I continue to study the Western genre. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Western films. Listen here

John Milius was right. Huston and Newman butchered his script. It’s actually hard to imagine how the eccentric director and movie star could have done a worse job with the scribe’s work. And how do I know it would have been a better movie under the writer’s control? Track record. You only need to watch the way he handled another American legend in Dillinger to see how he would have treated this historical figure. You only need to watch the way he portrayed another authoritative figure in Farewell to the King to see how he would have balanced the good and bad of a violent leader. You only have to see thee way he staged action and established a mythic tone in The Wind and the Lion to understand how he would have made that finale and given the film the tone it deserved.

After being warned about this movie, I finally decided to give it a watch, mostly curious to see if it was as flawed as reported and if it confirmed the disappointment Milius felt. It does both those things in spades. Paul Newman is so wrong for Judge Roy Bean. It’s like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise playing Pontius Pilate. No doubt his movie star ego misled him to think he could pull off this character, already portrayed to near perfection by Walter Brennan in The Westerner, but it was bad judgement. I did not believe him for a single moment in the movie. I did not believe his good, his bad, his love or his malice. Newman was a great actor who made some classics, lots of good films, and several bad ones. This fits in the latter category. Like all actors, he was only good when he was cast in certain roles like Butch Cassidy and in this movie’s most embarrassing moment (the picnic music montage with the bear) he even tries to recapture some of the tone of that film.

But the film’s failure should most of all be blamed on John Huston. The cartoonish style he sets up from the beginning is so wrong, so misguided that I had to force myself to keep watching. He completely misses all the opportunities of this dynamic subject and misuses the Milius screenplay. Don’t believe me? Watch every Milius film plus the ones he didn’t direct and tell me this isn’t a deformed translation of the master writer’s work. There’s a serious argument to be made that Huston could be cinema’s most uneven director. He made greats and then some truly terrible films. I suspect some of those embarrassing results might be attributed to laziness. I think he made some movies he shouldn’t have because he didn’t really want to and this Western wreaks of that apathetic disengagement. I’ve seen what happens when a director is lazy on set… it’s not pretty and unless they have a good team to carry the weight, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a good example of what comes of it.

Watched on Criterion Channel.