The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)

life of judge 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He rules the town.

Roy Bean (Paul Newman) rides into a lonely western town that is being ruled by a group of violent vagrants that attack and rob him as he enters their saloon and then they tie him to an end of a wagon and drag his body through the dusty desert landscape. Fortunately for him he manages to survive the ordeal and gets his revenge by returning to the saloon and killing off the others. After which he appoints himself as the judge who oversees all issues of law and order in the vicinity, which quietly begins to prosper under his leadership.

Although based on an actual historical figure the script by John Milius goes wildly off-the-mark that has no bearing to anything that actually occurred and ends up becoming highly fanciful in the process. There are certainly some amusing bits here and there, but the tone is too whimsical and loses any semblance of grittiness until it doesn’t seem like a western at all. The story also lacks a plot and the overall theme that is way too similar to The Ballad of Cable Hogue, which was directed by Sam Peckinpah and came out just two years before this one.

During my trip this summer I traveled to Langtry, Texas where the real Judge Roy Bean lived and where most of this movie was filmed.  I was surprised to find how interesting the true events of his life were and how the movie would’ve been much more fascinating had it just stuck to what really happened instead of making it all up. In real-life Bean entered the town in the spring of 1882 where he opened up a saloon and soon was appointed the Justice of the Peace by the state since the next nearest court was 200 miles away. The jurors for the cases that he heard were made up of his own bar patrons who were required to buy drinks in between court hearings. No one was sent to jail since he did not own a cell and all those accused were simply fined in the amount of cash that they had on them at the time.

I also found it was amusing at how different the performers looked in comparison to their real-life counterparts. Newman shows some resemblance to the actual man, but Victoria Principal, who plays Bean’s Mexican bride Maria Elena, clearly looks far sexier than the real one did.

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Overall, the film is passable for those wanting nothing more than an evening of light entertainment. The scene where Bean travels to San Antonio so as to meet Lily Langtry (Ava Gardner) a stage actress who he adores his quite good as it takes the character, who had by then achieved almost a mythical quality, and turned him back into being quite mortal when he fights through the city crowds and becomes nothing more than just another-face-in-the-crowd to the people there.

I also enjoyed seeing the town grow into a big oil boom city although in reality this never happened and the place as of today only has a population of 18 people. Stacy Keach’s cameo where he wears heavy make-up to resemble an albino renegade who rides into town and challenges Bean to a gunfight is quite amusing, but it’s probably Principal’s performance in her film debut that ends up becoming the film’s most enduring quality.

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(The actual saloon where Judge Bean tried heard his cases, which still stands today.)

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released:  December 18, 1972

Runtime: 2Hours 2Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Huston

Studio: National General Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

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