‘The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean’: An Underappreciated Elegy to the Dying West

Probably one of John Huston’s most personal works, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, the 1972 Western with the legendary Paul Newman, is one of the most pleasing films of the decade. The script—rich in characters and events, incredibly dynamic, fast-paced and chalk-full of humorous and somber moments playfully exchanging places under the spotlight—was written by the great John Milius, who was coming off considerable acclaim for the Jeremiah Johnson screenplay and who eyed this project as his potential directorial debut. Producer John Foreman, however, wanted somebody with far more experience, and Huston got the job. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is an elegy to the dying Old West, grappling a theme relatively similar to that of the ten years older The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Roy Bean is an outlaw who decides to claim a town as his own domain, acting as the ultimate hand of justice, but the times are changing. Raw force and the power of bullets are no longer a match for law and order, elections and politics. Roy Bean is not only a charming, power-hungry, profit-loving Western scoundrel—he’s the clear representative of the old ways that ruled the West. But as everything’s evolving, even Roy realizes that Texas is no country for old men anymore. Even if we choose not to seek any deeper meaning and omnipresent symbolism in the film, we’re still left with one heck of a ride.

John Milius and John Huston created a very entertaining movie, with fast tempo, visually attractive action scenes, a considerable amount of tension-relieving comic interludes and a great performance from the lead star. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was deeply misunderstood and underappreciated back in 1972, and it took some time and the arrival of the next generation of filmlovers and film critics to see the film for what it actually was: a superbly written antiheroic letter of admiration for the cinematically ever-inspiring world of whoremongering saloons and high noon gunfights.

Screenwriter must-read: John Milius’ screenplay for The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

Emerging two years later as part of the USC Film School Mafia, Milius began writing an impressive body of screenplays including Jeremiah Johnson, Dirty Harry (uncredited), Judge Roy Bean, Magnum Force, and Apocalypse Now. Those screenplays gave him enough credibility to direct his scripts for Dillinger, The Wind and the Lion, Big Wednesday, Conan the Barbarian (co-written with Oliver Stone), Red Dawn, Farewell to the King, Flight of the Intruder, and Rough Riders. His screenplay for Apocalypse Now (credit shared with Coppola) would be nominated for an Academy Award. Milius has been considered “the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood” four times in his career. After selling his screenplay The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean for $300,000 (an almost unprecedented amount in 1971, especially for a writer whose asking price was $85,000), Milius told Esquire, “I make terrific deals. My hole card on this one was I didn’t particularly want to sell Roy Bean anyway. I had written it for my own pleasure.”

But more interesting than the amount of money this script sold for was the emerging writer’s voice within it. Called “the gifted barbarian” by Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael recognized Milius’s singular voice early in his career in scripts under two different directors (Sydney Pollack—Jeremiah Johnson, John Huston—Judge Roy Bean), and attacked his apparent fascination with “fascist” violence and his glorification of lawlessness. The recognition of his voice as a writer provided an early crack in the interpretive lens of the auteur theory and put a gun-toting face to the Hollywood writer of the early 1970s. —John Milius talks about Hollywood, his experiences as a writer, and his dislike of books which teach screenwriting



Elwy Yost meets John Huston, director of such films as The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, and The Man Who Would Be King. Huston offers anecdotes about Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart, and Truman Capote, with whom he has worked; describes his long career; and outlines the difficulties he encountered in the making of Moby Dick. —Talking Film: The Cinema Of John Huston



Writer-director John Milius and screenwriters Sterling Silliphant and Bernard Slade talk about the role of the screenwriter in the creation of films, the ‘Auteur theory,’ casting films, and examine working relationships between writers, directors and producers. —Talking Film: The Screenwriter

John Huston: at 74 no formulas, American Film (Sept 1980). A survey of Huston’s career in films from his autobiography An open book.

A truly wonderful speech from 1983, director, actor and writer John Huston accepts the 11th AFI Life Achievement Award.

The making of John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean by Terry O’Neill.

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