Friday, January 30, 2015

John Huston

In the documentary Milius, screenwriter and noted blowhard John Milius disses this movie based on his own script, arguing that Paul Newman was miscast and Huston the wrong John for the job. He laughs it off, boasting how much money he made selling the script, then claims to have gotten his due a few years later when he directed The Wind and the Lion and cast Huston in it. I haven't seen that second film, but I think Milius doth protest too much about the first. This is a fine film, a solid western yarn-- part loose-limbed biopic, part tall tale-- and Newman is great in the lead role. I think what really gets Milius' goat about this film is what Huston DIDN'T change. The "directed by" credit might be in the elder John's name, but Milius' "Zen Anarchist" prints are all over this thing.

Roy Bean (Newman) plays a cantankerous outlaw who happens upon a small town whose denizens try to rob him, then draw and quarter him when he orders a shot of cactus whiskey. Bean escapes then takes his revenge by killing everyone in town (other than the Mexicans) and appointing himself Judge after briefly leafing through a huge volume of Texas State law. He hires some other bandits as his "servants of the court," urging them to bring back "wrongdoers" so he can extract "court fees." Soon, Bean takes a Mexican wife (Victoria Principal of Dallas fame), adopts a brown bear that likes to drink from Grizzly Adams (Huston in a cameo), all the while pining for his true love, Lillie Langtry (Ava Gardner), a vaudeville performer he keeps a picture of in his saloon. Did I mention there's Stacy Keach cameo as an albino gunslinger named "Bad Bob"?

This movie reminded me a lot of Peckinpah's Ballad of Cable Hogue, which also deals with a folkloric Western hero and his undoing by the wheels of progress (literally, the automobile). I have a feeling what bothered Milius most about Huston's version is his slight remove from the material. Bean, as Huston presents him, is closer to a comic figure than a mythical one, especially in the scenes where he attempts (and fails) to visit his true love Lily in the city. Judging from Milius' other work, I'm pretty sure he would have taken Bean's various travails and shirkings of the law much more seriously.

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