, longer event taking place on a large cattle ranch in Wyoming's Teton Range. The plot centers around four people and explores issues of the wild, untamed passions of our being. In a country of rowdy, lawless and uncultivated landscapes, no territory is as tempestuous, chaotic and undisciplined as that of the human heart.
Glenn Ford plays the titular character, a rugged loner wondering through these feral lands but found almost frozen to death in the middle of the road by the jolly, good-natured Shep (Ernest Borgnine). As portrayed by Ford, Jubal is a man of the land, moving through the wilderness with no real sense of purpose or reason, surviving and living day by day working odd jobs. Speaking only when necessary and with a straightforward, honest manner about him, there is an air of mystery hovering around him, not necessarily bad or dodgy but it's enough of a conundrum to stir unease and jealousy within Shep's lead cowhand, Pinky (Rod Steiger). Shep, on the other hand, likes him enough to eventually promote Jubal to ranch foreman, a position which Jubal reluctantly accepts.
Part of his lack of enthusiasm comes from Pinky's unfriendly reception of Jubal and the position going to the newcomer only ends up further antagonizing the big oaf. At the beginning, soon after Shep rescues our protagonist, he foreshadows that he moves around often because he feels bad luck always seems to follow him, adding to his mysterious background and suggesting that his presence could cause of serious rift on the ranch, particularly with the irascible Pinky. It's only later we learn his misfortune comes by way of Shep's stunningly beautiful wife, Mae, played with a cunningly hedonistic pursuit that's difficult to resist by British bombshell Valerie French. As the new blood on the ranch, Mae chases after Jubal with an aggressive lust that rivals Pinky's hot-tempered jealousy, placing Jubal in a very stressful dilemma where his loyalty and just allegiance to Shep is challenged with little hope of resolving the situation well.
Although her advances on Jubal are unforgiving and insistent, Mae is possibly the most intriguing of the whole cast of characters. There is something tragic and pathetic in her behavior, her wanton, adamant pursuit for physical attention is a pitiable attempt to fill a void in herself. As seen in Borgnine's Shep trying to tame the wilderness as a business, Mae, too, brings a sense of civil order and domestication — she teaches Shep proper table etiquette — to these savage lands where mountain lions and the weather are constant threat. Jubal's rugged individuality and self-reliance is an appealing characteristic which Shep admires, an attractive trait of independence Mae lusts for — as oppose to her feeling imprisoned in a marriage — and an attribute that Pinky sees as a threat to the order of things. Ironically, Jubal desires stability and permanence, abstract notions that become a possibility for him when he meets the lovely Naomi (Felicia Farr) and strikes a meaningful friendship with Reb (Charles Bronson).
Like he does in the classic '3:10 to Yuma,' Delmer Daves proves himself a talented and admirable filmmaker, not only in his pensively unique approach to the western genre but also his ability to turn what is otherwise melodrama pulp into a suspenseful and engaging motion picture. With beautiful photography by Charles Lawton Jr, Daves slowly builds upon the narrative, one that is essentially a reworking of William Shakespeare's Othello, with careful attention to how one scene fluidly leads to the next, how one moment can soon escalate out of control. Other than being a wonderful, sadly-overlooked film, 'Jubal' is also a memorable western with the two actors who played Marty: Rod Steiger from the original teleplay and Ernest Borgnine from the film adaptation.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of Delmer Daves's 'Jubal' comes by way of The Criterion Collection (spine #656). The Region A locked, BD25 disc is housed inside the distributor's standard clear keepcase. Also included is a 16-page booklet featuring an enjoyable essay entitled "Awakened to Goodness" by writer and filmmaker Kent Jones. There are no trailers before being greeted by the standard menu screen with static photo.
According to information inside the accompanying booklet, the original 35mm camera negative was restored by Sony, from which a brand new digital master was created at 4K resolution and used for making this attractive 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. The results are, for the most part, splendid with several highly-detailed and rather stunning sequences of Wyoming's gorgeous landscapes. We can plainly see every patch of snow scattered at the peak of the mountain tops, every tree swaying with the wind and every rock littering the riverbanks. Contrast is generally spot-on with clean, brilliant whites, allowing for wonderful visibility in the distance and making every cloud in the sky pop. Black levels are true and deep with excellent shadow delineation in the several poorly-lit scenes.
Presented in its original 2.55:1 aspect ratio, there's a great deal to admire and enjoy from this high-def transfer. However, it also comes with its share of some minor issues and anomalies, all them age-related and largely due to the condition of the source. Most apparent is the color palette showing bright and bold primaries in several areas but suddenly dipping in many others. Flesh tones appear healthy during a majority of the runtime, but can also seem a bit faded with a strong yellow push. Those same areas are poorly resolved and look fairly blurry compared to the rest, which also tend to exaggerate the natural and otherwise consistent grain structure. Overall, the video looks great with an attractive cinematic quality that will have fans loving every minute of it.
Providing a much more satisfying experience is this extraordinary and enthralling uncompressed PCM stereo soundtrack. Information from the booklet explains that the original 35mm magnetic and LCR stereo master was used for creating this terrific lossless mix. The most impressive aspect is the enjoyable musical score of David Raksin, which spreads into the other two channels with excellent fidelity. Creating a broad and welcoming image with splendid warmth and a great sense of presence, the mid-range exhibits superb clarity and detail in each instrument, and maintains it during the few action sequences. A few ambient effects lightly bleed into the other two speakers, appreciably enhancing the soundfield, while low bass provides the score with substantial weight. In the center of the screen, dialogue is crystal-clear and precise, making this an outstanding high-rez track for a little-known but beloved western.
Sadly, this Blu-ray edition is bare-bones release.
A mostly forgotten and criminally overlooked western, Delmer Daves's 'Jubal' is a wonderful and thoroughly enjoyable motion picture that turns the common themes of the genre inwardly and studies the people inhabiting these open, wild lands of the frontier. An intriguing reworking of Shakespeare's Othello and based on Paul Wellman's novel, the plot is an amusing tale of loyalty and betrayal, showing the untamed passions of the heart are sometimes more dangerous than the uncivilized terrain. The Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection arrives with a strong video presentation but more impressive audio. Although supplements are grossly lacking, the overall package is recommended for fans.