Junior Bonner (1972)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: An aging bull rider.

Junior (Steve McQueen) is a rodeo star whose better days are behind him. As he enters his 40’s, he needs to find other ways to make a living and returns to his boyhood home of Prescott, Arizona where the rest of his family including his father Ace (Robert Preston), his mother Elvira (Ida Lupino), and brother Curly (Joe Don Baker) reside. When he gets there he finds that his father’s home is being bulldozed by his brother’s company in order to make way for a track of newer homes. Junior decides that the only way to make ends meet for both himself and his father is to win the prize money by riding the ornery bull Sunshine during the rodeo competition. He had attempted to ride Sunshine at another rodeo, but was quickly bucked-off and injured, but this time he feels it will be different and convinces the rodeo owner Buck Roan (Ben Johnson) to give him one last shot.

This film is different from any other Sam Peckinpah movie you’ll see and many viewers/critics at the time didn’t know what to make of it. Peckinpah was known and even stigmatized for his violent movies including The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, which were deemed, especially the latter one, quite controversial and to an extent even glorifying violence. To help find a balance he decided to do something opposite from those by making a movie that was laid-back and didn’t feature any fighting except for one moment during a bar fight, which is done with a delightfully comic flair where everyone in the place gets punched except for Junior who goes off to a corner to makes-out with Charmagne (Barbara Leigh) even though he was the catalyst for why it began in the first place.

Unfortunately audiences and critics could not adjust to the extreme change in tone. They came to the theater expecting, based on Peckinpah’s reputation, bloody shoot-outs and got none and the end result is it doing quite poorly at the box recouping only $2.8 million from the original $3.2 million budget, which poisoned Peckinpah’s career as he was now deemed a financial risk and seriously affected the choice of projects he could do afterwards and how much control he’d have over them. Even normally friendly critics like Roger Ebert, who had been a fan of the director’s earlier works, bailed on this one calling it a “flat-out disappointment” and describing the material as being “terribly thin”. Another critic, Gary Arnold, described it as a film that “drifts across the screen and fades from your mind an instant later” and that there was “no compelling reason to see or remember it.”

I’ll admit the way it starts out had me a baffled. The story doesn’t go anywhere even after 30-minutes in and McQueen, normally this energetic, rugged action hero, looks like he’s in his 60’s and appearing perpetually tired. I started wondering whether this was just footage caught from a closed circuit camera that examined the slow way of life of small towns.

Things though do improve by the second act. The rodeo riding is captured in a vivid way making you feel like you’re riding the bull itself. Peckinpah’s uses his patented slow motion, but this time in a humorous vein like when Junior and Ace go riding away from a 4th of July parade and through the backyards of some houses where they inadvertently get caught up in some clothes lines. There’s even a couple of touching moments like Junior’s conversation with his father at a train station as well as Ace’s reconciliation with his wife. I was impressed with Joe Don Baker’s performance as well. I know some film-goers have mocked his acting in other movies, but I believe if given the right material he can be quite good though he wasn’t the director’s first choice as it was originally intended for Gene Hackman, but when his salary demands proved too high it was given to Baker much to Peckinpah’s regret as the two had many arguments during the production, which almost came to blows and only prevented when McQueen would get in the middle and calm both sides down.

For a modern day western this is one of the better ones and precipitated a boon of rodeo style movies  during the early 70’s. While its initial reception was not kind its been viewed in a better light today and even revered as being one of Peckinpah’s better works.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 20, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Studio: Cinerama Releasing Corporation

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

One response to “Junior Bonner (1972)

  1. Nice review of this likable film. Different from most of Peckinpah but fascinating as his work usually is. The Blu ray of this is really nice with some good extras.

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