Writer Recommends #4: Junior Bonner

1972

Directed by: Sam Peckinpah

Written by: Jeb Rosebrook

Starring: Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Ben Johnson, Joe Don Baker

Sandwiched between Straw Dogs and The Getaway during Sam Peckinpah’s most prolific and successful period where he was outputting a film a year; this movie is the antithesis of Peckinpah’s recognised brand of bloody action.

Steve McQueen is the eponymous Junior, a fading star of rodeo, that returns to his home town, after many years away on the circuit, only to find the town and people he once knew are changing with the times.

Peckinpah deals with the regular theme of the main protagonists lamenting the changing times that surround them as they stick to their own old time values (see The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country for prime examples).  Except, in this case the movie does not deal in violence, but drama and the disintegration of family relationships.

Junior Bonner is as much at odds with his father, Ace Bonner (a former rodeo star), as he is full of admiration for him.  The two’s relationship veers dangerously into friendship and friendship alone meaning that when the familial roles and respects are required the lines are blurred with only his mother, Elvira, offering anything like a parental role in their lives.  Junior Bonner sees Ace as a portent of what he himself will become, so the movie deals with “progress” in terms of the town changing with the times as well as Junior Bonner’s own progression towards retirement.

Ace Bonner is still searching for the thrill that the rodeo so often afforded him and Junior Bonner is the same; he offers to pay to ride a fierce bull because he needs it.  What Bonner sees is everything changing all around him and he is scared and wary of where that will leave him when age forces his own life to change.  What place will he have in the world?  A life lived on old glories like his father or embracing progress like his brother, Curly, in a way that Junior finds as disgusting as he would impossible?

McQueen, effortlessly cool, suits the role of Bonner to a tee.  For McQueen too the times were changing; he had become the bankable star that he wanted so badly, but he had had his pride and finances badly hit by the debacle that was his pet project, Le Mans.  He had recently turned 40 and whilst still in excellent shape, he knew that there had to be more strings to his bow if he was to remain no.1 at the box office.  McQueen’s own old-fashioned values and his estranged relationship with his father probably helped him to channel much more into this role than some of his more distant and cool onscreen personas.  For me, McQueen’s collaborations with Peckinpah in 1972 (the other film being The Getaway) are the pinnacle of his glittering career.

Robert Preston excels as Ace Bonner.  Preston, as comfortable on stage as he was on screen, had not made a movie for almost a decade having been in the theatre and may have been best remembered at the time for his exhilarating performance in The Music Man.  As Ace Bonner he shows the subtleties and nuances of characterisation that offer some foresight into how he came to be nominated for an Oscar in Victor/Victoria a decade later.

By 1972 Ida Lupino was a veteran actor, writer and director and was, and still is, rightly considered a pioneer for women in the film industry.  And Lupino plays the part of the only “grown up” in the Bonner family, Elvira, beautifully.  The story goes that Lupino gave Peckinpah his first break and so he returned the favour by hiring Lupino for this movie. 

Joe Don Baker, so often associated with playing heavies in excellent 1970’s hard boiled crime movies such as The Outfit and Charley Varrick had one of his first major film roles in this movie.  He plays Curly Bonner, the more forward thinking and ambitious Bonner family member.  His performance is such that it belies his natural physical presence and he appears more as a lost puppy than the hulking man he is.

Where The Wild Bunch contains ultra-violence (as it was regarded at the time) to punctuate the underlying themes, Junior Bonner is violence-free which certainly means this movie has less immediate impact.  However, with a cast and crew that were clearly on top of their game Junior Bonner does deliver as much of a dramatic reflection upon changing times.     

 “Tell ‘em Junior sent you”

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