Riding a wave of acclaim for his screenplay for Jeremiah Johnson, John Milius developed a script The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, that he hoped would be his directorial debut. Unfortunately for him, producer John Foreman felt that the project needed an experienced guide. When the script caught the eye of the legendary John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) he was brought on to direct. The film wasn’t a real success at the box office Milius would later say that his script was horribly mangled.
Near the end of the 19th century, outlaw Roy Bean (Paul Newman, Harper) arrives in lawless Texas territory west of the Pecos River, hoping to find sanctuary among his fellow criminals. Instead, he’s roughed up by the customers and whores in a seedy saloon, who rob him and tie him by his neck to his runaway horse. Saved when the rope breaks, he is helped by a young Mexican girl, Maria Elena (Victoria Principal, who received a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer, Female). Later, Roy returns to the saloon, and kills every person inside. A traveling preacher Reverend LaSalle (Anthony Perkins, Psycho II) buries the dead. Meanwhile, Roy, who’s been reading an old law book he found in the bar, declares himself the Law West of the Pecos, and appoints himself Judge. Roy Bean’s world will be one of law, order, and peace, whatever the cost. Roy takes charge of a saloon, which doubles as a courthouse, and a whorehouse, aided by a band of outlaw marshals. Bean’s brand of justice is swift, and often final. While most face stiff fines, “obvious criminals” are hanged,” and those that would insult singer/actress Lillie Langtry (Ava Gardner, Seven Days in May) whom he adores, but has never met, is shot dead on the spot.
While pining for Lillie, Roy finds a more accessible romance with Maria Elena. The two adopt Bruno, a grizzly bear to the by a mountain man named Grizzly Adams (John Huston). Unfortunately, their happiness and the relative peace in the community is short-lived. The arrival of lawyer Frank Gass (Roddy McDowall, Cleopatra) is a threat to Roy’s perfect world, and signals rapidly changing times in the old west.
Loosely based on a real person (who was also portrayed in 1940’s The Westerner by Walter Brennan, which won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean has moments of interest, but it never really coalesces. Director John Huston gives the story a light-hearted touch, appearing to revel in the scene involving the Roy, the bear, and Maria Elena with the song “Marmalade, Molasses and Honey” accompanying it all. This plays well into Paul Newman’s reputation and personality as suave, romantic guy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t square with the shoot-first-ask-questions-later guy John Milius created. Newman clearly struggles with the harder edges of his character and isn’t particularly convincing when asked to be caustic. I have read in several places that Milius thought Warren Oates or Lee Marvin would have been better for the part; they certainly would have brought a tougher aesthetic to the character.
Though Newman may have been miscast (it feels strange to write that), Huston still managed to make a serviceable film. He never dwells too long on any place or location, and most of the cast is strong enough to make the two-hour running time fly by. I’ve watched The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean a few times over the years, and each time I can’t help wondering what kind of film it would have been if John Milius had been allowed to direct it.
Warner Archive has become one of my favorite labels in recent years. They release a lot of titles that otherwise might not see the light of day. There Blu-ray releases have looked and sounded spectacular, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is no exception. Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer is sharp with a nice amount of delineation. I didn’t detect any digital noise reduction, and the amount of film grain seemed appropriate. The image is clean throughout. The films natural palette is presented well. While not quite vibrant, it’s certainly realistic. Blacks are inky, and shadows are fine. Faces appear normal.
The DTS-HD monaural soundtrack is a standard, but effective presentation. Dialogue is the dominant feature here, and it comes across clear and concise. Music offers an impressive range considering the project’s age, and effects are reasonably accurate.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
Movie title: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)
Director(s): John Huston
Actor(s): Paul Newman , Ava Gardner , Roy Jenson , Jacqueline Bisset , Tab Hunter , John Huston
Genre: Western, Romance, Comedy