In this western story Gary Cooper is Cole Harden a drifter passing through Vinegarroon, Texas on his way to California. But Vinegarroon is the home of “Judge” Roy Bean, the only law west of the Pecos River. Bean (played by Walter Brennan) is a hanging judge who hands out rough justice based on being an advocate for the cattlemen. If the cattlemen stampede a herd of cattle through a corn field and the farmer shoots one of the steers he’ll be hanged by Bean for the offense.
(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)
When Harden appears in the movie, he’s being led to Bean’s court house (saloon) because one of the locals recognized Harden’s horse as one that was stolen from a local. Naturally the jury will declare him guilty but Harden manages to convince Bean that he is a friend of the famous actress Lily Langtry whom Bean greatly admires. Claiming that he has a lock of her hair Harden gets Bean to “suspend” his sentence while evidence of his innocence can be found. While Harden and Bean cement their friendship over bogus tales of Langtry and Bean’s rotgut whiskey the real horse thief walks into the saloon and Harden punches him out and retrieves the purchase price of the horse from his pockets. When the thief attempts to shoot Harden, Bean beats him to the draw and thus reinforces the bond between the drifter and the hangin’ judge.
After this the movie drifts off into other directions. Harden leaves town and while travelling through the area ends up working as a field hand for the Mathew family on their farm. A romance blossoms between and Harden and the daughter Jane. But we find out that Judge Bean has been persecuting the farmers and intends to drive them off their land through harassment and judicial malfeasance. The farmers organize and decide to go en masse and shoot Bean to end their problem. When Harden hears this, he gallops to Bean’s saloon and warns Bean. Harden and Bean stop the plot and send the farmers away. But Harden convinces Bean to remove all the cattle from the valley where the farmers live in exchange for Lily Langtry’s lock of hair that Harden claims to have. Harden manages to get a lock of Jane Mathew’s hair for the purpose and when Bean fulfills his promise to move the cattle, he ceremoniously hands over the hair.
Now the farmers are triumphant and have a celebratory feast. But while it is going on the cattlemen set fire to the fields and homesteads of the farmers and destroy the whole valley. Jane’s father is murdered by the cattlemen and she blames Harden for the deeds she attributes to his friend Bean.
Harden forces Bean to admit that he was responsible for the fire and Harden leaves town to get a warrant for the arrest of Bean for murder and arson. Coincidentally Lily Langtry is in the area for a concert and Judge Bean buys up all the tickets so that he can enjoy a private audience with Miss Langtry. And the performance becomes the site of a shootout between Harden and Bean. Eventually Harden fatally wounds Bean but before Bean dies Harden carries him backstage so Bean can see Langtry before he dies.
In the final scene Harden and Jane are a married couple on a rebuilt farm celebrating the return of the other settlers that had been driven out by Bean.
By the description, you can tell this is a very strange western. The way I can describe it is a comedy for the first half of the movie that switches over into a more conventional melodrama. From my point of view the comedic portions of the movie are the better parts. Cooper and Brennan have a weird funny chemistry that makes the movie interesting and enjoyable. The later romance and drama are okay but clash with the comedic elements. I’ll recommend the movie based on the scenes with Cooper and Brennan even though as whole the movie is sort of a mess.