Sweet and lyrical are not terms usually associated with Sam Peckinpah, the man who directed THE WILD BUNCH, the man whom Western author Max Evans called the “Master of Violence.” Most of Peckinpah’s films are violent, one way or another, and most of them depict scenes of bloody mayhem and death. The one exception, though, was JUNIOR BONNER released in 1972. David Morrell chose it for our Western Night at the Movies meeting this past Sunday.
Written with wit and poignancy by Jeb Rosebrook, the film stars Steve McQueen as Junior, a rodeo cowboy who’s just past his prime, but refuses to accept it. Driving a dirty Cadillac with an old horse trailer in tow, he arrives in Prescott, Arizona, for the annual Fourth of July Frontier Days rodeo. His family lives there, and he finds them in sad straits. His father, Ace (Robert Preston), a former rodeo star, sits in a hospital bed recovering from a car accident. Ace is jobless, womanizing and drinks too much, but he’s also very charming. Junior’s brother, Curley (Joe Don Baker), a cheesy and greedy real estate developer, whose latest scheme is developing “Curley’s Reata Ranchero,” a trailer park retirement community, informs Junior he’s going to move their mother, Elvira, (Ida Lupino), into one of the double wides, and she’ll run the curio shop at the park.
None of this sits well with Junior, and when Curley offers him a job as a salesman for the trailer park, after telling him he’s nothing but a “motel cowboy,” Junior demonstrates his displeasure by shoving him through a plate glass window.
A rodeo cowboy by choice and loner all his life, Junior’s also broke at the moment. His immediate desire is to win some prize money riding a bull called Sunshine, a big, mean, nasty-tempered animal that’s never been ridden the full eight seconds.
Peckinpah masterfully handles the rodeo scenes of bulldogging and bull riding. The parade sequence through the town is a marvel to watch, as well. The combination of Americana with stagecoaches and Native Americans dressed in buckskins and feathered bonnets followed by Curley driving his garish “Reata Ranchero” float attest to the passing of the Old West and the modern mechanized future.
Unfortunately, the film suffers from a barroom brawl halfway through that runs too long and quickly degenerates into slapstick.
However, for me, the best scene in the film takes place early on. Driving out to his father’s old home he finds it’s become a ramshackle cabin amid dozens of earthmovers and machinery turning the land into a gravel pit. Trying to drive away, Junior finds himself confronted by a massive bulldozer, a grim-looking operator behind the wheel. Neither man wants to give way amid the cacophony of sounds of engine growls and rock pulverizing. Junior inches his Cadillac forward. The operator raises the shovel blade that’s filled with rock and dirt. Junior won’t back up and the operator pushes ahead, seemingly ready to dump the load of rocks on top of Junior’s car. Junior knows it’s a losing battle and backs up his car. But during all this, Peckinpah intercuts two other bulldozers flattening Ace’s cabin, with all the mementoes of his past rodeo glory days inside. Nobody could capture what the Old West meant and the sadness at its loss as Peckinpah could.
Reviews were mixed. The film flopped at the box office. Peckinpah reportedly said of JUNIOR BONNER, “I made one film with no violence and no one went to see it.”
The other members of our group in attendance were Johnny D. Boggs, seven-time Spur Award winning author, David Morrell, award-winning author and New York Times best-selling author of FIRST BLOOD, and Robert Nott, award-winning journalist and author of a soon-to-be-released book on the films of director Budd Boetticher, as well as co-authoring a memoir about Sam Peckinpah with Max Evans. Kirk Ellis, Emmy-winning writer and producer of JOHN ADAMS and INTO THE WEST, was away.