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In 1940 United Artists released William Wyler's glossy and romanticized The Westerner, starring one of the quintessential Western screen idols, Gary Cooper, in addition to Walter Brennan as the true life Texas character Judge Roy Bean. Brennan won an Academy Award® for his showcase role. Thirty years later maverick screenwriter John Milius developed a script based on the same character. The time was ripe for an iconoclastic take on Old West justice; Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970) was a similarly sprawling epic of revisionist Western history and satire, released two years earlier to rave critical notices and success at the box-office. Milius, who was coming off great acclaim for his screenplay for Jeremiah Johnson (1972), had hoped that The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) would be his directorial debut. Producer John Foreman opted for a more experienced hand, and the script caught the eye of veteran director John Huston.
The film unfolds as a series of vignettes. Among the lengthiest is the introduction, a handy origin story. In the West Texas of the 1890s, a beaten-down outlaw named Roy Bean (Paul Newman) arrives in Vinegaroon, a small village of Mexicans. Bean sees a wanted poster with his picture on it, draws a mustache on himself, and enters a dust-encrusted saloon (that he knows is filled with fellow outlaws) looking for refuge. The low-lifes instead turn Bean on his head to empty his pockets, beat him, and tie a rope around his neck and send him sliding toward death into the desert behind a galloping horse. Bean survives, and is given water and a gun by Marie Elena (Victoria Principal), a young woman in the village. In an apocalyptic act of revenge, Bean returns to the saloon and slaughters everyone inside. Finding an enormous law book, Bean appoints himself Judge and, having already staked his claim in blood, turns the saloon into his home and courthouse. He names it "The Jersey Lily," after the famous Eastern actress Lily Langtry (Ava Gardner), with whom Bean is obsessed.
Following the promising introduction - equal parts gritty verisimilitude and wild cartoonish exaggeration - the film introduces a number of characters who intersect with Bean's god-like control of his particular slice of land. Reverend LaSalle (Anthony Perkins) convinces Bean to bury the dead outlaws he has obliterated; Big Bart Jackson (Jim Burk) and his gang arrive and volunteer to become town marshals to provide Bean with a steady stream of income and hanging victims; Snake River Rufus Krile (Neil Summers) shoots up the saloon, but is ignored until he dares to shoot a hole in a large poster of Lily Langtry; mountain man Grizzly Adams (John Huston) arrives and bequeaths his "son," a beer-drinking grizzly bear, to Bean; Bad Bob (Stacy Keach), a wild albino gunslinger, comes to put a hole in Bean's chest and fails; and Frank Gass (Roddy McDowall), a meek lawyer, brings a claim to Bean's saloon and proves to be the greatest danger to the Judge's position. The always-engaging bits that make up the film veer in tone from wild satiric slapstick to wistful nostalgia.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was shot on a generous budget of $4 Million, on sets built from scratch in the Arizona desert (standing in for West Texas). The location was about an hour-and-a-half outside of Tucson; Huston himself lived on the location for the duration of the shoot. He later wrote, "...I was the only one who did, except a watchman. The others went back to the town, but I stayed there all the time in a trailer. I've been on so many locations, and I've often wondered why everyone takes fatiguing, back-breaking journeys backwards and forwards, day after day, sometimes an hour's journey over rough roads, and I've often thought why not stay there, with the comfortable trailers you can live in today?"
In The Cinema of John Huston, the director told Gerald Pratley, "The writer of the original script, John Milius, was there all the time, we'd work at night. He was a joy to work with, and entered into new ideas with great enthusiasm. It turned out to be one of those pictures that we wrote as we went along." Milius refuted that account, however, as related by John McCarty in The Films of John Huston. The writer said that his original script was less of a cartoonish satire and that the Judge was a multi-dimensional character. "There were dark, evil sides to that man, as well as funny, charming sides. You saw that the evil was necessary at first, but that, as time progressed, it was no longer needed... The whole thing was horribly mangled."
Huston acknowledged the film's lack of success in his autobiography, An Open Book (Knopf, 1980), writing that The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was not exactly a failure, "...but you could hardly call it a roaring success. It didn't take off, as they say. Still, there were some very good things in it." Huston felt that the story was "...in the fine old American tradition of the Tall Tale, the Whopper, the yarn peopled with outrageous characters capable of prodigious and highly improbable deeds. At the same time, it said something important about frontier life and the loss of America's innocence." Huston owned up to the scattershot nature of the storytelling, and wrote that "to heighten the effect, I made deliberate use of a technique that has since become much more popular, letting all sorts of events occur without logical justification. Things appear, things happen, funny, sad, comic, dramatic. Ludicrous one minute and sober the next."
Critical reaction to The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was almost universally harsh upon its release in December of 1972. The critic for Variety called the film a "hard sell," and wondered "...how well this strange mlange of fact, fantasy and violent melodrama will sit with the mass audience... The two-hour running time is not fleshed out with anything more than vignettes...the film simply introduces one character after another, kills him off and proceeds to the next." Newsday called the film a "revisionist western that makes fun of its own characters and the heroic legends of manifest destiny... the film is not only anti-heroic, it's anti-dramatic... Its self-mockery finally reduces it to a superficial joke." The San Francisco Chronicle critic wrote that "it is a string of sequences, some for the sake of a gag which isn't worth the footage, some for a grotesque but hearty laugh, some to bridge the gap between Blood & Guts and Hearts & Flowers." And the brickbats continued to fly; Time's Jay Cocks dismissed the film as "inept in almost every regard", New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann called it an "unconscious parody", The New Yorker's Pauline Kael termed it a "disgraceful shambles", while the Washington Post's Gary Arnold found it to be "a big name bummer."
In the broad genre survey The Western: from silents to the seventies, authors George N. Fenin and William K. Everson find Huston's then-new film to be "a jewel," praising Milius for achieving "...that rare balance between comedy and sardonic comment on the foibles of a era." In his genre survey some years later (The Western), Phil Hardy also holds the film in esteem, writing that "Milius' script and Huston's rip-roaring direction occasionally clash but stand united in their commitment to a rowdy yet elegiac notion of heroism. The film, which was badly received at the time of its original release, is (like the marvelous The Man Who Would B King, 1975) clearly one of Huston's most personal works and one of the best Westerns of the seventies."
Clearly having enjoyed the experience of working together on The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, producer Foreman, director Huston, and star Newman teamed up again for the spy thriller The MacKintosh Man (1973), from a script by Walter Hill.
Producers: John Foreman
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: John Milius (original screenplay); C.L. Sonnichsen (book)
Cinematography: Richard Moore
Art Direction: Tambi Larsen
Music: Maurice Jarre
Film Editing: Hugh S. Fowler
Cast: Paul Newman (Judge Roy Bean), Victoria Principal (Marie Elena), Anthony Perkins (Reverend LaSalle), Ned Beatty (Tector Crites), Tab Hunter (Sam Dodd), John Huston (Grizzly Adams), Stacy Keach (Bad Bob), Roddy McDowall (Frank Gass), Billy Pearson (Stationmaster), Jacqueline Bisset (Rose Bean), Ava Gardner (Lily Langtry).
By John M. Miller