During the lawless day of the old west, a drifter named Roy Bean (Paul Newman) wanders into the desolate town of Vinegaroon, Texas. When he enters the local saloon, he meets the vagrants who run the town. They beat him, they rob him, and they tie him to the back of his horse and leave him to die.
Bean, however, does not die. Instead, he’s nursed back to health by a beautiful young woman named Maria Elena (Victoria Principal). Carrying a gun, Bean reenters the saloon and promptly kills nearly everyone who previously attacked him. (“I’m not done killing you yet!” Bean yells at one fleeing woman.) Bean sits down in front of the saloon and waits for justice. Instead, he’s visited by a lecherous traveling preacher (Anthony Perkins), who buries the dead and gives Bean absolution. Bean declares that he is now the “law of the West Pecos.” As the preacher leaves, he looks at the audience and says that he never visited Bean again and later died of dysentery in Mexico. He hasn’t seen Bean since dying so the preacher is sure that, wherever Bean went, it wasn’t Heaven.
Judge Roy Bean dispenses rough and hard justice from his saloon and renames the town Langtry, after the actress Lillie Langtry. Bean has never met Langtry or even seen her perform but he writes to her regularly and pictures of her decorate the walls of his saloon. Bean hires outlaws to serve as his town marshals and sentences prostitutes to remain in town and marry the citizens. Lawbreakers are left hanging outside of the saloon. Bean enters into a common law marriage with Maria and, for a while, they even own a bear, who drinks beer and helps Bean maintain order in the court. Bean may be crazy but his methods clean up the town and Langtry starts to grow. As Langtry becomes more civilized and an attorney named Arthur Gass (Roddy McDowall) grows more powerful, it starts to become apparent that there may no longer be a place for a man like Judge Roy Bean.
The real-life Judge Roy Bean did hold court in a saloon and he did name the town after Lilly Langtry. It’s debatable whether or not he was really a hanging judge. Because he didn’t have a jail, the maximum punishment that he could hand out was a fine and usually that fine was the same amount of however much money the accused had on him at the time of his arrest. Because of his eccentricities and his reputation for being the “only law west of the Pecos,” Roy Bean became a legendary figure. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean acknowledges from the start that it’s not a historically accurate, with a title card that reads, “Maybe this isn’t the way it was… it’s the way it should have been.”
Based on a script by John Milius and directed by Hollywood veteran John Huston, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is one of the strangest westerns to ever be released by a major studio. Featuring multiple narrators who occasionally speak directly to the camera, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is an episodic mix of low comedy, graphic violence, and syrupy romance. (The film’s sole Oscar nomination was for the song that played over scenes of Bean and Maria going on a romantic picnic with their pet bear.) Familiar faces show up in small roles. Along with Perkins and McDowall, Tab Hunter, Ned Beatty, Jacqueline Bissett, Ava Gardner, and Anthony Zerbe all play supporting roles. Even a heavily made-up Stacy Keach makes an appearance as an albino outlaw named Bad Bob.
Milius has gone on the record as calling The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean a “Beverly Hills western” and he has a point. He envisioned the script as starring Warren Oates as a less likable and much more morally ambiguous version of Judge Roy Bean and he was not happy that his original ending was replaced by a more showy pyrotechnic spectacle. Milius envisioned the film as a low-budget spaghetti western but Huston instead made a Hollywood epic, complete with celebrity cameos and a theme song from Maurice Jarre and Marilyn Bergman. Milius said that his experience with The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is what led to him deciding to direct his own films.
Again, Milius has a point but John Huston’s version of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean has its strengths as well. Though he may not be the madman that Milius originally envisioned, Paul Newman gives a good, grizzled performance as Roy Bean and the role served as a precursor for the type of aging but determined characters that Newman would specialize in during the final phase of his career. Due to its episodic structure, the film is uneven but it works more often than it doesn’t. The chaotic early scenes reflect a time when the west was actually wild while the later scenes are more cohesive, as society moves into Langtry and threatens to make formerly indispensable men like Roy Ban obsolete. Even the cameo performances fit in well with the film’s overall scheme, with Anthony Perkins standing out as the odd preacher. Finally, the young Victoria Principal is perfectly cast as the only woman that Roy Bean loved as much as Lily Langtry.
Though it’s impossible not to wonder what Warren Oates would have done with the title role, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a good end-of-the-west western.