Loosely based on the real life figure of Judge Roy Bean, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is written by the iconoclastic John Milius and directed by Hollywood veteran John Huston, the latter seemingly trying in this film to prove his relevance in a post-Peckinpah cinematic world of revisionist Westerns. The film has several parallels, in fact, with Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970).
Newman plays a criminal who, being saved from death by a Mexican peasant girl, decides to establish a town squarely in the place of his near-death, with himself as its sole arbiter of a self-interested and conveniently-dispensed ‘law’. He appoints a gang likely to rob him as his marshals; he ‘sentences’ a group of prostitutes to keep his marshals company; he has his marshals rob robbers and cites as a ‘fine’ exactly the amount of money the latter has stolen; etc.
“Law is the handmaiden of justice,” he often says in the film, and on one occasion, when he reverses the phrase by mistake, is called on it, but says both apply.
Of the figure of Bean, Milius has said:
Roy Bean is an obsessed man. He’s like Lawrence of Arabia. He sits out there in the desert and he’s got this great vision of law and order and civilization and he kills people and does anything in the name of progress. I love those kind of people! That’s the kind of people who built this country! That’s the American spirit!
Paul Newman’s performance shines above all else here, but there are a few standout supporting performances. Anthony Perkins is superb in his small role as an eccentric drifting preacher, and John Huston himself has a cameo as Grizzly Adams, who gifts Bean with a trained, beer-drinking grizzly bear, which for many years becomes something of a mascot and attraction to Bean’s saloon. (The bear’s ultimate fate has me convinced that The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, like The Wild Bunch, was one of the cinematic Western films serving as an inspiration for Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.) A young Ned Beatty provides a wonderful turn as one of Bean’s marshals and lifelong acolytes; Stacy Keach has a memorable scene as the psychopathic albino outlaw ‘Bad Bob’; and Roddy McDowall plays to type as the legalistic Frank Gass.
The film has its flaws, and tries a bit too hard to exhibit the sort of cold, anti-hero world that was ascendant in Hollywood at the time it was made. Bean is a selfish, short-sighted, and mean S.O.B., inhabiting an amoral world of incredibly cruelty. The Blood Meridian comparison is apt in that Bean has no real moral center, and neither does the world around him, a world in which ‘law’ is practically isomorphic with power.
Unlike a similar motivation in The Wild Bunch, there’s not a sufficient build-up of secondary characters’ personas for a successful emotional catharsis when, towards the end of the film, Bean’s marshals undertake what amounts to a suicide mission on behalf of Bean’s honor. That being said, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, while being a strange and uneven tragicomic film, does have its moments and does, in the end, convey how life is comprised of a series of contingencies, which we habitually try to impart meaning to after the fact.