Although it’s a horrible cliché to say that Hollywood success is a double-edged sword, the sentiment is apt when considering Junior Bonner, a lovely dramatic film that probably would have enjoyed broader acceptance had the reputations of the film’s director and star not created inappropriate expectations. The director is Sam Peckinpah, who made this soft-spoken movie as a reprieve from the violent action sagas for which he was famous, and the star is Steve McQueen, whose most popular films involve glossy escapism. As the quiet story of an aging rodeo champ who returns to his hometown with an eye toward resolving longstanding family strife, Junior Bonner is probably the last thing anybody anticipated from Peckinpah or McQueen. Combined with the near-simultaneous release of several other movies about rodeo riders, the disconnect between what audiences wanted from the people behind Junior Bonner and what the picture actually delivers helped ensure a rotten performance at the box office. Happily, critics and fans have elevated the movie to greater notoriety in the years since its original release, because Junior Bonner represents a nearly pitch-perfect collaboration between director and star. (It’s also a damn sight better, in terms of resonance and substance, than the duo’s hit follow-up, 1974’s The Getaway.)
When the movie begins, Junior (McQueen) trots into Prescott, Arizona, after a grueling and unrewarding rodeo ride. While recuperating in preparation for another shot at the bull that threw him, Junior wades into the fraught relationship of his parents, hard-drinking carouser Ace (Robert Preston) and no-bullshit survivor Elvira (Ida Lupino). As Junior tries to help mend fences, he also must contend with the crass ambitions of his little brother, Curly (Joe Don Baker), who wants to raze old homes (including his parents’ house) in order to build a cookie-cutter development. The contrast between Junior’s old-fashioned independence and his brother’s ultra-modern avarice allows Peckinpah to channel one of his favorite themes—the passing of the West, and the values it represents—through the tidy narrative of Jeb Rosebrook’s screenplay.
McQueen proves once again that there was more to him than just an impressive macho image, using precision of language and movement to express his character’s inner life as efficiently as possible. McQueen is loose when he needs to be, as during scenes of barroom rowdiness, and tight when he needs to be, as during vignettes illustrating subtle family tensions. Preston channels his charming boisterousness into the character of a loveable rascal, and Lupino is believable as a woman who’s been put through the wringer by a challenging marriage. Baker and costar Ben Johnson contribute two different types of manly energy, with Baker conveying winner-takes-all selfishness and Johnson tight-lipped toughness. For the most part, Peckinpah eschews his signature excesses—the trademark slow-motion shots are used sparingly—so Junior Bonner is a great reminder that before he was a provocateur, Peckinpah was a storyteller. If only by dint of lacking mythic characterizations and over-the-top violence, Junior Bonner is probably the simplest Peckinpah feature, and that’s a good thing.
Junior Bonner: GROOVY