I’m not much of a fan of Sam Peckinpah’s movies, with one exception: Junior Bonner, which features Steve McQueen as J.R./Junior Bonner, an aging rodeo cowboy who returns home to make peace with his estranged parents (Ida Lupino and Robert Preston). It’s totally lacking in gratuitous violence and instead captures, with insight and humor, the plight of free spirits in an age when the desire for adventure is seen as something that little boys should grow out of. Junior Bonner offers a unique spin on the Western and supports the same type of countercultural values proffered by, for instance, Easy Rider (1969)—Junior may be clean cut and rural, but what he wants above all is to be free. If that’s not a 1970s sentiment, I don’t know what is.
We are introduced to Junior in a series of shots intercutting sometimes gruesome rodeo action (Peckinpah does not romanticize the rodeo circuit nor minimize the injuries suffered by riders) with the quiet time that follows, as Junior tapes up his ribs and packs his trailer to drive on to the next rodeo. There are certainly idyllic aspects to his life—the camaraderie of the cowboys, the joys of the open road, the simple pleasure of camping beside a beautiful stream—but it’s also clear that he’s not as young as he used to be. At the same time, the scars of industrialization are evident in the once-pristine countryside, a reminder that there’s a lot more money to be made in resource extraction and real estate development than in riding bulls and broncs.
Back in Prescott, Arizona, we find the family patriarch, Ace Bonner (Preston), pitching his other son Curly (Joe Don Baker) on prospecting opportunities in Australia. Ace’s enthusiasm is not damped in the slightest by the fact that many of his past schemes have failed, nor that he’s currently in a hospital bed recovering from a drunk driving accident. Junior clearly takes after his dad, while his brother represents the negative aspects of the modern capitalist world, where all that counts is making money and getting ahead. Peckinpah stacks the deck in favor of Junior’s point of view the same way Disney stacks Aladdin in favor of its title character (rule of cool, plus who would ever pick Joe Don Baker over Steve McQueen?), but that doesn’t hamper the effectiveness of this film.
Preston is delightful as a tireless schemer who is always chasing after the next rainbow, and if there were an Academy Award for acting with your eyes alone, he would win it hands down. Lupino is also very good as Ace’s estranged wife, whose every gesture speaks of her weariness after a lifetime of catering to him and his schemes, while Ben Johnson has a nice turn as a stock manager on the rodeo circuit.
Most of all, though, I value Junior Bonner for the respectful way it presents Western culture, in particular the deliberate pace of life and the respect that allows an individual to go his or her own way. Junior is visiting Prescott during a Fourth of July festival, which provides the opportunity for lots of shots of pretty girls, tight jeans, and splendid horses, as well as a bull-riding contest that he hopes to win in order to get his finances back in order. And then there’s my favorite scene, which is both over the top and yet rings true to the culture—a bar brawl that is broken up by the band playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” because everyone has to stop fighting to stand at attention.
Junior Bonner didn’t do well at the box office during its initial theatrical release in 1972, due in part to the fact that it’s not a typical movie for either Peckinpah or McQueen. That shouldn’t stop you from checking it out on home video, and the recent Kino-Lorber Special Edition Blu-ray release comes with a variety of worthwhile extras. These include an audio commentary track by Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle, and Nick Redman, two documentaries—“Passion and Poetry—Rodeo Time” (56 min.) and “Passion & Poetry—Peckinpah Anecdotes” (26 min.), two brief features on the making of the film (5 min. and 3 min. respectively), three animated image galleries, and a variety of trailers and TV and radio spots. | Sarah Boslaugh