|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 13 April 1999|
Sam Peckinpah's films are often violent, so much so that even years after his death, he's still known best for his use of violence. But his best movies, which means almost all of them, are really about the characters and their emotions; even the stories are usually secondary. Jeb Rosebrook's well-observed screenplay for Junior Bonner, in some senses, doesn't even have a story, but Peckinpah's gentle, affectionate treatment of the material makes this one of the best films of the 1970s -- and one of the most overlooked. The only "violence" in the movie are punches to two chins, a comic barroom brawl, and rodeo events; nobody even has a gun, much less fires one.
Rosebrook grew up in Prescott, Arizona, and was very familiar with its annual Frontier Days rodeo, the oldest professional rodeo in the United States. J.R. Bonner (Steve McQueen), called "Junior" because of his initials, drifts back into his home town of Prescott for the rodeo. He's a rodeo performer, specializing in bullriding; he was thrown by very mean bull Sunshine at the last rodeo, and hopes to get a chance to pit himself against the animal again.
He visits his mother Ellie (Ida Lupino), who runs an antique store in Prescott, and learns that his ne'er-do-well father Ace (Robert Preston) is slightly laid up in the hospital. Junior is quietly irritated to learn that his ambitious brother Curly (Joe Don Baker) bought Ace's ranch at a price far below its value, and plans to sell Ellie's antique store, too, putting her up in one of the mobile homes at his new trailer park.
It takes a while before Junior catches up with breezy, charming Ace -- in the middle of the Pioneer Days parade, in fact. Ace was a rodeo champ himself, but has been drifting around the country for years, engaged in fruitless prospecting quests. Now he wants to head off for Australia's gold fields (in 1972!), sure he can finally hit the mother lode.
Junior's a little old to still be on the rodeo circuit, but he's content to drive his big white Cadillac convertible (towing his horse trailer) to each successive rodeo. Almost everyone he meets, from Curly to Ace to Sundance's owner Buck Roan (Ben Johnson), wants to take Junior on as a partner, but he turns each of them down, and signs on for rodeo events.
Almost the first word McQueen says in Junior Bonner is "lonesome," and he probably is; he even embraces Curly when they meet. Many reviewers have suggested that Junior Bonner is the last of a breed, the kind of Westerner whose passing Peckinpah so eloquently depicted in The Wild Bunch and other movies. But actually, Junior is a survivor, not someone heading off into the sunset. Yes, he's a classic Westerner -- someone calls him a "motel cowboy" -- but he is living his life on his own terms. He's comfortable in the west of today (or rather 1972), and has no intention of giving up his easy, drifting life. Sure, he doesn't have much money, and is in debt to any number of people, including his mother, but money really doesn't mean a lot to Junior. At one point Curly tells Junior, "I'm working on my first million and you're still working on eight seconds" (how long you have to stay on the bull). This is true, and completely irrelevant; more than anything else, this line demonstrates the gulf between Curly and Junior.
Though he had more challenging roles, McQueen was never better than he is here; he coproduced the movie, and loved the results, leading to Peckinpah directing McQueen's next film, The Getaway. (That, however, led to their estrangement.) Junior is a solid, decent guy, though not above trying bribery to be sure he's assigned to ride Sunshine. He's complex, but restrained and self-contained; McQueen was one of the screen's great reactors, and clearly Peckinpah knew that. Aside from when he punches Curly, the only time Junior shows strong emotion is when the bull assignments are read -- but this is understated, too. Peckinpah uses a close shot of McQueen's hands toying with a typewriter; when he's assigned Sunshine, he gives the knob a quick, satisfied twist.
At first seeming an unlikely choice as an old rodeo rider and all-round scamp, Preston turns out to be simply perfect. Ace is brash and breezy, immensely charming -- but he's also someone who'd wear out his welcome pretty fast. Lupino is also outstanding as Ellie, and the two of them have a scene together near the end, on the stairs behind the popular Palace bar, that encapsulates everything about their marriage in five beautifully-acted, perfectly shot minutes: why they got together, and why they're now living apart.
The movie captures the feeling of a town this size as well as any film ever has, and on top of that, accurately depicts the way an annual event is experienced by those backstage -- relaxed but excited at the same time. And the rodeo scenes themselves are brilliantly staged, probably the best in movie history.
But the movie triumphs in the details and the editing. Peckinpah frequently cuts to precisely the right closeup, a hand gripping a strap, for example, that not only punctuates the scene, but extends it. Peckinpah was always a master of editing, and Junior Bonner is one of the best demonstrations of this. He cuts on action, but plans the shots and selects the takes, then times them, so well that there's no sense of disorientation, no jarring at all -- it seems smooth, flowing and natural. And yes, he does use slow motion shots, perfectly integrated into the stream of the film. The rodeo scenes, of course, are a standout in this regard, but so is the sequence near the beginning when Junior pays a sad last visit to Ace's ranch. The movie is very tight, actually fast-paced, though the languid lives of the people it depicts give the effect of a relaxed pace.
Sam Peckinpah still hasn't quite gained the full recognition he deserves. Yes, The Wild Bunch is rightly regarded by many as one of the great American films, but it's time to reassess his other works as well, and the warm, funny, Junior Bonner is an excellent place to start.
Footnote: the print available on DVD is longer by about seven minutes than the American release print. Unfortunately, the scanty text on the box doesn't explain why this is.