Best Picture This: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

Title card for The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.

Our journey through 1972 movies land us in the old West as we dig into The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.

We’re taking a break from our journey through the best picture nominees of the 1973 Academy Awards to visit other movies released in 1972. Some of these movies weren’t nominated for any Oscars while others like The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, the focus of today’s column, received only one nomination. One nomination or no nominations doesn’t mean that these movies aren’t worthy of a discussion.

We may not be at The Academy Awards but we’re still handing out the Farley Award and giving our Golden Take. Because it wouldn’t be Best Picture This if we didn’t.


The Farley Award

Prior to being a self-appointed judge, Roy Bean (Paul Newman) was an outlaw. That is until he ran into few of Pecos’s finer citizens. After he kills them all he makes himself a judge dispensing justice from a Texas state law book. His mantra was, “Law is the handmaiden of justice.” He even got a little spiritual guidance from Lillie Langtry, a famous actress at the time. Here is where the Farley Award is awarded.

Judge Roy Bean and his deputies shoot a drunk for shooting a picture of the beautiful Lille Langtry.

Judge Roy Bean and his deputies are playing poker, which he’s loosing. Behind them is drunk, firing off his guns, and yelling nonsense at whoever would listen. Judge Bean and the others don’t even blink an eye when he’s shooting up the bar. Tector Crites (played by Ned Beatty in only his second role in a feature film), the bartender, waves him away so he can watch the card game. When the drunk takes a shot at the picture of Lilly Langtry he gets bullets from everyone. Judge Bean even fines the dead drunk. It’s a funny movie in a movie that can’t decided what it wants to be.

The Golden Take

Roy Bean was never a real judge. He wasn’t even a lawyer.  Judge Roy Bean came to his calling at the end of a rope. The same kind of rope he would hanging many people from. He rides into Pecos, bragging about a robbery to the few people in a saloon. It’s not too soon afterwards that he’s being strung up. Of course, he gets loose and when he comes back to the saloon he kills everyone in it. Roy Bean is born again as Judge Roy Bean.

Paul Newman feeds a bear in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.

As a judge he does a lot of hanging. A lot. One scene, later in the movie, shows rows and rows of crosses, burial plots for each man he hung. There comes a point where the hangings become more of a joke than a solemn affair. A lot of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is played for comedic effect.

Not everything in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is played for comedy. Although it would be hard to argue the point when a good portion of the second act is dedicated to his friendship with a bear. Early in the movie he meets Maria (played by Victoria Principal, which should show you the state of casting in 1972), a young Mexican girl. In time he falls in love with her. In time, movie wise, he starts to show it but in a gruff Judge Roy Bean way. When Maria dies in childbirth he starts to hang the doctor who arrived late and arrived drunk. It’s love in maybe the only way Roy can show it.

Once we set the comedy aside there’s honestly a good movie in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. At the beginning, Pesos is a dirt town with two ramshackled buildings and a saloon. He tells Maria one day the town will have everything- shops, commerce, the railroad, oil rigs, the whole nine yards. It’s almost there when he goes into a self-imposed exile because the town voted him out of office. When he returns everything he promised Maria has come to fruition. And he hates it.

Paul Newman and Victoria Principal standing in a field.

So he does what any irrational self-appointed judge would do, he gathers up his deputies, many who have fallen on hard times, and burns the town to the ground. At the end things end where they started, Pecos is a dirt town with a couple ramshackled buildings. And a saloon.


I honestly really liked The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. I’m not so sure that “really liked” works anymore after my second viewing. Paul Newman is outstanding in playing both the comedy and serious parts. Sometimes he does ham it up a little more than what was probably called for. This is ultimately my issue with the movie.

Paul Newman as Judge Roy Bean burning the entire town to the ground.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean can’t decide if it wants to be a comedy or western. Its message of modernity crashing into the West is lost, buried under a lot of nonsense. I wouldn’t kick it out right, but it’s not a keeper either. On a top ten list of 70’s movies it would squeak into the top 15. Maybe.