“Junior Bonner,” (1972) may not be director Sam
Peckinpah’s greatest film, but in many ways it’s one of his most honest. There
are no outlaws with guns blazing in a suicidal battle with the Mexican army (“The
Wild Bunch”) . No down and out tough guys scrounging their lives away in
Mexican dives on a quest to get the head of a dead man worth $1 million (“Bring
Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”). No CIA contractors skulking around San
Francisco’s Suisan Bay with telescopic rifles (“The Killer Elite”). None of that.
Instead “Junior Bonner” is the story of a modern day, every day rodeo cowboy
fighting an honorable and impossible battle against the forces that are
changing the people and the land that he knew—changing them for the worse.
Steve McQueen, in one of his most realistic, understated
performances, plays the Arizona cowboy who’s been riding the rodeo circuit a
little too long, and he knows it. He’s the son of former rodeo star Ace Bonner,
and he returns to his Prescott, Ariz., home in time for the town’s annual
Fourth of July rodeo festival. At the last stop on the circuit he got “throwed”
by a bull named Sunshine and his goal is to have a rematch with Sunshine in
front of his home town crowd. In a way he’s fulfilling one of the precepts of
the Peckinpah canon laid down in “Ride the High Country,” in which Joel McCrea,
as an aging former lawman, says “All I want to do is enter my house justified.”
Peckinpah rather brilliantly presents the theme of
changing times in the early scenes of the film, when JR drives his big old
white Cadillac convertible and horse-carrying trailer to his father’s home and
finds it is now a tumble-down shack about to be demolished by a wrecking crew.
The land it is on is being bulldozed into a gravel pit. After going inside the
house and finding nothing but an old picture in a busted frame of Ace in his
heyday, he drives out to the pit and asks if they know where Ace is. “Never
heard of him,” they tell him. And, in a scene reminiscent of “The Grapes of Wrath,”
when he tries to drive out of the pit he gets into a head-to-head confrontation
with a bulldozer operator who won’t let him pass. For a minute it looks like JR
might take him, but instead he’s forced to back up.
We next meet JR’s young brother, Curly (Joe Don Baker), a
real estate developer who’s selling off his father’s land to build a trailer
park. When JR finds out he only paid $15,000 for four sections of land, he’s
not too happy about it. And when Curly offers to bring him into the business because
he doesn’t want his older brother to “end up like the old man,” JR does what
any good Peckinpah cowboy would do. He knocks him through a picture window.
The film features two veterans playing JR’s parents,
Robert Preston as Ace and Ida Lupino as Elvira Bonner. Ace in his old age, is something
of a clown, a dreamer and the town drunk. His current ambition is to go to
Australia to punch cows. Elvira is the disillusioned wife and mother who knows
the best days of their lives are over and is just trying to hold on to what’s
left. Preston had just the right amount of charm and personality to make Ace a
convincing character and Lupino, who had been working steadily in TV after
years as a successful actress and director, is both touching and beautiful in
her return to the big screen. Also on hand are Ben Johnson as Buck Roan, the
man who runs the rodeo, as well as familiar faces such as Bill McKinney (“Deliverance”)
and Don “Red” Barry (in westerns too numerous to mention).
Peckinpah filmed the movie on location during the actual
Prescott Rodeo event, utilizing the local color and many non-actors, giving the
picture an authenticity that can’t be duplicated on studio sets. It’s that
direct simplicity that makes “Junior Bonner” work. In the end, it’s the story
of people coming to terms with the truth of who they are and facing the consequences
Kino Lorber’s Studio Classics presents Junior Bonner in a
1920x1080p Blu-ray transfer with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The picture is good if
a little grainy with natural looking color. The sound is 2.1 Dolby mono.
Dialogue is clear. Jerry Fielding’s score sounds good and is suited to the
subject matter. It’s unlike any of his other work, with the inclusion of
country music themes as well as romantic orchestrations for the scenes between
Ace and Elvira. There are a lot of extras, including an hour-long interview
with screenwriter Jeb Rosebrook that is really informative and worth watching.
Not so interesting is the audio commentary that accompanies the film. “The
Peckinpah Peckerwoods,” three authors of books on Peckinpah, who simply drool
and slobber over every foot of film, are almost impossible to listen to.
Another documentary highlights various aspects of Peckinpah as recalled by some
of the actors who worked on his films. There are also image galleries and
theatrical trailers and some radio and TV spots.
“Junior Bonner” was a box office disaster for McQueen and
Peckinpah when it was released. Audiences weren’t ready for this kind of film.
So it’s a good thing that Kino Lorber has given it another chance to be seen.