Jubal (film)

What happens to Othello if Desdemona is actually trying to get into bed with Cassio? This is at the heart of Russell S. Hughes and director Delmer Daves’s screenplay for Jubal, a (very) loose appropriation of elements of Shakespeare’s play, mapped onto a classic Western structure. But by centering the story on the Cassio figure rather than on Othello or Iago, Daves creates a telling that foregrounds competitive masculinity and sexual intrigue, while erasing race.

Jubal Troop, the Cassio figure, stumbles onto the large ranch of Shep Horgan. Shep takes a liking to the mysterious itinerant, and not only hires him but quickly promotes him to foreman, to the anger of malcontent worker Pinky. Pinky’s brooding unhappiness is partly connected to his one-time fling with Shep’s Canadian wife, Mae, who hates her boorish husband but hates the lecherous Pinky even more. However, Mae is immediately taken with the new arrival, and soon Jubal finds himself fighting off Mae’s advances as well as countering Pinky’s attempts to undermine him, all while building a friendship with Shep.

The shifts in the dynamic between the Othello, Cassio, Iago and Desdemona figures have a striking impact on the developing relationships. While seeing Jubal as an adaptation of Othello is to see it through a very reductive lens, its most instructive consequence is the emphasis it places on homosocial bonds. Shep is a wonderful manager of men, able to instil loyalty and keep up an atmosphere of bonhomie. But he’s crass and tiresome with Mae, treating her purely as a sexualised object, and failing to listen to or understand her. Jubal is more sensitive to Mae’s situation, and although he makes absolutely clear that he will not reciprocate her affections, he’s also protective of her, and tries to educate Shep in how he can try to pay her more attention. This reworking of Cassio’s involvement in Desdemona and Othello’s courtship here becomes a patch-up attempt that only serves to keep Jubal in Mae’s sights.

Jubal is presented as a fundamentally and absolutely moral man, in line with a film that works with quite simplistic character types. As foreman, he prevents Pinky and his mates from running off a religious group who have camped on Shep’s land while some of their people recover from sickness, building an alliance that leads him into a tentative romance with a blonde ‘good girl’ (contrasted with the dark-haired Mae, in a very simplistic and charged binary) and an exchange of goodwill that helps save him later. He works to keep up his friendship with Shep, keep Pinky in line, and to politely rebuff Mae. But this is a film about perseverance under pressure. It only takes a few blunt words from Pinky to Shep (‘Jube . . . and May . . . together!) to send Shep on a homicidal mission that will lead to either Jubal or Pinky’s death, and Mae contributes by backing up Pinky’s lie, hoping that Jubal will kill her husband – which he does.

The abruptness of Jubal’s killing of Shep – in self-defence, following Shep taking several shots at him – forces the big diversion from the plot of Othello, the final act of the film devoted to Pinky rounding up a posse to hunt down the injured Jubal, while Jubal takes shelter with the Christians. But the other aspect of the abruptness is the brutal violence against women. The film portrays misogynist violence against Mae in such a way that it feels complicit in that violence; while both Shep and Pinky are condemned for their manhandling of Mae – Pinky beats her so badly after Shep’s death that she dies from her wounds – the simplicity of the moralising also paints her fate as a judgement on her for her willingness to cheat on Shep. The contrast between Mae and the pure Naomi further suggests a schema which sanctifies or kills women. For all that the Western genre often lends itself to displays of patriarchal violence, this film more than most feels like it forces its women into a moral schema that denies them agency.

This isn’t to say the film doesn’t have complicated sympathies. Valerie French does excellent work portraying Mae’s unhappiness and the pressures of a marriage that gives her few options, while Shep’s flaw of an all-consuming jealous temper feels like a tragic waste after his championing of Jubal only moments before. The overtness of Pinky’s malice, further, interestingly makes everyone more culpable for their own actions; everyone can see his hatred of Jubal, and yet still allows themselves to be manipulated by their own desires and fears. It may be a simplified version of Othello, and one which entirely side-steps the question of otherness (apart from in Mae’s own foreignness), but it’s a fascinating ‘what if?’ that offers a brutally efficient distillation of events.

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