Screenwriter John Milius crafted this outlandish narrative from the real-life exploits of Old West eccentric Judge Roy Bean, integrating a series of impossibly colorful episodes featuring an albino gunslinger, a lascivious priest, a beer-drinking bear, a legendary stage actress, and frontiersman Grizzly Adams. As directed by the venerable John Huston, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean isn’t remotely believable, but rather so enthusiastically weird that it’s fascinating to realize the movie was released by a major studio.
Paul Newman stars as Bean, a fanciful drifter who wanders into a bar in the wilds of Texas only to get bushwhacked by unsavory locals. After being nursed back to health by a sweet senorita (Victoria Principal), he returns to the bar and slaughters everyone inside, then establishes the bar as the headquarters of his Wild West fiefdom. Bean declares himself a judge (literally draping himself in the U.S. flag at one point), and makes it a hanging offence for those under his “jurisdiction” to do things like besmirch the good name of Lily Langtry, the actress whom Bean worships from afar. He also attracts a cadre of loyal followers, including pistol-packing “marshals” who enrich themselves by stealing loot from the myriad unlucky souls Bean executes.
The story eventually becomes a battle of wills between Bean and an ambitious lawyer (Roddy McDowall) who wants to seize the judge’s holdings, but the film mostly comprises a string of strange vignettes. Stacy Keach plays the aforementioned albino gunslinger, strutting around in pasty makeup, an Edgar Winter fright wig, and a spangled cowboy outfit worthy of the Village People. Appearing onscreen as well as directing, Huston plays Adams as a grumpy wanderer who complains the law won’t allow him to die wherever he wants. And so it goes. Huston lets actors run amok with the absurd material, and they look like they’re having a blast; Newman in particular seems thrilled to play a grizzled old coot with a silver tongue and a colossally bad attitude.
The cast is filled with interesting people, from assorted varmint types (Ned Beatty, Bill McKinney) to those playing random small roles (Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Zerbe). But the real star of this unique show is Milius’ outrageous dialogue, like this rant from Bean after he insults a group of fallen women: “I understand you have taken exception to my calling you whores. I'm sorry. I apologize. I ask you to note that I did not call you callous-ass strumpets, fornicatresses, or low-born gutter sluts. But I did say ‘whores.’ No escaping that. And for that slip of the tongue, I apologize.”
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean: GROOVY