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"The Only Law West of the Pecos"
on 12 November 2009
This film is based on the colourful, larger than life character of the title. Judge Roy Bean was a real life character, who was an outlaw himself for many years and narrowly escaped hanging on one occasion. As a result of this he was left with a permanent rope burn scar on his neck. In the early 1880s he settled in the small isolated outpost of Vinegaroon, Pecos County, Texas. He later renamed it Langtry after the famous actress Lillie Langtry whom he idolized. From his saloon he dispensed summary justice in a somewhat erratic fashion. He styled himself "The only law west of the Pecos". After an eventful life he died in 1903 after a heavy drinking bout. He somehow got to the grand old age of 78.
Bean was ideal movie material and many films have used his character with varying degrees of authenticity. In 1938 the famous old Hollywood cowboy Harry Carey played him in "The Law West of Tombstone". Walter Brennan then played him alongside Gary Cooper in the very good "The Westerner"(40). Later in 1969 he was portrayed by an excellent Victor Jory in Budd Boetticher's playful "A Time For Dying"(69). There were a number of other less worthy films that also depicted him. In 1972 the legendary film director and raconteur John Huston decided to make a film very loosely based on his life.
The film itself does exactly what it says on the can, and depicts Bean's life and times from his bloody arrival in lawless Vinegaroon, to his later return to a Texas of oil wells and motor cars. He has three loves in his life. Lillie Langtry whom is never destined to meet, his beautiful Mexican mistress and a bear left to him by the eponymous Grizzly Adams, played in a lovely little cameo by Huston himself. We then follow him as he dispenses his own brand of justice through a strong rope and his six gun. There are some memorable lines. He says to one desperado in his saloon room court, "Do you have anything to say before we find you guilty and hang you?". Now as a very small cog in the criminal justice system of this country, I find this a very refreshing outlook that might go a long way to solving our high crime rates. It certainly cuts down on all the costs! On one occasion the judge is faced by a smart ass lawyer who tries to prove a point of law to him by referring to a particular page in a very large law tome. Bean studies it briefly then rips the page out deciding it is not a very good law. No worries about running that one through the House of Lords!
The film is extremely funny at times but is a little uneven. Am I the only person who did not like the "Bad Bob" sequence! I thought Stacy Keach looked oddly out of place in a cowboy outfit that reminded me of Dustin Hoffman during his snake eyed gunfighter period in "Little Big Man". It didn't quite work for me and would have been better in "The Rocky Horror Show". I also found the ending a bit surreal when Bean returns like an avenging semi mythical angel to dispense justice. All a bit weird really! Apart from these aberrations there is much to admire. There is a fine cast of actors including Anthony Perkins and Ava Gardner who appears memorably at the end as Lillie Langtry. Paul Newman acquits himself well in the title role, although someone older and more grizzled may have been better suited. The script by the prolific John Milius is excellent and the music by Maurice Jarre takes the film along at a jaunty pace. The film was badly received on its release, which was undeserved as it is pretty good. It is certainly one of Huston's better and more interesting later works together with that fine film "The Man who would be King"(75). The film is a very satisfying offbeat romp which deserves 4 stars.