Judge George Hatch says there's no bullets, but it's Peckinpah all the way, baby.
Our review of The Steve McQueen Collection, published June 6th, 2005, is also available.
"Look, Junior, neither me or my bull aim to make a living of another fella's pride. Now you might as well face it, you're just not the rider you was a few years back."—Buck Roan, rodeo stud contractor
"To them as has their roads ahead."—Ace Bonner
Mismarketed as a Steve McQueen action flick—a strategy McQueen himself strongly argued against—Junior Bonner disappointed audiences and received mixed reviews at best. The three Peckinpah experts on the commentary track see it as the story of "a family falling apart and coming together for just one day, trying to touch before all going their separate ways." Viewing the film in this context, you can't help but be moved by one of the gentlest and most underrated films in Peckinpah's cinematic canon.
Facts of the Case
Fading rodeo star Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen) heads back to his home town of Prescott, Arizona to take part in the annual 4th of July Frontier Days Celebration where he plans a rematch with Old Sunshine, the bull that threw him just a few days before, even if he has to beg Buck Roan (Ben Johnson) by offering to ride for half the prize money. He also wants to visit his estranged parents, Ellie (Ida Lupino) and Ace (Robert Preston), with whom he hopes to enter the wild cow-milking event for old times' sake. Along the way, he makes some disturbing discoveries about his brother, Curly (Joe Don Baker), as well.
Driving back to his hometown in a beaten up old Cadillac as bruised as his own body and dented only a bit more than his ego, Junior wants to see his father, Ace, and arrives just in time to catch the demolition of the old man's house. With additional acreage, this substantial piece of property had been bought by Junior's brother, Curly, now a successful real estate developer who plans to turn the area into an extension of his Reata Rancheros Mobile Home Retirement Community. Wondering what happened to Ace, he heads out for a tentative reunion with his mother, Ellie, and learns that Curly paid only $15,000 for his father's land and that her own little shack is also scheduled to become part of Curly's enterprise with her moving into one of the model mobile homes and working the curio shop. Still concerned about his father, Ellie tells him he squandered all the money prospecting for silver in Tonopah, Nevada, "always quitting just 20 feet before the mother lode," then while drunk, he totaled his car and was now in the hospital recovering. She doesn't approve of the direction in which the town of Prescott is headed under Curly's aggressive marketing campaign and confesses to Junior that, "Maybe you and Ace are the lucky ones, drifting around the way you do."
Before visiting his father, Junior tries to strike a deal with Buck Roan that would give him another shot at his prize bull. Buck, however, offers him a job with his rodeo contracting business. "If a man was to be expanding, more shows in more towns, he might be interested in an assistant, a fella that had been around and was something of a champion in his day." While traveling might appeal to Junior's rambling streak, he catches that subtle reference to being past his prime and would prefer to prove himself by taking on Old Sunshine again and enter a few other competitions, particularly one with his father.
Still trying to track him down, Junior runs into Curly pitching his mobile homes in the town square and demands to know about the paltry $15,000 Curly paid Ace for his property. In Curly's eyes, their old man is loser with yet another scheme to go to Australia and prospect for gold, so he's taken Ace in to live with him and placed him on an allowance. Curly is "making money hand over fist, working on my first million, while you're still working on your first 'eight seconds,' Junior." He wants his brother to get a grip on his future and work for him, not caring if he sells, "one lot or a hundred, I'm just trying to keep what's left of this family together."
Dead center in the film's running time, Junior finally meets Ace and in a beautifully staged scene they recognize and acknowledge each other's failed aspirations and realize they're cut from the same cloth—like father, like son. Ace wants Junior to grubstake his trip to Australia; Junior tells him he's broke and wants to know what happened to the $15,000. "Ah, the honest intentions of a man with money trying to make money, I fell prey to the wiles of nighttime ladies and neon lights." That, and several other of Ace's lines, indicate where Curly acquired his huckstering talents, but those two never really bonded, as Curly always resented his father's irresponsibility and Ace never achieved his son's success.
When Ellie reenters the picture, the second half of the film plays out the family's cross currents with depth and sensitivity rather than mawkish sentimentality that could have reduced it to a soap opera. Instead, we become involved in an adult drama that emphasizes one of Peckinpah's obsessive themes, the modernization and rapid decline of the "Old West."
The marvelously subtle and sympathetic screenplay by Jeb Rosebrook was surprisingly his first and the only one written for film, after which he turned to television with almost a dozen scripts including The Winds of Kitty Hawk (1978), The Mystic Warrior (1984), and a remake of Miracle on 34th Street (1973). After the polarized controversy of Straw Dogs (1971), with a few critics calling it a masterpiece and others condemning it as misogynistic and depraved, Peckinpah opted for a gentler follow-up, much as he did with The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), which he directed immediately after The Wild Bunch (1969).
With Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair both released in 1968, and the failure of Le Mans (1971), Steve McQueen wanted to tone down his action hero image and be taken more seriously as an actor. A laconic script that matched his preferred method of delivery, that of occasionally replacing dialogue with body movements and facial expressions, Junior Bonner appeared to be the perfect vehicle. As the commentators point out, the few lines spoken in the first 10 minutes of the film are "almost grace notes to the way McQueen uses his eyes and body language to convey everything about what this character is feeling and what forces are driving him."
Ida Lupino (High Sierra, They Drive by Night), one of the smartest and most aggressive women ever to grace Hollywood with her beauty and brains, came out of semi-retirement in television to make this film. She positively glows in every scene in which she appears, generating hidden warmth for Junior and rueful toleration for her vagabond of a husband. Robert Preston puts a lot of the flamboyance of The Music Man into his interpretation of Ace, then offsets it the more contemplative characters he played in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and All the Way Home. His final scene with Lupino is so touching it's almost worth the price of the DVD just to watch these two old-school pros in top form. And somehow it wouldn't feel like a Peckinpah film without Ben Johnson (The Wild Bunch, Will Penny) whose voice and stature always radiate a genuine western aura.
The real revelation in this film is Joe Don Baker, best known as Buford Pusser in the original Walking Tall (1973) and Jack Wade in the Bond films Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies. Curly is desperate for some acknowledgement of his father's love and overcompensates by making such a success of himself he only earns more resentment, and Baker gives full dimension to this complex and misunderstood character.
Cinematographer Lucien Ballard is another Peckinpah regular, and in Junior Bonner we get to see the reverse side of his sweeping outdoor photography, as the film was shot on location in the town of Prescott during the 4th of July Frontier Days Celebration. A lengthy parade sequence and the rodeo competition events highlight the joyful essence of small town life, but Ballard manages to imbue indoor scenes, especially Ellie's ramshackle little house, with a melancholy foreboding that another piece of the West is about to disappear.
Jerry Fielding alternates a somber, unobtrusive score for emotional confrontations with boisterous guitar and banjo-plucking arrangements complementing the rodeo events that were smartly edited by the team of Frank Santillo and Robert L. Wolfe.
The 2.35:1 non-anamorphic transfer is going to cost MGM some points, but overall the image is rich with bright rodeo colors and balanced flesh tones. I will say, however, that it looks better than Anchor Bay's release of five years ago, a DVD that included both the widescreen and full screen version of the film. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono delivers crisp dialogue and punchy sound effects during the riding competitions.
There's only one extra but it's a winner: an enthusiastic and informative commentary by the authors of three books about Peckinpah: Paul Seydor (Peckinpah—The Western Films), Garner Simmons (Peckinpah—A Portrait In Montage), and David Weddle,(If They Move, Kill'em—The Life And Times Of Sam Peckinpah, easily the best biography of Peckinpah to date). This is a must for fans of the director, as a huge amount of information about this film and his personal life are revealed along with some bizarre anecdotes, such as Ace's dog being the great-grandson of the dog that played Old Yeller. I've always wondered how Lupino got along with the director and wasn't surprised to learn that at one point she was ready to walk off the set. He had been complaining about everything, from her performance to her make-up, so she told him, "I think you want Shelley Winters for this role. I'll stay around for the long shots so you won't lose any shooting time, but you should get Shelley." That night, two dozen roses were delivered to Lupino's hotel room with a note that read, "Dear Shelley, We know how much you want this role but we've already fallen in love with Ida."
In his biography, David Weddle makes an interesting observation: "Peckinpah adored women as beautiful objects to be longed for from afar, they are there to be fought for and possessed, but they are never really understood as human beings in their own right. The exception is older women, such as Olivia De Havilland in Noon Wine (his TV adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter's short story) and Ida Lupino in Junior Bonner. When they are no longer ripe for conquest, Peckinpah has an easier time discovering their humanity."
Occasionally, the commentators go overboard, as when they positively gloat over the opening credit sequence claiming it to be the best use split-screen paneling they've ever seen. I thought it looked downright sloppy, and can name at least a half-dozen films in which its use was not only better coordinated but definitive of the form, from The Boston Strangler to Woodstock, but that would be nitpicking the one excellent extra on this otherwise sparse DVD.
There's not a bullet fired, barely a drop of blood shed, and, except for a huge barroom brawl that's played for laughs, only two punches are thrown, one by each of the brothers, so this is not the typical film you might expect when you see "Bloody Sam" Peckinpah's name attached to it. With a poignant, low-key script and five top-caliber performances—not to mention all the locals who played themselves in the ultra-realistic impression of modern small town Americana—Junior Bonner comes with my highest recommendation, and the enlightening commentary almost atones for MGM's non-anamorphic sin.
Case dismissed. Junior Bonner is free to ride the rodeo circuits forever.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Peckinpah Experts Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle, Moderated by Nick Redman
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