Director Sam Peckinpah was enamored with the Old West and the people who were attributed to that era as can be seen from the many films he made. Beginning with his debut The Deadly Companions (1961) through to his romanticized masterpiece Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Peckinpah explored the reoccuring themes of camaraderie, betrayal, violence and desperation that made up the great western mythos.
For his 1972 film Junior Bonner, Peckinpah chose to depart from the Old West setting and instead do a modern cowboy story. Steve McQueen plays Junior or J.R. a professional rodeo rider who drifts from one show to another. He’s decided to go home to Prescott, Arizona to see his parents. When he arrives in town, he finds out his families property has been sold. J.R. watches as the imposing tractors crush the homestead, it’s like something out of The Grapes of Wrath. Peckinpah again uses his trademark slow motion to emphasize the violence in the destruction of the land J.R. once called home. He then makes a visit to see his mother (Ida Lupino) who has moved to a house in the center of town. There he finds out his father Ace (Robert Preston) a veteran rodeo rider has been injured but the old man quickly recuperates and sets off against doctor’s orders to get back in the saddle again.
J.R.’s brother Curly (Joe Don Baker) has no interest in J.R. or his father’s lifestyle. Unlike him, J.R. and his father share a common bond in that they are both cowboys. They are also both natural born drifters who have a tough time staying in one place and are more comfortable on the road. Curly is a fast talking businessman of the area and runs Reata Rancheros, a successful real estate company. He’s also the one who sold the Bonner’s property off and as opposed to J.R. he sees nothing wrong with it. Curly looks down on J.R. and thinks he should just give in, work for him and leave the rodeo malarky behind, but Junior is simply too set in his ways to settle down and before long he takes off again.
Steve McQueen gives a tremendous performance. He could say more with a look or a gesture than a lot of other actors could do with lines of dialogue and tons of emoting. He’s not playing the “tough guy” here (as he does in a film like The Getaway), but someone who knows exactly who he is and enjoys the simple things in life such as a good home cooked meal or a nice drink of whiskey. He still has his trademark rebel edge, but it’s not done in an overly showy way, it’s just a natural part of who Junior is at his core, which makes his performance even more meaningful and classy.
Junior Bonner also shows another side of Peckinpah. It really has lots of tender emotion and humor and is more of an easy going character study about a certain kind of American he was so interested in. Fans who are expecting lots of action will instead get a sunbaked portrait of a dysfunctional Southwestern family set against the backdrop of the good ol’ rodeo business. There is some fistfighting here and there but these sequences are more like humorous drunken battles which aren’t so much about upholding honor but more a wild celebration of being alive.
An interesting bit of trivia: Both Ida Lupino and Robert Preston had been out of the film business for many years. This was certainly a nice return project for them.