Junior Bonner (1972)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Produced by Joe Wizan
Written by Jeb Rosebrook
Cinematography by Lucien Ballard
DVD – interlibrary loan (1:40)
“If this world’s all about winners, what’s for the losers?”
For someone like me who’s just beginning to explore the films of Sam Peckinpah, Junior Bonner is something of a head-scratcher. In the director’s filmography, it falls between Straw Dogs (1971) and The Getaway (1972), films that contain ruthless characters as well as ruthless violence. It almost seems that with Junior Bonner Peckinpah was taking a nap.
That’s not the case, but the film certainly went against the grain for the director. Peckinpah himself said, “I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it.” (Steve McQueen: A Biography – Marc Eliot) The film also suffered from being just another rodeo-themed movie released in 1972, a year that also saw The Honkers, J.W. Coop, and When the Legends Die.
So the question is: should you see it?
Steve McQueen plays Junior “J.R.” Bonner, a rodeo rider who’s fallen on hard times and, to be honest, a little too much hard ground. As the film opens, we see J.R. returning to his Prescott, Arizona home to compete in the Independence Day rodeo, where he hopes for one more shot at glory as a bull-riding champion, riding a notoriously wild bull named Sunshine. You’re probably thinking, “How many times have we seen this scenario?” Just change the sport and you’ve got Rocky, The Natural, Hoosiers, and countless others, and even though Junior Bonner predates all of these films, you probably saw them (and others like them) first.
Although he’s a former champion, Bonner isn’t exactly treated as royalty by the hometown crowd. They all know him, but they know him essentially as a “what have you done for me lately” loser. His trailer reads “JR. Bonner,” which is somewhat confusing, and the townspeople call him J.R. or Junior or both, an appropriate situation for a guy who really doesn’t know who he is or his place in the world. To make matters worse, his father Ace Bonner (Robert Preston, right) has left his mom Elvira (Ida Lupino), and winds up in the hospital. Can things get any worse? Yes they can: Ace’s house gets bulldozed by his other son, J.R.’s real-estate magnate brother Curly (Joe Don Baker). And in case you think things can’t get even worse: Ace is convinced that – if someone will just loan him enough money to get started – he can strike it rich mining for gold in Australia.
If you’re thinking that all of this could easily be played as a soap opera or a farce (or both), you’re right. Those things could’ve happened, but didn’t, partly due to the excellent cast Peckinpah assembled for the film. In addition to Preston, Lupino, and Baker, you’ve also got Ben Johnson, Barbara Leigh (above), and the ever-present western character actor Dub Taylor. All of these actors bring their best game to the table which helps elevate the entire project.
Yet I’m not sure it needs that much elevating. Once you get past the fact that you’re not going to hear constant gunfire or see blood flying out of chests in slow motion, you start dwelling on what Peckinpah’s really after: a leisurely reflection on the passing away of the Old West, lost opportunities, the dangers of uncontrolled modern capitalism, hope for redemption, family, and the future.
Like many westerns of the time, Junior Bonner is something of an anti-western, an examination of how the west is slowly becoming commercialized and bled dry. Curly’s ridiculous real-estate expansion and other money-making enterprises (schemes) are not only destroying the Prescott community, they’re also a large part of what’s destroying his family. Having more-or-less given up on his family, Junior is simply trying to salvage what he can with one more rodeo championship. That goal in and of itself is part of a sport that also seems on the verge of fading away forever.
Junior Bonner consists of an accumulation of small details, tiny elements of character and loss, all of which culminate in a film that isn’t about action, but rather inward reflection. We find little glimpses of joy amidst the loss, one of which comes fairly late in the movie as Preston and Lupino – as husband and wife Ace and Elvira – simultaneously fight and reflect on what didn’t work in their relationship and their fractured love for each other. There’s an element of resignation there, but there’s also an ember of love that hasn’t quite been snuffed out. You could build a film around just these two characters and you’d have quite a gem.
I’m not a huge fan of Steve McQueen as an actor, but Junior Bonner could be his best performance. He does a lot here with a little, and most of the pain and anxiety in Junior’s life are right there on his face. He doesn’t need to say much. We get it. We get him.
The rodeo scenes are generally good and oddly enough, the movie’s other action set-piece consists of a long barroom brawl that’s mostly played for laughs and runs too long. That scene, however, is mostly an interruption in an otherwise quiet film, one that makes us think about character and ourselves. We all want to know that someone cares. We want to know that we matter. This world may be all about winners, but if we’re not one of them, we’d at least like to know we’ve got another loser with us in our corner.
Photos: Mubi, World Cinema, Locarno Festival Films