As much as society and morality tales love to insist that "honesty is the best policy", sometimes being the most honest, upright citizen you can be puts you in harm's way. Delmer Daves's Jubal represents one such story where this holds true, with the titular hero coming under fire for things he never did and being too noble to head off trouble before it got too far. Honesty does win the day, but not without a fair amount of bloodshed and misunderstanding putting people's lives at unnecessary risk. Jubal is a Greek tragedy (or just a straight up adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello) masquerading as a Western, using the best elements of both genres to deliver a riveting tale of consequences characteristic of the former genre set against the latter's sweeping visuals and rough lifestyle. With solid performances by Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine, Rod Steiger, Charles Bronson, and Valerie French, Jubal works as an easy but unconventional introductory Western.
Life on Shep Horgan's (Borgnine) ranch already has its fair share of tension thanks to his discontented wife Mae (French) having to ward off the advances of the stubborn and lecherous ranch hand 'Pinky Pinkum' (Steiger) . Things only get worse, however, when Shep takes in the mysterious and wayward Jubal Troop (Ford), and offers him a job in exchange for food and a place to sleep. Mae immediately takes an interest in Jubal, only to be frustrated by his unwillingness to betray Shep and reciprocate. Further conflict arises from Shep's choice to bypass Pinky and instead choosing the newly arrived Jubal as his foreman, as well as Jubal's soft spot for a group of roaming Christians and Jubal's hiring of another new cowboy, Reb (Bronson), as his second in command. In an act of vengeance, Pinky plants seeds of mistrust in Shep's mind by insinuating that Mae and Jubal are having an affair behind his back. Pinky's lie is compounded by a false confession from Mae and it sets in motion a series of events that lead to tragedy.
The noble and stoic Jubal finds himself at the heart of a tragedy, but as a character he doesn't stray too far from the basic cowboy archetype; he's respectful of women, honest with his fellow man, and simultaneously a figure of the rustic American West and romance. His mysterious past has no real bearing on the story beyond starting the character with a clean slate in the eyes of the viewer; he wants to start over, and since we know nothing of his past, good or bad, we have no option but to oblige. When the events of the film reveal his character to be one of virtue beyond reproach, it's all but impossible not to see him as a true blue hero and take his betrayal by Pinky (which we see coming from miles away) as an egregious wrong. Additionally, it paints Mae as something of a Western take on the Femme Fatale, sucking Jubal into a web of deceit even though he resists her every temptation. The events which conspire to end Jubal's life are completely out of his hands and suggest that no matter how honorable a man is, he's not immune to the wickedness of others.
The story of Jubal might be a bit simplistic in that Jubal could have easily pre-empted these issues by talking to Shep before things got as bad as they did, but it helps to cement the character's sense of honor as an integral part of his tragic fate. He was almost too noble for his own good, but ultimately his moral compass leads him out of danger. It's still an excellent Western by all accounts and its cast elevates it to a memorable film that even those weary of Westerns can enjoy.
The Blu-ray 4K HD transfer is well done, with the picture being quite vivid in terms of color and contrast. All around it's a great presentation.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
Unfortunately, there's nothing to be found on the disc in terms of extras. The only extra is the booklet insert featuring an essay by film critic Kent Jones
"Jubal (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale May 14, 2013 and is not rated. Western. Directed by Delmer Daves. Written by Russel S. Hughes, Delmer Daves. Starring Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Glenn Ford, Valerie French, Rod Steiger.