#7 in my ranking of Sam Peckinpah’s filmography.
With filming on Straw Dogs wrapped and before he’d finished editing it (his English editing team had to be moved to America, apparently), Sam Peckinpah found the funding for him to film a script he found and loved by Jeb Rosebrook about an aging rodeo performer and his family. Junior Bonner is much more in line with The Ballad of Cable Hogue than The Wild Bunch, but as I have surmised over time, especially after having watched all of his directed episodes of The Westerner, I really feel like Peckinpah’s heart was in this sort of quieter, more introspective look at men out of time rather than the more violent movies he’s most known for. It didn’t help him that movies like this and The Ballad of Cable Hogue never made money, though. The people wanted his violent side, and that’s unfortunate because there’s real joy in these smaller films from the perennial and combative drunk of a filmmaker.
Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen, who also had some kind of producer-like power behind the scenes) has a terrible night at the rodeo riding the bull Sunshine that knocks him off in less than eight seconds. The rodeo road is a long, lonely one, and the rodeo’s next stop is Junior’s hometown, Prescott, Arizona. There live his father Ace (Robert Preston), his mother Elvira (Ida Lupino), and his brother Curly (Joe Don Baker). Ace is a rundown rodeo man, a vision of where Junior seems to be heading in a couple of decades. Ace and Elvira aren’t together anymore, and they barely interact. She is supported by Curly, a rising real estate mogul in the area who has plans to remove her from the townhouse she lives in town to selling curios at his Indian themed mobile home development. Into this walks Junior, really just passing through and connecting with his family for what turns out to be one last time, it seems.
On the one hand, the film is concerned with the running of the rodeo as we watch Junior sign up for his events, we see some of the background of things, and we watch the actual events in Peckinpah’s distinctive montage style with heavy editing and a mixture of camera speeds. This stuff is interesting to watch (though I feel like it just becomes standard issue Peckinpah style without any real thought behind it, but I’ll get to that), but the meat of the story is the family dynamics as they play out.
The Bonner family has splintered for a variety of reasons, and everyone seems to know that this nearly accidental arrival of their lost son. Ace, ever since stopping his rodeo days, has fallen from one get rich scheme to the next, all about mining. He mined for silver with money he made by selling his land to Curly (the site of his new mobile home development), and, having found nothing there, plans on going to Australia to mine for gold there. However, no one wants to give him the money. There’s a great moment when, after having stolen Junior’s horse before even seeing him back in town, father and son sit at a quiet train station. Junior reveals that he’s flat broke and can’t give his father any money. The scene falls silent, and Ace hits the back of Junior’s head, knocking his hat down the tracks. They continue to be silent as Ace stands up, retrieves the hat, and hands it back to his son.
Violence is a part of Peckinpah’s world, and it does a lot regarding male bonding. That hit brings father and son together more than any words. It has been there in his work since The Westerner where the title character got into a boxing match over a woman with a stranger, and the two end up connecting through the fight. Violence can be bloody and awful like in The Wild Bunch, but it’s usually transformative, often positively. I’ve also read far too many stories of Peckinpah (who was a relatively short man at 5’9) trying to pick fights with larger men, like Joe Don Baker (6’2) on this film, to think that any other way than Peckinpah saw throwing a punch to simply be part of being a man. It was how he felt communication between men operated, and it’s how his characters communicate most purely, not with words but with a brawl. There’s also a moment where Junior lets Curly punch him in the face.
We do get a big brawl, of course. It happens after Junior has his final ride against Sunshine and Junior decides to connect with the girl, Charmagne (Barbara Leigh), hanging out with one of his rivals. His swagger wins her over, and to cover their getting away they sort of incite a brawl that engulfs the entire bar. The relationship between Junior and Charmagne feels extraneous, though, especially since it only really develops in the film’s final act.
However, Junior really is just passing through. He connects with people, and he must move on. He makes his mark on his brother. He helps his father move on, ending the relationship between his father and mother for good, and it’s all sad as life moves on, the man so completely out of sorts with the modern world, Junior, who declines a sales job from Curly to stick around, simply moves on to keep living his anachronistic life.
So, Peckinpah’s thematic focus fits with the story really well, but I question his use of his visual stylings, especially during the more fun rodeo moments where he does his quick-cutting and slow-motion thing. I’ve always gotten the sense that his use of slow motion was to highlight painful moments, especially regarding memory. We do get that, especially around Junior’s memories of his first failure with Sunshine, but it applies this sort of melancholic effect to fun rodeo action. It’s a certain clash of style and narrative that feels like Peckinpah just went with what he knew in terms of how to film action rather than trying to find the right way to film it. It’s a small complaint, but I just had to bring it up.
Junior Bonner (terrible title, by the way) is an affecting little movie from a man who had become known for violence. He doesn’t rid himself of the violence here, it’s just too baked in the cake of who Peckinpah is to completely free himself of it, but the canvas feels more intimate while still touching on the themes that really drove Peckinpah: men out of time and the transformative power of violence between men.