Jubal: Awakened to Goodness

On Film / Essays — May 13, 2013

Delmer Daves was a westerner. He was born in San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century, educated at Stanford, lived and worked in Southern California, and came to specialize in the western movie genre, for which he was suited by temperament, upbringing, and knowledge. Daves’s grandfather told his grandson many stories about his days as a wagon master and the multiple crossings he led along the Oregon Trail in the interval between the Civil War and the completion of the transcontinental railroads. According to Bertrand Tavernier, Daves’s great critical champion, a sizable percentage of his vast personal library, which included his grandfather’s diaries, was devoted to the history of the West. Between 1950 and 1959, Daves made nine westerns, constituting almost half of his body of work as a director and, as he claimed, a virtual composite of the region’s history.

Daves possessed a unique mixture of talents and attributes. He was one of the most visually gifted directors in all of American cinema (he had training as a graphic artist), and he had a strong documentary bent that gives a special flavor to all of his films, setting his westerns, in particular, apart from those of his peers. To watch those westerns in the order of the time periods they cover is to come away with a rich sense of the evolution of the West, the look of the towns and the houses, the hotels and the bars, the way of living, the loneliness. The most striking element of Daves’s filmmaking, however—and perhaps the principal reason for his current lack of renown—may be his steadfast dedication and moving attunement to the very best in people. In his cinema, there is no pure malignance, only misguided jealousy, ambition, and envy. Resignation, cynicism, and paranoia—among the most common characteristics of postwar American movies—are almost entirely absent. In certain cases, this results in a dramatic quandary: some of his malefactors and villains are not much more than the human equivalents of railroad switches, so little feeling does he have for malice. But there’s a trade-off. Daves is an absolute rarity in cinema, an artist of the good. All of these qualities resonate throughout his films. In 1956’s Jubal, as in all of his finest work, they converge and harmonize into a sustained chord of affirmation.

It was a background in theater, acquired in college, that brought Daves to movies. He directed and acted in many student productions while studying law at Stanford; after graduating, he decided to walk away from the law and pursue what he loved. He took a motor trip to the Hopi Reservation in Arizona, within the greater Navajo Nation, where he would later shoot many of his films. Like John Ford, Daves developed a kinship with different Native Ameri­can communities; also like Ford, he felt at home in the western expanses. “I get the blues whenever I’ve been away too long from these lands, from the desert,” he wrote to Tavernier.

His first job in the movie business, as a prop boy, was on, appropriately enough, The Covered Wagon (1923). That film’s director, James Cruze, took Daves under his wing, gave him his first acting job in the 1929 Joan Crawford comedy The Duke Steps Out, and recommended him as a writer to Sam Wood when Wood was preparing to direct So This Is College (1929). Daves’s fledgling career as an actor ended in the early thirties, but he became increasingly prolific as a writer throughout the decade, particularly after he moved from MGM to Warner Bros. He wrote comedies, musicals, and melodramas, including three films for Frank Borzage, a Harold Lloyd vehicle, and The Petrified Forest (1936). His most famous script was written for Leo McCarey, a director whom he greatly admired. Love Affair (1939), remade not quite two decades later by McCarey as the now even better known An Affair to Remember, prefigures Daves’s becoming, in Tavernier’s words, “one of American cinema’s most romantic directors.”

Along with John Huston, Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder, Daves was one of the first studio writers to break into direct­ing. Unlike his peers, however, he was allegedly dragged into it. “I started out wanting to be a director,” he told writer Christopher Wicking in a 1969 interview, “but I became delighted with the peace and quiet of writing.” It was studio boss Jack Warner who supposedly convinced Daves to make his directorial debut, on the 1943 Destination Tokyo. Warner was worried that no other director would be able to under­stand the technical information embedded throughout this story of a submarine crew in the Pacific; according to his son, Michael, Daves had conducted extensive research in prep­a­ration for writing the script, including four weeks at sea on an active-duty submarine. The film is every inch a vintage wartime Warner Bros. movie (with a healthy dose of anti-Japanese rhetoric), but it also has many of the hall­marks that would come to characterize Daves’s cinema: a terrific visual plasticity, a thorough grounding in historical detail, and that powerful inclination to celebrate the good in people.

Two of the most beautiful American films of the forties, Pride of the Marines (1945) and Dark Passage (1947), were directed by Daves—the first a shattering story of a war hero blinded in battle, the second an adaptation of a David Goodis novel, starring Bogart and Bacall, that makes excit­ing use of both the filmmaker’s hometown and a purely subjective camera technique. His first western and second color film, Broken Arrow, reintroduced to postwar audiences Jimmy Stewart as a western hero, concurrently with Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73—both films were released in the summer of 1950. Apart from its extraordinary visual beauty, Broken Arrow is notable for another reason: it may not be the first Hollywood film that is unambiguously pro–Native American (the 1934 Alan Crosland melodrama Massacre and Ford’s 1948 Fort Apache are antecedents), but it is the first film of which the injustices and broken promises of the American government and mili­tary are the actual subject; and, despite the presence of white actors in native roles, it was the first one to be so steeped in Apache lore, and so respectful of native history and customs.

Daves’s Return of the Texan (1952) is another rarity, a modern western set in what would soon become Larry McMurtry territory, with a deeply affecting performance by Walter Brennan. The 1954 Drum Beat, starring Alan Ladd, was of value for Daves solely for the opportunity it gave him to provide a near-documentary account of the Modoc Indian War of the 1870s. Jubal, which followed, was an altogether more ambitious undertaking, dramatically and visually. As Daves wrote in one of his production memos, the film is neither a true western nor an action picture. Perhaps it is best thought of as a story of redemption, enacted by common westerners of the mid-nineteenth century.

The 1939 Jubal Troop, one of several Paul I. Wellman novels adapted for the screen, is a sprawling tale whose epony­mous hero makes and loses fortunes in a series of colorful adventures that take place over many years and in multiple settings. When Daves was brought on to the project, his first of three at Columbia, both he and Jerry Wald, the studio’s vice president in charge of production, were dissatis­fied with the script by Russell S. Hughes (who had also written Mann’s The Last Frontier), and Daves himself went to work on an overhaul. Wald raised Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955) as a reference point during story conferences, and just like Kazan’s Steinbeck adaptation, the final shooting script was based on one small section of a vast literary saga; Daves more or less created a new narrative about a young man searching for “emotional security,” as he put it in his script notes, “trying to survive in a world of uncertainties and hostilities.” His Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford) is not the alternately “monstrous and infantile” hero of a western bildungs­roman, as suggested in a contemporary critique of Wellman’s novel in Saturday Review, but a lost soul looking for spiritual solace who finds a friend in a benevolent rancher (Ernest Borgnine), only to incur the wrath of an insecure and irascible employee of the rancher’s (Rod Steiger) and the lust of his young French-Canadian wife (English actor Valerie French).

In the film’s opening shots, Jubal is seen walking in a daze, before he literally tumbles down a mountainside and into the story. The tone is not keyed to the hero’s disorientation, as is the case with East of Eden. You could say that when Jubal lands, he is delivered into the world at its greatest pitch of transcendent wonder. When Borgnine’s Shep finds Jubal passed out in the middle of a high mountain road, Daves cuts to a series of magnificent wide shots: Shep picks up Jubal and places him on his rig with the sprawl of the Grand Tetons casting a long shadow over the forested mountainside behind them; they ride through a blue dusk down a ranch road that opens onto a ravishing distance. Daves reckoned Jubal to be the most visually beautiful of his westerns because of its location, to which he would return a few years later for Spencer’s Mountain (1963). Yet there is not one scene in this film, inside or outside, in which that location is reduced to a mere backdrop, as often happens in westerns. There is a hushed, at times quietly enraptured quality to this western melodrama that seems directly linked to the humbling majesty of the mountains and skies.

In his letter to Tavernier, Daves refers to the “simplicity” of western characters—and, presumably, real westerners—who “face their problems with a certain soberness, which also allows them to endure storms, blizzards, and stampedes.” This simplicity is fully embodied by Glenn Ford as Jubal. This was the first of three films that Ford and Daves made together in fairly quick succession, and it was as close as Daves came to the kind of creative partnership that John Ford and Howard Hawks enjoyed with John Wayne, that Budd Boetticher had with Randolph Scott, that Mann had with Stewart. Both actor and director looked back on these films fondly, the 1957 3:10 to Yuma most of all, and with good reason. With all due respect to Fritz Lang and his two films with Glenn Ford, this extremely unusual actor was never more in his element than he was with Daves. In Ford, as he would in Gary Cooper in The Hanging Tree (1959), Daves found an actor whose manner of being was closely aligned with his own affinities. James Dean in East of Eden, Stewart in The Naked Spur (1953), Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954), Wayne in The Searchers (1956), and the Ford of The Big Heat (1953) are protagonists whose most destructive impulses threaten to overwhelm the best in them. Ford and Cooper in Jubal and The Hanging Tree are men who have awakened to the revelation of goodness, and whose existences are disturbed and complicated by the desires of other, more impa­tient souls. Thus, there are no equivalents in either film to Dean’s tortured body language in East of Eden, or to the furiously single-minded forward motion of Ford’s Dave Bannion in The Big Heat. Rather, there is the quiet intensity of inner turmoil and spiritual weariness, a matter of hunched shoulders, faint smiles, and a very dignified reticence.

The transcendent vastness of nature, the quietly stoic western simplicity described by Daves and exemplified by Ford, and by Noah Beery Jr. as Shep’s cowhand Sam, and Basil Ruysdael as Shem, the elder of a band of religious outcasts (Mormons in all but name)—these elements make for a striking contrast with the wildly melodramatic turns in the plot and the performances of the actors who must make them happen. The emotional intensity of French as Shep’s faithless wife, Mae, and Steiger as the ranch hand Pinky stands in sharp relief against the placidity of the cowmen who play their Sears, Roebuck violins to relax and slick themselves up to go to town on Saturday nights; the wonderfully jovial Shep, playing his piano rolls in his gewgaw-stuffed house; and the friendly religious sojourners. The opposition is so stark and Daves so “ill at ease,” in Tavernier’s words, with characters like Mae or the malevolent Pinky (very close to Steiger’s Jud Fry in the previous year’s Oklahoma! and patterned by Daves after Shakespeare’s Iago) that they all but reveal themselves as catalytic agents brought into existence solely to move the story forward. Steiger, possibly the purest product of Lee Strasberg’s celebrated Method, is as behaviorally off-key in Jubal as he is on key in Kazan’s On the Waterfront; perhaps he was also uncomfortable acting with Borgnine, who had just won an Oscar for Marty, a role that Steiger had originated on television. “Rod Steiger seemed out of place in the western context,” wrote Daves with diplo­matic under­statement (Aldo Ray seems to have been everyone’s first choice for the role). It’s odd to watch the actor stretch every syllable as far as it can go (“nothing” becomes “nuh-thiiiiiihn”) and work himself into a new frenzy for each shot (Ford remembered going to look for Steiger and finding him behind a wagon, forcing himself to vomit as emotional preparation), only to see his furies evened out by the surrounding landscape and the air of wondrous tranquillity.

Such discordant elements fade from the memory of this film that is, as many of Kazan’s were, so touchingly at odds with itself—a spiritual drama whose overtures toward shedding its melodramatic skin come in the form of little grace notes and raptures of behavior, light, and nature: Felicia Farr’s Naomi receiving her first kiss from Jubal behind a pine tree by a lake (“Jubal, I’ve not been kissed”), one of the many sudden, bright flashes of eroticism that recur throughout Daves’s films; the fellow feeling between Shep and his men on the ranch and by the campfire; a lovely shot of converging riders against greenery in the middle ground and the blue silhouette of the moun­tains in the distance; Charles Bronson’s Reb riding into a birch grove, the leaves glittering in the wind and sunlight. These moments come quickly, unassumingly, and accumulate along the way into a winningly imperfect and deeply touching drama of redemption whose hero is unknowingly protected by the watchful benevolence of the natural world.