John Milius is a fascist. “Zen fascist,” if we’re a slave to accuracy, but self-described and self-appointed nonetheless, having spent an entire career of bearded bravado lecturing lesser mortals on their effete passivity in the face of jackboots, cock-first supremacy, and the finer points of unlimited ammo. Imagine his glee, then, roundabout 1972, when he was given the opportunity to work hand-in-glove with John Huston, the one man then living similarly devoted to fucking, fist-fighting, and fellatio, all before a breakfast he unquestionably killed with his own hands. This we know: the movie set was an unparalleled wonderland of more pissing contest misogyny per square inch than Key West during the Hemingway years.
The result, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, is the just, inevitable love child of this hellish coupling, with the added bonus of having turned the Western back onto itself, newly energized by a dip in past sins. Rejecting a decade-plus of smug revisionism as unwarranted character assassination, Milius and Huston have crafted an ode to the Fordian mythology said revisionism sought to replace, only without the requisite sentimentality and slavish devotion to community ritual. Civilization remains the ultimate goal, but unlike that post-Liberty Valance world, firearms would retain their centrality; taming, yes, but more importantly, maintaining and advancing into the future. Simply put, it ain’t the gun, but the hand that wields it.
The film’s opening quote, predictably, more than traffics in myth, it all but carves it in granite as national policy: “Maybe this isn’t the way it was…it’s the way it should have been.” In other words, history is one unavoidable lie after the other, but fortunately, we can reconstruct as needed, provided we’re on the right side of the fight. In this sense, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean becomes the very thing it hates – remaking fact as fabulation – but as expected, it’s not storytelling they’re against, so long as it’s their story. At bottom, men like Milius were horrified by the new national consensus that replaced honor and pageantry with guilt and apology, seeing the Western not as a schoolroom for topical rants on foreign policy and atrocity, but rather a newfangled church, where the resurrection came not as divine inspiration, but a renewal of American muscle.
The key to all this lies in the county known as Vinegarroon (“Mexican for whiptail scorpion, mean as hell,” as Bean later states), the very center of the Milius vision. Roy Bean (Paul Newman) first appears to us as a scruffy, defiant ne’er-do-well, a mere braggart claiming to have enriched himself via the standard robbery. He’s come to a lawless, Lone Star land, west of the Pecos River, and he’s after the usual comforts all men desire after a long trip through arid country. He quickly spies a book on the saloon’s counter and inquires as to its contents. Given a gruff response, he continues: “The Revised Statutes of the State of Texas? What’s that doing here?” Angrily, the bartender spits forth a region’s defiance: “For the whores to piss on.” Almost immediately, Bean comes to understand what a devotion to lawlessness really means, as he’s surrounded by prostitutes and drunks, all of whom seek to relieve Bean of his treasure. Robbed, beaten, and eventually dragged behind a horse, Bean is tossed in the desert to die, the crimes against him seemingly unpunished.
Fortunately, Bean has a guardian angel, Marie (Victoria Principal), and her initial purpose is to arm the fallen Bean so that he may re-take savagery from the savages. Pistol in hand, Bean returns to the house of ill repute and murders every last bastard he sees, including an old man who has the bad fortune to shoot off his own balls before succumbing to his bloody fate. The scene is a pure, unbridled delight, mainly for the sight of a bearded Paul Newman masterfully attacking his role as cheerful executioner. Having tasted revenge, he quickly turns establishment, first tackling the very law book that set the events in motion. Propped up in a rocking chair, surrounded by the bodies of men whose lives he unapologetically ended, Bean has found religion at last – he will tame this two-bit town, come hell or high water. A pious reverend strolls through, asking that the corpses be buried, but Bean’s not about to do it himself: “I’m waiting for the buzzards; they don’t deserve burying.” And so he reads on, while the man of God mans the shovel.
Now sporting a massive sombrero that makes one love him even more, Bean soon encounters a gang of outlaws. Having money for whiskey, they avoid execution, and are additionally rewarded by being sworn in as marshals. Besides the law as Bean sees it, the men swear to uphold the honor of Lillie Langtry (Ava Gardner), a woman Bean has never met, but lusts for with an idealized, almost supernatural tenderness. The new marshals are efficient and dutiful, bringing Bean the area’s criminals and assorted brutes, all of whom are pronounced guilty prior to a trial that consists of Bean shouting obscenities while cloaked in the state flag of Texas. “Law is the handmaiden of justice,” he snorts, and we know he means it. To prove it, when a prisoner insists that he’s committed no crime because he killed “a Chinese,” Bean roars his objection: “I will hang a man for killing anyone! Including chinks, greasers, and niggers!” No wonder he’s bathed in a golden halo at the poor sap’s burial.
Bean’s intransigence continues, encapsulated by a line Milius must have stolen from Curtis LeMay: “There will be law. There’s going to be order, progress, civilization, peace. Above all, peace. And I don’t care who I have to kill to get it.” From Newman’s lips, it’s the stuff of high comedy. From the pen of Milius, it’s all but a way of life. From here, Bean becomes the stuff of legend, the ever-fading image of lost honor that must be retrieved, lest we succumb to barbarism. That the philosophy is itself barbarism bothers neither Bean nor Milius, for authoritarianism, while dismissed by modern eyes and ears as a relic of a less enlightened age, is wholly acceptable to both parties, given the proper authority figure. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, they say, but only if the man in power is actually corrupt. We just haven’t had our Judge Roy Bean. Or we have, and we sent him to the gallows with our collective sanity.
For a brief period, the film settles in as a series of challenges to Bean’s authority, all of which are met by anger, then swift execution. A rambling stranger, known only as Snake River Rufus Krile, interrupts a poker game in Bean’s courthouse with gunfire and ridiculous boasts, only to be shot dead when he dares to vandalize a picture of Miss Langtry. Property of hanged men is confiscated to make civic improvements, though mostly the variety that benefit Bean personally. A pimp is arrested, threatened, and booted from town; not for pimping, but for the crime of charging too much for his women. Bean dreams, and dreams big: a granite courthouse four stories high, factories, even a railroad. Decreed, it is done, all without interference, challenge, or delay. These trains, as Bean would have it, will run on time.
The movie even traffics in the absurd, beginning with an appearance by Huston himself, playing “Grizzly Adams, direct descendant of John Quincy Adams.” Grizzly is digging his own grave, only to be interrupted by Bean and Marie. Grizzly soon abandons his task, leaving a bear named Zachary Taylor behind. It might have ended there, but as the soundtrack fills with a song too ridiculous to recall, Bean and Marie are at a picnic, giving the bear a bath. Mind you, the bear plays a key role at some point, and is even martyred for his trouble, but the sequence stops the film cold with a retreat from the task at hand. Up to this point, Bean had been callous and unflinching, but effective. His was a strong arm to get behind for the long haul. Now saddled with a pet bear, he’s flirting with the sort of madness typical in leaders who get carried away with isolation and self-importance. One might be powerful enough to have a pet bear, but it might also be a signal to the faithful that it’s time to stage a coup.
Almost as if Huston and Milius had recognized their mistake, they swiftly introduce Bad Bob (Stacy Keach), an albino assassin who says he’ll send Bean to hell, but only after shooting out his eyes. Bob swaggers, swears, and whips a head of white hair so robust it threatens to blot out the sun. But here is the true face of eccentricity and power gone too far, for Bob shoots a horse, spitting to a nearby townsperson, “Cook him for me; smother him in onions.” He’s obnoxious and vile (he calls Lillie a pig-faced whore), but above all, unjust. He wants Bean dead despite no crime having been committed against him. His authority, such as it is, is capricious and unwise, and were such men leading Vinegarroon, it would be clapped out with corruption by week’s end. A Judge Bean, on the other hand, seeks only his own counsel, but of him it cannot be said that unpredictability reigns. After all, he has his ever-present law book to guide him.
The beginning of the end is near, and it’s fitting that it’s brought on by a lawyer, one Frank Gass (Roddy McDowall) , to be exact. He has claims against the very land on which Bean’s empire sits, and he can cite a Texas statute to prove it. Not liking this particular law, Bean simply tears out the page. Rash and illegal for some, but when it’s Bean, you can’t say you didn’t know it was coming. Not liking the cut of Gass’ jib, Bean locks him the bear cage until he agrees to stay on as the town’s defense attorney, provided he send 60% of the fees Bean’s way. And while the shingle might hint at a reasonable chance for the accused, the operation is simply a pretense, and little more than a feeder for even more guilty men to hang. Bean’s running a business here, and if the bodies have to stay good and hung around town as a moral lesson for the kids, so much the better. You can leave your window open at night, can you not?
But Gass being Gass, infected by the virus of litigation that sends all just enterprises into a death spiral, soon sends a man to murder Bean, an act which unintentionally ends with the death of the bear. It’s of little importance here, except to say that no man has lived until he’s seen Paul Newman square up, settle in, and go face-to-face with a grizzly in full-tilt argument. And as the bear pawed Miss Langtry’s picture, well, feed it to the ants and hang its corpse on a cactus. But the loss hits Bean between the eyes. “The country is changing,” Bean states, apropos of nothing, except to reveal that the greatest crime of all is that soon, no one will know (or care) about what he’s accomplished. As such, he needs an heir. A son. “Louis XIV had 103 of ‘em,” he huffs, so why not? That the child will lead to death, and that death to Bean’s departure, should be of no surprise, but first, the film takes a detour into its real revolution; its exposure of the real source of our downfall.
You see, the town’s whores have a plan. And as newly minted ex-whores, it ain’t free blowjobs for the voters. They’ve changed, friends, and as Tector (Ned Beatty) says at the start of one damn illuminating voiceover, “There is nothing worse than a harlot turned respectable.” He continues, channeling the spirits of anyone and everyone who’s encountered the pursed lips of the damned: “A reformed anything is bad enough, but a reformed harlot is the direct wrath of the devil. Seems that those who have spent time giving pleasure for profit are all the more zealous when it comes to dealing out misery.” Now empowered by their femininity, they becomes the wives of the outlaws. They want respect and decency, not open displays of vice, so they bully their husbands into electing Gass as the new mayor. Bean is the past, Gass the future. Disgusted and humiliated, Bean abandons his holdings and disappears. The marshals are fired, professional politicians (Easterners, no less) roll in, and impersonal leadership rules the day, though with no less murderous intent. Still, the film is insistent: better to be killed by a man that looks you in the eye than a bureaucrat who does it by proxy. It’s all about being above board with your intent.
So Bean’s way is pushed aside, and a heartless, soulless town springs up in its wake. Tector’s voice greets us once again, telling us that Theodore Roosevelt, a man who “sprang from his times,” was the last real man to hold the White House before the rot set in. “Then the women got the vote,” he sighs, “And everything went to hell.” More than that, as “our boys” died overseas fighting the Kaiser, the women forced in Prohibition, and “all those things which came natural to men became crimes.” It was, Tector concludes, “a generation of vipers.” Gangsters and government worked in tandem, and no one man could be looked upon for salvation. If you wanted something, you had to take a number and wait in line. Oil is discovered in Vinegarroon, and Gass becomes the richest man in Texas. But he’s womanly, uninspiring. He wears the trappings of authority with none of its essence. He and his new kind are indistinguishable, interchangeable, and utterly replaceable. No one will care when they come, and no one will notice when they go. They are the hollow men, headpiece filled with estrogen.
But twenty years following his departure, Bean returns, a vision on a horse; a hero out of time. The old marshals are rounded up, a final poker game is settled, and as he roars, “For Texas and Miss Lillie!”, Bean and his faded few, more sepia now than bold color, burn the town to the ground. It’s the last stand for the old guard, with only ashes to remind us. Fittingly, Tector, many years later, opens the Judge Roy Bean Museum in the very spot where the courthouse once stood, greeting the mythologized, but now very real, Miss Lillie Langtry. Her appearance was only possible after Bean passed on, for her very appeal lay in her failure to be made flesh. She’s the stand in for the ideal, and she’s the only woman a man like Bean could ever hope to have. He’ll fuck and flirt with whatever passes for womanhood, but his love stays in the clouds where it belongs. As with all men.
Now reduced to artifacts and memorabilia, Bean himself has become unattainable. And while Milius and Huston and all those afflicted with the chronic dissatisfaction so common to our species pine for his second coming, he’ll remain behind glass, safely muted, lest his fact challenge the legend. Deep down, deep within the dreamer’s heart, fascist John Milius knows it, accepts it, and he, too, has moved on. For as we can – and will – long for Judge Roy Bean when his successors fail yet again to measure up, our pleas will be ever compromised, necessarily so, by the inescapable fact that such longings will never really be put to the test. As Langtry to Bean, Bean to Milius. Meeting up would only spoil the fantasy.