The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean: A Late-Capitalist Revenge Fantasy for Oddballs and Outcasts

[written by Jacob Berkowitz]

During his marriage to Evelyn Keyes, John Huston owned a pet monkey. Much to Evelyn’s dismay, one night John let the monkey stay in the bedroom the two shared. Shockingly, Evelyn woke up the next morning to find her clothes in tatters, and her underwear transformed into a primate toilet. Evelyn proceeded to confront John, saying, “It’s the monkey or me!” to which John responded simply, “I’m sorry, honey, I just can’t bear to be parted from the monkey.”

Huston was—among other things—a deeply weird man who spent time as an amateur boxer, and  became an honorary member of the Mexican cavalry. He felt out of place in Beverly Hills, so he left. Then he felt out of place in America, his home country, so he left to become an Irish citizen. This was not the first time he spent a significant amount of time living outside America, as he began his career as a writer in Mexico. 

Though born to Hollywood legend Walter Huston, John somehow felt like an outsider; a man who operated within the Hollywood system almost in spite of himself and his peculiarities. It seems a miracle that Huston managed to survive nearly five decades making idiosyncratic films like Wise Bloods and Under the Volcano for niche audiences in the face of a system that was designed to whittle away the rough edges in order to create easily marketable art, saleable to the widest possible demographic.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean begins when the eponymous Bean (a bearded Paul Newman) rides into Vinegaroon, a place bereft of life save for a few scattered dwellings and a brothel on the lawless side of the Pecos River. Bean  is on the run from the law after robbing a bank, and can seemingly find no purchase anywhere else in a pre-manifest destiny America. The brothel is populated by men whose faces are nothing but shadow and hair, and women who are but sweat and dirt. Bean is promptly beaten and robbed by the brothel inhabitants, but of course, Bean comes back and dispatches with all of them in a violent display of absurd hilarity (at one point, a man aimlessly wanders into frame and wordlessly shoots off his own penis).

Roy Bean becomes Judge Roy Bean upon taking custody of a massive tome of Texan laws, espousing the idea that, “justice is the handmaiden of the law,” and “the law is the handmaiden of justice” interchangeably. And though Vinegaroon starts out small, Bean is quickly joined by a five man posse of bandits led by Bart Jackson (Jim Burk). The bandits, like Bean, aren’t bad men, but merely find themselves unwelcomed by civil society. “We’re honest men. Merely been driven to a life beyond the law by circumstances,” says Bart. Bean appoints the men as his new marshals.

It isn’t long before all of Vinegaroon is populated with similar such folk. The town welcomes a cadre of sex workers after their pimp is nearly lynched (“We, as the decent folks of this community, will not abide by pimp gamblers and women of the night at prices like these.”) Grizzly Adams (John Huston himself)—an individual who lives completely removed from the world of God and man—makes a pit stop just outside of town to leave behind his friend, a bear named Zachary Taylor (performed with scene stealing aplomb by Bruno the Bear). Zachary, of course, fits right in with the rest of Vinegaroon, swilling gallons of beer, eating cigars, and joining the Judge and his Mexican girlfriend Maria (Victoria Principal, not Mexican herself), on whimsically oddball picnics.

Halfway through the film, all of the town’s major players get together for a photograph that perfectly emblematizes the town at its zenith. The Judge is surrounded by Maria, Zachary Taylor, his marshals and their newly betrothed former sex-working wives, bartender Tector Crites (Ned Beatty), and a marching band abutting a hanged man. All of them peculiar, and all of them in a Vinegaroon that has grown to include a haberdashery, a poolhall, a small shop and the like.

In this (literally) picture perfect moment, the town is full of outsiders and marginalized peoples, all of whom were simply desperate to scratch out a living at some point. Some were driven to outsider status by an economic system that just could not accommodate them, others by dint of the color of their skin. Vinegaroon became a haven for those who did not or could not adhere to stereotypical American capitalist ideals of normalcy or social adhesion.

For at this point, Vinegaroon was still small enough and unobtrusive enough to go unnoticed by those in power. In the fictional America established by the film’s opening title, the town sat beyond the reach of American law. “The Pecos River marked the boundaries of civilization in western Texas,” both legally and economically, as evidenced by the level of destitution upon Bean’s arrival. The town, too, remained untouched by railway, and as a result offered no economic incentive for some larger entity to subsume it. As a small town that existed to service mainly its own inhabitants, what reason might some governmental body or burgeoning corporation have to swoop in?

The town functions as a haven for the marginalized and the miscreants because of—not in spite of—its size. When an economic or governmental system creates a class of people who cannot exist within it for whatever reason, places like Vinegaroon by necessity must exist. Those who find themselves crushed into a ball under the weight of a capitalist rule they cannot shoulder still live, even if they’re being asked to fit into a square-shaped hole. In order for capitalist systems to maintain a veneer of fairness, those people need a place like Vinegaroon to opt into, yet those places are only allowed to exist untouched so long as they remain small and quiet.

Of course, Bean doesn’t quite realize this. While overlooking a Malickian sunset, the Judge turns to Maria and professes his desire to turn the field they’re on into something more.

Someday it’s [Vinegaroon] gonna be covered with farms and towns. There’s going to be a railroad, streets covered with brick. Buildings made of stone 100 feet high. There’s gonna be factories and slaughterhouses like I seen in those pictures of Denver and Chicago. And I’m going to have a courthouse made of granite four stories high, where I can look down and see that everything is going to plan.

The sunset acts as an obvious symbol for an end to the wonderful place Bean and his friends cultivated, but the tragedy lies in how Bean pursues his own demise.

Throughout the film, Bean idolizes Miss Lily Langtry, The Jersey Lily (a brief cameo appearance in the very last scene from Ava Gardner). Though we’re told she’s an unparalleled singer, we never hear her sing, and though we’re told she possesses unmatched beauty, we only see her likeness in painted posters. Miss Lily hangs around the rich and famous (“When people go to see Miss Lily, they get dressed for the occasion. They wear tails.”), and she associates with princes and various other aristocrats. Lily Langtry is the ultimate insider, having accumulated vast wealth and respectability with mainstream American capitalism. Bean’s idolatry of her is as clear-cut an example of fetishization as one can find in film, and his fetishization is birthed as a result of her acting as metonym for all that Bean has been denied, in spite of his and Vinegaroon’s success.

Bean does make the trek to see her sing while she’s in San Antonio. Unfortunately, he never makes it into the concert hall. While he has the money to buy the tickets offering upwards of 200 dollars in 1900, the theater is sold out. Regardless of how much money he has accrued, no amount of capital can get Bean close to what he desires most. Naturally, some less than reputable grifter overhears Bean offering an ungodly sum of cash to anyone who will hawk him a ticket. The grifter takes his money, brings him to the back door, and he and a partner beat Bean unconscious to get whatever is left in his pockets.

Bean returns home, beaten and broke, to discover that Maria, who was very pregnant before his pilgrimage, has given birth to his first child and is now deathly ill. With the doctor still away after a drunken bender, Bean arrives just in time to give Maria a music box—the only thing she ever asked of Bean—before she passes away.

If Lily is the ultimate insider, then Maria is her foil, a Mexican in a foreign land, born into poverty, whose only associates are drunks and criminals. Maria loves Bean unconditionally, and he loves her in return, yet Bean obsesses over Lily until Maria’s dying breath. It’s not until after he is denied access to Lily that he comes to realize that Maria is all he will ever want and need. But by that point, it’s too late.

It’s also too late for Bean to retain a hold on Vinegaroon. The morning after Maria passes, Bean’s marshals reveal to him that a vote was held to determine Vinegaroon’s mayor, and Bean did not win.

After the group photo to commemorate those most important to Vinegaroon’s growth, Frank Gass (Roddy McDowall), a foppish, accented lawyer, moves into town under the impression that he will be able to reason control of the town away from Bean. He waltzes into the courthouse while Bean, his marshals, and Maria are playing a game of poker, and interrupts Bean while he’s deciding to raise or call. Bean loses the hand, and warns Gass not to interrupt him again, but Gass simply can’t wait. He has obtained the property rights to the land upon which Vinegaroon sits, and Gass is sure that the law will enforce his claims to property.

Bean is the law and executor of said law in Vinegaroon, so of course that doesn’t happen; Gass cannot back his claims to the land with the threat of violence yet. But his arrival signals more than the promise of a climactic final dust up. With Gass comes the encroachment of those systems Vinegaroon was created to act as a bulwark against, namely organized class and capitalism.

Gass brings a veneer of refinement in the form of a respectable and well spoken lawyer who insists on helping the images of the townspeople. The wives of the marshals are no longer sex-workers after associating with Gass, but are instead proper ladies. Hangings are no longer held out in public, as that would deter the possibility of railroads running through town. Of course, Gass is crueler and more violent than anyone else in Vinegaroon; he hires a hitman to assassinate Bean in the dead of night, only to have the hit go horribly wrong when the assassin runs into Zachary Taylor, who dies protecting his friend in the ensuing struggle. Where Bean makes his violence explicit, Gass seems too much of a coward to do the same.

What brings Gass to Vinegaroon in the first place is never made explicitly clear, but his actions as mayor serve as a strong indication: the promise of wealth and property. After the death of his wife and the loss of the town he built, Bean enters a self-imposed twenty-year exile, which sees Vinegaroon transform into a heavily policed and muddy oil town. The violence in Vinegaroon hasn’t dissipated with the introduction of an organized capitalist system; it just became plastered over with pinstripe suits, and bowler hats. Violence is no longer in service of community building. Now it’s enacted in order to ensure the continued growth of capital.

It’s difficult to not notice parallels between Vinegaroon’s arc and America’s trajectory over the forty years following the release of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. An increasing number of once untouchable refuges for the weird and displaced have seen themselves balloon in size to the point where they’ve become too big to be ignored by the capitalist side. Every June, Pride Month is now brought to you by Wells Fargo™ or Corona Light©. Esports get their own banner on Disney-owned ESPN. It’s not in the least bit original to point out that “nerd culture” has been so thoroughly assimilated into the mainstream as to render the word “nerd” utterly meaningless. Such is the arc of all things under late capitalism. You go from undetectable, to small yet robust, to just as smooth and formless as everything else you see advertisements for in between reruns of The King of Queens.

This isn’t accidental; it’s by design. Fandoms, hobbies, places—they’re all left alone to grow wild and weird just long enough for those with money and power to swoop in and sand off the edges in order to sell it to as wide an audience as possible. Even if those edges are what allowed you to grab on in the first place.

After Maria dies in Bean’s arms, The Judge slowly walks out to his rocking chair on the porch. He has emotionally vacated his body, aimlessly rocking back and forth. Then the doctor shows up, still drunker than Bacchus, asking to be taken to the patient. Directly, Bean grabs the doctor by his belt, drags him to the gallows, and hangs him. Or at least, Bean begins to hang him until Gass shows up, demanding that the doctor be let down.

Gass does not get to claim the moral high ground, though. After all, he later goes on to force Bean’s daughter off of her father’s land under the threat of violence, leaving her homeless and destitute. No, Gass merely represents a type of bloodless, platitudinal violence we’re all routinely subjected to. We don’t work because we want to; we work because we’ll be homeless if we fall too far behind on rent. We don’t leave banks alone because we think they’re beyond reproach; we don’t rob banks because the police exist to enforce the property rights of the controlling class. We don’t ignore sexual assault when we experience it because we accept it; we ignore sexual assault because we know that human resources exist not to protect the grunts, but to protect the higher-ups from controversial liabilities.

We are forced to adhere to a social contract undergirded by the aforementioned type of violence not because the corporate class—what Gass acts as shorthand for—cares about the feelings of others. It’s because capitalism ensures that there’s a casket waiting for anyone who disrupts the company’s ability to earn. Public hangings aren’t immoral because they’re cruel. They’re immoral because they cut profit.

America is both figuratively and literally on fire as I write this. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers is another murder in a long line of recent murders of Black Americans that includes Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and Tony McDade in Tallahassee. This isn’t new. Under Obama, we saw the Ferguson protests after the murder of Michael Brown at the hands of police officers in Missouri in 2014. Under George H.W. Bush, we saw the Los Angeles riots after the senseless beating of Rodney King at the hands of police officers in 1992. Under Jimmy Carter, we saw the Miami riots after the murder of Arthur McDuffie at the hands of police officers in 1980.

Late capitalism seems most distinctly marked by a lack of conclusions. We fight endless wars against faceless enemies, like drugs or terror. Those most responsible for heinous crimes during the recession of ’08 or the ongoing opioid crisis have not, and most likely will not even face trial. We seem destined to relitigate the same tired political arguments ad nauseam every four years, desperately hoping for change, yet finding none. We aren’t lucky enough to find even sad endings in our current world. We’re doomed to aimless purgatory. 

At least revenge grants you a definite close.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a film that seems particularly fixated on revenge. After the opening shootout at the brothel, a traveling Reverend (Anthony Perkins) rides into town atop a donkey. He notices the carnage, buries the dead, and reads a passage from the Book of Psalms.

Let their teeth be broken and blooded in their mouths, the great teeth of the young lions. He shall take them away, as with a whirlwind, both living and in his wrath. The Righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance. He shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked, so that a man shall say verily, there is a reward for the righteous. Verily, he is a god that judgeth the earth.

Iterations of this passage are repeated throughout the film by Bean himself, most notably during the town’s funeral for Zachary Taylor.

This quote from The Old Testament is one that unambiguously supports violent revenge, but more interestingly likens those who enact vengeance to a god. Certainly God himself judges the earth, but he who is a judge on earth is like a god themselves, no?

Judge Roy Bean seems to think so. The shootout in the brothel at the film’s beginning is an act of bloody revenge; Bean exacts vengeance upon those who beat him, robbed him, and left him for dead. When the Reverend mentions to Bean that, “Vengeance is mine sayeth the lord,” Bean responds brusquely, “It was.”

The film’s narrative seems to agree with Bean as well, as any time Bean takes justice into his own hands, he is rewarded. The above mentioned act of revenge grants him the rights to all of Vinegaroon’s land, and allows Bean to turn the brothel into his courthouse. Petty acts of small time vengeance are smiled upon too. When Snake River Rufus Krile shoots a hole into Bean’s poster of Lily Langtry, Bean and his marshals shoot him dead. For this, Bean picks up fifty-two dollars. The inverse is also true; Bean’s lone act of self-interrupted revenge—his aborted hanging of the drunken doctor—is directly followed by his exile.

This is not to say that The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a prescriptive film, nor is it to say that the film is a call to violent action. Reagan was merely Governor of California when Huston wrapped on the film, and was still four years away from getting beaten by Ford and the moderate wing of the Republican party. Huston probably couldn’t foresee the damage that was to come for the safety nets that protected American workers, and even if he could, director intentionality is only so useful in deriving meaning from film.

But there is something innately satisfying in watching Judge Roy Bean rain bloody vengeance down upon his enemies.

Bean eventually returns from exile, haggard and white-haired, ready to reclaim the courthouse that was once his. He corrals his former marshals, and holes up inside with his now grown daughter, Rose (Jacqueline Bisset), to play one last game of poker. Gass is outside, howling at Bean through a bullhorn to come out and surrender. Bean loses the hand again, of course, and decides to come out to confront Gass. He already warned Gass once not to interrupt him while he’s deciding to raise or call, and this time he’s ready to teach Gass a lesson.

Bean identifies himself as, “Justice, you sons of bitches,” after plucking a torch hurled at him from the sky. He launches it back at the mob and it’s not long after that before the whole of Vinegaroon is aflame. He and his marshals go out in a literal blaze of glory, and Bean personally ensures that Gass finds himself trapped in an engulfed hotel. Bean dies with Gass; it’s hard to imagine a story about revenge ending in anything other than self-destruction. Yet, as Maurice Jarre’s propulsive score pounds in the background, the mood can’t be described as anything other than triumphant.

There is a narrative catharsis here, of course; watching Gass get his comeuppance feels fitting. But there’s a personal catharsis as well. Seeing these hairy, hardscrabble outsiders burn a capitalist hellhole acts as a release from the sanitized sadism we endure daily. There’s something inarguably enticing about the unambiguous and unobfuscated violence of Judge Roy Bean. The Roy Beans of the world are largely gone, and all we have left are Gasses, blowing hot air and curling up behind words, begging you to like them as they punch you in the stomach.

The Life and Times Of Judge Roy Bean makes no pretenses about the fact that vengeance is a road that ultimately leads to death—but it certainly is an ending. And in a world that strips you of so much of your agency, under an economic and political system that so often leaves you with nothing but the choice between evil A and evil B, clawing back and earning your right to choose how and when you go out can almost seem radical.

Huston really did choose the monkey over Evelyn. She was just his third wife, and their marriage together lasted all of four years. Huston would later go on to marry twice more, though the man never did seem to make any of his relationships stick. Still, he kept trying, ceaselessly looking for love through—what would seem to most people—a comical amount of trial and error. He too seemed trapped, here not by systems, but by personal problems and bad luck, sentenced to a life wherein one must play out the same rituals of love and loss over and over again. Yet he did just that, each time vowing to love and cherish his partner, each time giving love a chance.

There remains a nobility in facing certain doom with heedless optimism. Bean knows that facing off against Gass’s army guarantees death, yet we root for him all the more because of this. It’s a quixotic endeavor; of course Bean isn’t going to triumph over Gass, and if he does he certainly won’t live to tell the tale. The best he can hope to achieve is a moral victory. And that’s good enough.

There isn’t much any one individual can do to free us from the systems we all find ourselves ensnared in. We’re each trapped in our own cycles of political and personal despair, aching for change. Yet, every day we’re asked to keep working, keep moving through the morass. Sometimes, the best we can hope for are hollow victories. As we work towards building the infrastructure for foundational transformations, often the best we can do is sign a petition. Or make a small donation. Or support a locally owned business instead of a big-box store.

Sending one corrupt banker or murderous cop to jail, or removing one war criminal from office changes nothing fundamentally. It offers no real institutional fix, and sets no policy in place to prevent the person who replaces them from doing the exact same thing. But to do even that work under the crushing weight of daily life? It isn’t nothing. It’s not enough, but it isn’t nothing. Every day we wake up and do something to make a change in our world—knowing full well that the deck is so totally stacked against us—is something approaching that Roy Bean nobility. I think that’s worth something.

For Texas and Miss Lily. 

Essays

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