It wasn't easy for me to enjoy The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. I wasn't prepared for a Western in which the hero is a strict enforcer of capital punishment who executes criminal after criminal and is glorified--indeed, almost idolized--by the filmmakers, as if we're expected to root for Judge Roy Bean and believe that everything he does is morally and justifiably right. That John Huston was one of the most progressive of American directors and that John Milius is still one of the most conservative of American screenwriters is a given, so it was odd for me watch this film, which often plays as an uncomfortable hybrid of the two filmmakers' differing political opinions. Looking at it from a Hustonian fan's point of view, I can certainly recommend The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, but I'm not sure I could say that it was one of his best films. In fact, I had to force myself to sit through a second viewing--because the movie made me angry when I first saw it, and it took all of my strength to keep from turning it off and giving my frustrations a rest. I've seen maybe a handful of Huston films that were simply mediocre, but I don't think a Huston film has ever made me angry before.
Let's examine the facts of case: if we were to ask Huston and Milius what the message of the film is (specifically where it stands on capital punishment as a form of justice), I think their answers would have contradicted one another. Though I don't want to speak permanently for him, I have a good feeling that Huston was opposed to the death penalty throughout his career, particularly in his films. Take for example how Sam Spade hopes that Brigid "doesn't get hanged by that sweet neck" in The Maltese Falcon. Or how Charlie and Rose are very nearly executed in The African Queen. How Danny in The Man Who Would Be King courageously refuses to allow his prisoners of war to be executed and then later, as if by cruel cosmic joke, is executed himself. How drunken Geoffrey in Under the Volcano is crudely executed by Mexican fascists. All of these examples suggest the work of a filmmaker who is skeptical about the death penalty and possibly believes that it does more harm that good. Even in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where a wretched villain like Gold Hat gets his just desserts in the line of a firing squad, Huston lightens the scene somewhat with that funny moment in which Gold Hat demands to be allowed to put on his sombrero first.
Now look at how this divisive issue is examined in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, in which the protagonist is a man who literally makes a living off of the death penalty. The movie's treatment of the subject matter is maddeningly unclear: are we supposed to be applauding for him? I was pleased that Huston gets immediately to the heart of the problem I had with the film in his autobiography An Open Book. He describes the sequence in which Bean (Paul Newman) is confronted by his marshals, who have been egged on by their activist wives to request that Bean stop hanging his criminals in public for everyone in town to see. They're afraid it will make a bad impression on businessmen visiting from the northeast, and they want the hangings to start being conducted privately, in a barn. Bean is disgusted with their request: "In a barn? Like they was ashamed of it? Why, I'd rather give up hanging!" Huston writes in his book that he believes scenes like this in the film "said something important about frontier life and the loss of America's innocence". He then adds, "I'm sorry to say that one famous critic took all this to be an argument in favor of capital punishment."
That "famous critic" was none other than Pauline Kael, but it's fair to conclude that Huston saw the film as a dissection of Bean's justice system, not as an endorsement of it.
But there is no doubt that John Milius probably has another opinion. Milius, who received notoriety after telling Joseph McBride, in a 1975 Daily Variety interview, that "I just absolutely hate liberals and people who are civilized", is Hollywood's baddest right-winger; and from Dirty Harry to Red Dawn he has been echoing his gung-ho beliefs loud and clear to inspire standing ovations out of America's red-state audiences. Was his screenplay for The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean another such work? Milius' evident endorsement of Bean's actions can be felt even before the first lines of dialogue are spoken in the film. After the opening image of a map of nineteenth century Texas, and after Huston cleverly turns his camera sideways and plunges us downwards into the Pecos River, we are brought into the film's first scene, in which a shadowy figure rides across the river and then the screen is filled with a prologue that is totally awash in Milius' anti-liberal, anti-civilized sentiment: "Near the turn of the last century the Pecos River marked the boundaries of civilization in Western Texas. West of the Pecos there was no law, no order, and only bad men and rattlesnakes lived there." Then, Milius writes: "...Maybe this isn't the way it was... it's the way it should have been."
So, you see, we have two differing political perspectives from the two filmmakers.
I do love the sequence that follows. The shadowy Bean rides into a quiet little town near the river and arrives at the doorstep of a tavern where the "bad men" Milius writes of in his prologue are drinking inside. On the bulletin board is a reward poster for Bean's own gang of bank robbers, the Baldy Mitchell gang. He crosses out the picture of one of the gang members who is now dead, and colors a beard into the face of his own picture. He enters the tavern, and the outlaws (one of whom is played by a young Richard Farnsworth) greet him with unkind words. "Door," an outlaw growls at him. "Shut the door, squirrel." Bean asks for whiskey. They don't serve him. Everything is quiet.
He politely introduces himself. He says that that's his picture out there on the wall and tells of his gang's ill-fated attempt to rob the Granger's Trust in Magdalena. The outlaws don't care, and Bean, like Cody in Sierra Madre, is upset that he isn't among friends: "I always heard that a man on the dodge is welcome west of the Pecos... maybe I heard wrong." They tell him he heard right. But that the outlaws possess a book of the Revised Statutes of the State of Texas for no other reason than for "the whores to piss on" is a quick indication that something is wrong, and before Bean can react, the whores beat him up and loot his pockets, and the men tie his neck up to a runaway horse that carries him out into the desert. He wakes up to see a young Mexican girl regarding him sadly, like a small child. This is Maria Elena (Victoria Principal), and from here on out she will be Bean's angel. She fetches his gun for him, helps him to get back up on his feet, and pretty soon Bean is taking back the tavern by surprise, blasting everybody in his path. "RAAAAAAA!!!!!!!" he roars. "COME ON BACK HERE, I AIN'T THROUGH KILLING YOU! YOU HEAR ME? ALL OF YOUR KIND, I'LL BE WAITING!"
This is one of the best sequences in the film because we can actually empathize with Bean's fury. He is exploding, and so are we. In the moments when he has been hung by a horse and dragged off, we feel as if we have been left for dead out there in the desert with him, and we are just as eager as he is to waste that tavern and claim it as our own. It's no surprise that The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is Quentin Tarantino's favorite Huston movie, considering Bean's own telling line of how "God must have directed my bullets". There is a kingliness to the image of him sitting peacefully on a rocking chair in front of the tavern while the bodies of his enemies lie scattered around. This is his land now.
The underlining problem with this film, however, is that this sense of justified empathy with Bean's killing is felt only in this sequence, and then it is never felt again. For the rest of the movie Bean comes across as a totalitarian ruler--a reactionary whose tactics clean up the crime of the town, but in a way that is simply wrong. I intensely dislike, for example, the scene in which Bean and his new marshalls (Jim Burk, Matt Clark, Bill McKinney, Steve Kanaly, Ned Beatty) murder the disoriented Snake River Rufus Krile (Neil Summers) just for shooting at a wall poster of the famous Lily Langtry, whom Bean has a fetish for. Are we supposed to cheer at this scene, or laugh at it, or cringe at it, or what? And Bean's obsession with the absent Lily Langtry gets obnoxious fast; even though it is apparently true to the story of the real Judge Roy Bean (William Wyler used the Lily Langtry device for his own Bean flick, 1940's The Westerner), it doesn't exactly help us gain any more respect for him as a character. Bean gives one annoying lecture after another about how Langtry is a supposedly ageless woman, and how men who do her wrong deserve to hang and die. After some time of this, we're ready for him to shut up.
Now, it wouldn't be honest to say that Huston and Milius don't look at Bean's justice system objectively whenever they can. They do. The morning after Bean's slaughter at the tavern, Reverend Mr. Lasalle (Anthony Perkins) rides into town, and looks with shame on what Bean has done. Bean wants the bodies of the outlaws to be left for the buzzards, but the Reverend is a good man, and buries them. He does so because of an honorable principle that a fraudulent Christian like Bean so clearly does not understand: "I buried them because Christ had died for all of them." Perkins, though a fine actor in several other films, might have been miscast here as the Reverend, but his character makes a lasting effect; and in a witty voiceover from the grave, the Reverend pointedly observes of the fascistic Bean, "I haven't seem him since then, so he probably went to hell." Another scene of this strong caliber is the one that comes afterward, in which Bean and his marshals lynch the stuttering Sam Dodd (Tab Hunter). Though Dodd is a racist and a murderer, and deserves punishment, the way that Bean and his marshalls punish him is disputable; and it is hard not to agree with Dodd's own last words: "I am no worse and probably no better than the men who are about to end my days."
A few of the other scenes that look at Bean's justice system objectively are more humorous. Such as when old Grizzly Adams (played by none less than Huston himself) sneaks into town at night with a truck full of big furry mammals ("I cohabited with the b'ars!") and is forbidden by Bean to commit suicide, inadvertently exposing Bean's right-wing belief that suicide should be illegal but that lynching is okay. Adams gets the last laugh, however, by leaving Bean with a baby grizzly bear named Zachary Taylor, who spends a picnic with Bean and Maria Elena in the silly but amusing "Marmalade, Molasses and Honey" sequence, featuring all three characters riding a see-saw log to the music of Andy Williams. There's more humor in the intrusion of the evil albino Bad Bob (a hilarious Stacy Keach), who wants his horse cooked blue and screeches, "Hey, Bean! I'm here to rip your eyes out! And then... I'm going to take my ivory-handled knife and cut your head off and sell it to a friend of mine in a carnival!" The funniest moment is when he really pisses Bean off by talking trash about the town's most popular martyr: "Lily Langtry is a WHORE, BITCH, DOG! And I wouldn't waste my bullet on her... let alone my seed!" Admittedly, Bad Bob is the only other villain in the film that Bean is probably justified in killing, although--ironically enough--the townspeople are quick to point out, even before we do, that by shooting Bad Bob in the back, Bean never gives him a chance.
When the lawyer Frank Gass (Roddy McDowell) comes into town, however, the tables are turned. He comes to Bean with a federal government contract that designates the Jersey Lily tavern as his property--and what's more, he even proves that this is protected under the Texas lawbook that Bean carries around as if he knows it by heart. Bean, being the undemocratic leader that he is, tears this page out of the book and illegally overturns the law; then, when Gass complains, Bean throws him into the cage with Zachary Taylor and threatens to have him eaten alive. Even though Bean then proceeds to make a deal with Gass and promote him as the town attorney, it is only because of an obligation that Gass will otherwise be executed. Although Gass is not an entirely sympathetic character (he is suspected of hiring an assassin to try to whack Bean, and privately refers to Bean and Maria Elena's unborn child as a "bastard"), he comes off as a far more democratic leader; and sure enough, when Bean returns home from an unsuccessful trip to meet Lily Langtry, he finds that the women of the town have had Gass elected as mayor. The moment when Gass stops him from wrongfully executing a doctor (David Sharpe) who failed to save Maria Elena during her fatal childbirth confirms that he is a better leader than Bean.
I'm going to go out on a limb now and suggest that the film should have ended here. At ninety minutes, it would have been content to have Bean riding out of town and never looking back. But the last half hour of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a superfluous anticlimax; it's little more than a needless catharsis for Bean to return and strike back. By this time, Gass has become an oil entrepreneur who has helped the town prosper in economy and civil rights; and despite his hiring of shady figures in his law enforcement, the town is certainly no worser off than it was under Bean's watch. Though I can sympathize for Bean's marshalls, who have been reduced to drunks with low-paying jobs ever since Bean's departure, I can't sympathize with Bean's decision to rally them together again and engage in a pointless gang war with Gass' law forces that ends with everything in town except for the Jersey Lily burned to the ground. Whether Bean and Gass die in the firefight is never explained. Another disappointment is the character of Bean's tomboyish, grown-up daughter Rose (Jacqueline Bisset), and although Bisset tries her hardest, she doesn't make much of an impression. One also needs to really listen to Gass' confrontational words that are supported by the townspeople: "We've stood for this long enough! Raze that place! We must be done with Beanism!" Well... he's right, isn't he?
And I don't really know what to make of the final scene in the film, either. At last, Lily Langtry (played by Ava Gardner) has decided to come and visit the town--but by this time, the Judge and most of his companions are now deceased. Rose has gone off and married an aviator. The Jersey Lily has been turned into a museum. Miss Langtry inquires about some of the things Bean did in her honor during his lifetime--and we discover that she has just as sick of an idea of justice as Bean did we she deems Bean's barbaric murder of Snake River Rufus Kile as "most appropriate". Again, these scenes strike me as flat and unnecessary. However, Professor Lesley Brill makes a case in defense of these scenes in his 1997 book John Huston's Filmmaking: "Miss Langtry's immortality is directly connected to the Judge's worship, his faith has divined the goddess within her and brought it to full realization. Bean's own immortality thus resides not only in the perpetuation of his memory but in Lily Langtry's deification." Brill's eloquent reading into the film's ending scenes does make me want to reconsider this rather dubious cinematic conclusion.
Paul Newman believed that The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was the best movie he ever made. "I was really surprised that it didn't get the kind of following it deserved," he later said. "I thought that was a wonderful piece of Americana. I think that's probably my best work--if not my best work, certainly close to it... I look back on that experience as the most rewarding experience that I've had as an actor because he [Huston] really let me crawl out of my skin and do the work that surprised me." I can see definitely where Newman was coming from--even when taking into account my own reservations towards the role. Milius reportedly had reservations of the opposite complaint; he wasn't pleased with Huston's decision to cast a Hollywood liberal (#19 on Nixon's public enemies list, to be exact) in a right-wing lead character role. Ultimately, Newman's work here, like his work on Altman's Quintet (1979), is proof that his 1970's performances were riskier, and far more experimental than his previous work. Drawing from those observations, I agree: Newman's performance in this film was one of his finest.
So, it's a troubling movie. It doesn't always work. Its hero is despicable, its message is uncertain, and it's too long. Nevertheless, it is an important film in Huston's career. I don't know if it's a great film, but I think it deserves more contemporary discussion. The cinematography by Richard Moore and the catchy music by Maurice Jarre are impossible to dismiss, and so is the film itself. That it is an antiheroic Western in the spirit of Peckinpah is another strong factor, which makes it important as a staple in cinematic American Westerns. Hot off Peckinpah's romanticism of honorable bad guys in The Wild Bunch, here were Huston and Milius--a progressive director and a conservative screenwriter--collaborating together, echoing the old days and the despair of a twentieth century in which the West was a thing of the past. In Milius' screenplay, "the desert reclaims it own" when Bean's marshalls burn down the town at the end, but surely the desert won't hold it forever.
"It's all changing," Bean sighs. "The country's changing. The railroad's coming. People will pass by and look out the window and never know what it took to make all this. They won't know about the bear... they won't know about me. I guess it doesn't matter." It's a brief monologue that illuminates the differing worldviews of the two filmmakers: Milius fantasizes about the order of a judge who hates liberals and hates people who are civilized, and wipes his feet on the basic human rights of the criminals who stalk his land. But in Huston's world, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor--and when Judge Roy Bean's ruthless system of order was finally changed, the country changed, too.