The year 1972 brought two films by Sam Peckinpah and both of those films starred Steve McQueen. The better known film of those two is certainly “The Getaway”, a superb crime/chase film that has over the time grown in to one of my favorite Steve McQueen pictures. The other film is “Junior Bonner”, and although it doesn’t have the thrills of “The Getaway” it strikes me as a much more personal film for both the director and the star.
This film is a character study and a family drama that follows Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen), the titular rodeo cowboy, who returns to his hometown of Prescott Arizona for the 4th of July festivities. Of course there’s a rodeo in town and while “JR” reconnects with his colorful family all he really wants to do is to ride “Sunshine” again, a ferocious bull that threw him off at the start of the film. It’s a very real and tame film when compared to the other works of both McQueen and Peckinpah but that only makes this film more fascinating for me, and in this framework McQueen dos his probably best acting work as an unchanging man that barely manages to live in these modern times.
So yes the classic Peckinpah existentialist themes are still prevalent but because of that realistic framework they are brought out in new ways, and even coincide with what he’s shown in “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”, which is a glimpse of an acceptance of the change and its inevitability. Another interesting aspect of the film is also that concept of a dysfunctional family that also shows up in his work often, and in this film it is the dramatic and comedic backbone.
However the more thrilling aspect of “Junior Bonner” comes in the form of rodeo shows, and if the rest of the film may seem very classicist and careful in its execution here is where that Sam Peckinpah style comes in. And there is a repeated old cowboy saying in this film that would let you believe that all rodeos are the same, however it’s proven very untrue because you’ve never seen a rodeo like this, captured through the lens of Sam Peckinpah. They’re spectacular and the stunt and camera work are oftentimes breathtaking.
And these rodeos are also a central piece of in the puzzle of the character of Junior Bonner, and after seeing them through his eyes it’s easy to understand what eight seconds can mean to a man like that. Because maybe “JR” can’t master the technological bulls and the change of time outside the rodeo ring, but when he’s on that bull he can be in control - even if only for those precious eight seconds.
“Junior Bonner” is a much more restrained film from Peckinpah and features a wonderfully cool and stoic performance from McQueen. It’s certainly not the loudest film that these guys have worked on but it has an old-fashioned charm in a neo-western setting, and plenty of heart. It's one of the finest films of both of these Holywood renegades.
Steve McQueen - Junior "JR" Bonner
Robert Preston - Ace Bonner
Ida Lupino - Elvira Bonner
Joe Don Baker - Curly Bonner
Barbara Leigh - Charmagne