The law west of the Pecos
It’s a generalization, but the law in Westerns tends to be a peace officer: town marshal, county sheriff or US marshal. Or, indeed, the law of the six-gun, as men (rarely women) serve their own ‘justice’. Or the law of Judge Lynch; a mob or a posse was often self-elected judge and jury – and executioner too.
Courts of law, when they appear at all, are often corrupt affairs in which jurors are bribed or prejudiced, lawyers are shysters and judges are scoundrels.
Here come the judge
There were honest judges in Westerns. They did exist. Will Wright made a specialty of the role of stern but fair judge, and you can see him presiding in the likes of Dallas (1950), The Iron Sheriff (1957), Gunman’s Walk (1958), and Quantrill’s Raiders (also 1958). He seemed to have the gravitas required for the part. Will Rogers in John Ford’s Judge Priest (1934) dispensed a sort of crackerbarrel wisdom in court. Other actors liked judge roles. Raymond Greenleaf was a judge 18 times!
Sometimes judges were even the Western hero – His Honor Fred MacMurray in Day of the Badman (1958) must sentence ne’er-do-well Rudy Hayes (Christopher Dark) to death for first-degree murder but Rudy’s violent brothers come into town to spare him the noose. Fred comes across as tough and decent but with just enough doubt and fear. He is shrewd enough to know that true courage is not fearlessness but rather being afraid and doing the right thing anyway. A judge has gotta do what a judge has gotta do.
Another hero of the court was Joel McCrea in Stranger on Horseback (1955). It’s the story of a judge with a brace of pistols. “A United States circuit judge,” says Joel in an introductory voiceover, “needed three things to bring justice to this country: a law book, a horse and a gun. The further West, he got, the less he needed the book.” Judge Joel arrives in a town owned by a rich rancher (the excellent John McIntire) who is a law unto himself, and cleans it up. That’s a well-known Western trope. He throws the murderous and arrogant son of the rancher (Kevin McCarthy) in jail to await trial. The rich rancher won’t have that. From Gun Hill to the Rio Bravo we Westernistas know this story intimately. And justice will prevail.
Judge Ray Teal wasn’t too bad in Chisum (1970). So, yes, just occasionally we get a goody judge.
But the vast majority of judges in Westerns are of the scoundrel variety.
If the pocket is empty, the judge is deaf (Russian Proverb)
Just as Will Wright cornered the market in sage and decent judges, so Edgar Buchanan was the rascal on the bench. Look at Arizona (1940). He is Judge Bogardus in early Tucson.
Bogardus: Now, prisoner at the bar, the charge against you is that you up and blowed the head plumb off of Gus Modesko. In consequence of which said shooting said Gus is deader than blazes. Are you guilty or not guilty?
Joe Briggs (Earl Crawford): Well, Judge, I don’t reckon I could say not guilty when everybody seen me do it.
Bogardus: Now what in tunket made you act like that, Joe?
Joe Briggs: Drinking. Just drinking.
Bogardus: Well, the verdict of this here tribunal is that Joe Briggs is fined five dollars for disturbing the peace. The court is hereby adjourned to Lazarus Ward’s bar where said fine will duly be disposed of.
It was only Edgar’s second appearance in a Western but he was soon much in demand for roguish judge parts – even in non-Westerns. Watch him in, say, Rage at Dawn (1955) or The Comancheros (1961). Corrupt, drunk, or both, there he was, cheerfully subverting the law. In the 1960 version of Cimarron, the Anthony Mann picture we recently reviewed, he was not so broadly comic, in fact rather touching as the judge. In Ride the High Country (1962) for Peckinpah he was superb as the sad, broken-down drunk judge, or ex-judge. But of course nowhere was he more of a judge-as-rogue than in the TV series Judge Roy Bean (1955 – 56). Buchanan’s Bean has nothing whatever to do with the real historical one, but it made a good show.
The real Bean was the subject of many another Western. Screen Beans have included, as well as Buchanan, Walter Brennan, Harry Carey, Paul Newman, Victor Jory, Frank Ferguson and Ned Beatty, among quite a few others. In all these portrayals, Judge Roy Bean comes across as an amusing rascal. In reality he was a much nastier piece of work than that, though tales of his liberal use of the hanging rope have been greatly exaggerated. He is only actually known in reality to have sentenced two men to hang, and one of those escaped. Still, Western movies aren’t documentaries; they’re fantastic stories.
As for other less than admirable judges in Westerns, they are legion. Try Henry Hull as a drunk judge in El Paso (1949) – though he was a cranky but kindly judge in The Proud Rebel with Alan Ladd in 1958 – drink being a particular weakness of the judiciary, apparently. In Ride Him, Cowboy (1932), Clarence ‘Necktie’ Jones (Otis Harlan) was the sort of incompetent judge who would be drunken in any other time than in a Prohibition era movie but in this Western is as sober as a, well, judge and uses an empty bottle as a gavel.
Other amusing but eccentric judges, sober or otherwise, include a Judge Roy Bean-ish Russell Simpson in the Hopalong Cassidy epic Border Patrol (1943) – though Russell was also a Will Wright-style good and upright judge in Broken Lance (1954), as well as in the 1932 Law and Order. Then there was Walter Matthau with a shotgun in Ride a Crooked Trail (1958), Judge Haller (James A Marcus) in his Hell-on-Wheels mobile courtroom/saloon in The Iron Horse (1924), Ward Bond as crooked gambler-judge in Tall in the Saddle (1944), and equally crooked Judge Carr (Don Beddoe) in Bullwhip (1958). Rascally judges were legion.
In Texas (1941) ex-Rebs Dan (William Holden) and Tod (Glenn Ford) are caught stealing a hog and fined an impossible sum by a spittoon-using pro-Union judge (Raymond Hatton). In The Texas Rangers (the 1936 one) Gabby Hayes is a corrupt judge, amusing as ever, and in Sheriff of Tombstone (1941) Gabby plays a gamblin’, rootin’, tootin’, shootin’ judge of about 100 years old. Andy Devine is the crooked judge in The Over the Hill Gang (1969). And so the list goes on, and, inexorably, on.
In Apache Trail (1942) a circuit judge (George Watts) confides to a fellow passenger in the stagecoach his principle of “When in doubt, hang ‘em”. On arrival in town he doesn’t even bother to disembark from the stage but hears the case against Tom Folliard (William Lundigan) in about thirty seconds and shouts his sentence from the window of the departing coach.
There were also some judges who weren’t amusing scoundrels so much as downright bad ‘uns. One thinks of Irving Bacon in Ambush at Cimarron Pass (1958), a coward who sneakily incites others to do his dirty work; Judge Mettrick (Otto Kruger) in High Noon (1952) deserts his post in fear of the arrival of Frank Miller on the noon train, urging Marshal Gary Cooper to do the same.
And in Stagecoach to Fury (1956) there is a judge (Wallace Ford) who does that regularly, a serial coward who runs from threats in town after town. Judge Dyer (Noah Beery) in the 1925 Riders of the Purple Sage, the Tom Mix one, was an especially nasty piece of work – movie versions tended to excise the Mormon aspect of the novel and replace the bishop with a judge; Glenn Ford as the judge gone insane in The Man from Colorado (1948); and perhaps the most vile of all, John McIntire’s perfectly splendid Judge Bannon, as charming as a trod-on rattlesnake, in the recently reviewed The Far Country (1955) – what a great performance.
Actually, in the True Grit sequel Rooster Cogburn (1975) McIntire played another famous Western judge, Isaac Parker (1838 to 1896).
The part had been taken by the excellent James Westerfield in the original True Grit in 1969 (and would be Jake Walker in the 2010 Coen brothers version) and other Hanging Judge Parkers have also appeared, on big screen and small. Edward Andrews was Parker in The Fiend Who Walked the West in 1958. In The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang (1979) we were back to judge-with-a-gun: Judge Parker (Dale Robertson) strapped on a gunbelt and had a fast-draw Main Street showdown with bad guy Jack Palance! Pat Hingle’s ‘Judge Fenton’ in Hang ‘em High (1968) was also clearly modeled on Parker. The real Parker did sentence men to death, and 79 were in fact executed over his career of more than twenty years, but in an interview with the St Louis Republic on September 1, 1896, he stated that he had no say whether a convict was to be hanged because of mandatory death sentences, and that he favored “the abolition of capital punishment”. But of course that wouldn’t do for a Western movie. There were other hanging judges. There was even a 1956 Western with the title The Hanging Judge (it was banned in Finland).
But I don’t think we can put Isaac Parker in the really bad-guy department. Other judges too in Western movies were somewhere in between the good guy and the baddy.
In Warlock (1958) Judge Holloway (Wallace Ford again) is an alcoholic depressive on crutches who is as irascible as he is noble. Henry Fonda kicks his crutches away in a shocking scene, improper behavior toward a judge – even if he wasn’t a ‘proper’ judge, just recognized by the town as one. Dan O’Herlihy in The Young Land (1959) is pompous and stands much on his own dignity but he also comes across as decent, honorable and full of integrity. Judge Henry in The Virginian is something of a mixture: a respected local rancher and community leader, he also condones the lynching. He was very much the villain in the (worst) 2014 version but is generally more nuanced.
In War Drums (1957) Judge Benton (Richard Cutting) pulls a derringer when some Indians look threatening (Ben Johnson tells him to put the pea-shooter away), so obviously he is one of my favorite judges.
So yes, we’ve had out colorful judges in Westerns alright.
The jury’s out
As for juries, very often they weren’t much better.
It evidently wasn’t easy in Western towns to find twelve good men and true. Twelve bad men and false, more like, although Rails into Laramie (1954) was a curiosity because Dan Duryea comes up before an all-woman jury. That was a rarity. It’s set in Wyoming and Wyoming was of course the first state to allow women the vote and to serve as jurors, in 1869, though whether an all-woman jury was sworn in to try Dan Duryea is another matter.
In Reprisal! (1956) there is a travesty of a trial when a callous and prejudiced jury doesn’t even bother to deliberate before freeing the murderers and joining them at the bar (towns without courtrooms often convened courts in saloons). Director George Sherman was keen on subverted-justice courtroom scenes, as The Tulsa Kid in 1940 had proved.
Other travesties of justice were commonplace. Along the Great Divide (1951), Copper Sky (1957) and Gunmen from Laredo (1959) will serve as examples. The ‘trials’ are really kangaroo courts which gave only the most perfunctory of official sanctions to what is basically a lynching. In Gunmen from Laredo, the circuit judge (Harry Antrim) is obliged to find the hero (Robert Knapp) guilty after the perjury of witnesses and the verdict of the bought-and-paid-for jury.
In Dark Command (1940) the Quantrill figure William Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon) brutally intimidates the jury to get into Claire Trevor’s good books and Roy Rogers is wrongly acquitted. In Border Patrol (1943) – the same one with Russell Simpson as rascal-judge – henchman Robert Mitchum is appointed foreman of the jury. He looks as enthusiastic as usual. And so the juridical shenanigans continue.
Of course there were plenty of real travesties of justice in the history of the West for the movies to model theirs on. One thinks, for example, of the farcical trial of Jack McCall in Deadwood for the murder of Wild Bill Hickok in 1876 or the acquittal of the killer of Bill Tilghman in 1924.
There were some rather less formal juries in Westerns. In Viva Villa! (1934) Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa comes back from the hills and lines up some hanged men as a (necessarily rather silent) jury before executing the ‘Spanish’ landowners who have taken the land from the peones. In Billy the Kid in Sante Fe (1941) Fuzzy Knight constitutes himself a judge and his pals a jury and they acquit the outlaws (who are of course goodies really) of all charges. Clint Eastwood made sure that Robert Duvall got his day in court in Joe Kidd (1972) but the verdict was slightly less than official. Still, given the standard of the average trial in Westerns, I don’t think they were that much worse…
Westerns as courtroom dramas
Some Westerns were pretty well just courtroom dramas. They usually didn’t work too well because Westerns depend on action, and courtrooms are notoriously static talking-shops. But by liberal use of flashbacks, such oaters try to introduce a more ‘Western’ tone. Take Sergeant Rutledge, not my favorite Ford Western, despite Woody Strode, which recounts the trial of the black army sergeant before a very dubious military court (the judges think it highly amusing to oil the wheels of justice with alcohol and adjourn now and then to play cards). The sergeant is only exonerated after Ford shows us flashback action scenes which prove his bravery and decency.
The Return of Frank James (1940), the Fritz Lang-directed sequel to Fox’s Jesse James of the year before, is actually very well done. The courtroom scene comes with a lot of action as well, so doesn’t drag. (Frank James’s actual acquittal was yet another historical travesty of justice but we’ll let that pass).
Valerie (1957) and The Outrage (1964) use the Rashomon plot, with a courtroom hearing as the framework for us to hear all the different (and contradictory) versions of how the events went down, as a succession of witnesses tell their stories and the screen goes all blurry, you know how they do, and we are transported back to the day of the crime.
Of course courtroom dramas are very cheap to stage, as The Kid from Broken Gun (1952) showed, and you get the impression that budget was one of the motives for Columbia making that Durango Kid Western a trial. It’s quite amusing when Smiley Burnette, who usually got a song, delivers a catchy number, It’s the Law, after being knocked out cold in court and imagining himself as the accused, the judge and on the jury all at the same time.
I reckon that the idea behind all these judges and juries who are corrupt or incompetent (and sometimes both on the same day) is that law, official law, was somehow a bit too ‘Eastern’ for the average frontier town. Real law was exercised with a Colt .45 (indeed Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams starred in a 1935 Western with the title of Law of the .45s). Or with a borrowed rope.
It’s not an entirely happy picture, but that’s Westerns for you.