Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, August 24, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1972) Part One

7. Junior Bonner

“Straw Dogs” was controversial and that controversy attracted a lot of attention from moviegoers. The film was a financial hit. Sam Peckinpah was once again bankable. As he previously did with “The Wild Bunch” and “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” the director would follow-up a violent box office success with a more low-key film. “Junior Bonner” would unite the director with Steve McQueen, one of the biggest stars of the decade. However, poor marketing and a limited release meant the film would grab little attention. In the years since, “Junior Bonner” has been reassessed as an idiosyncratic film from one of the cinema's most famous raconteurs.

The titular character is Junior “JR” Bonner. A rodeo rider, Bonner travels the country, riding bulls and broncos at various county fairs all across America. Following an injury, he's broke. As the Fourth of July approaches, he returns home to Arizona. His brother, Curly, is a successful businessman and recently sold the family ranch to a real estate company. His father, Ace, is a cowboy like Junior. He's also an alcoholic, a braggart, and a conman who currently dreams of moving to Australia. His mother, Elvira, is estranged with both her sons and her husband. As the family drama plays out around him, Bonner dreams of getting back onto the bull.

Once again, on the surface, “Junior Bonner” looks like a notable change of pace for Peckinpah. There's no shoot-outs, bursts of blood, or slow-motion death scenes. Instead, the film is a slow paced and low-key character study. The film is mostly composed of its characters sitting around and talking. As in “Cable Hogue,” there are even instances of broad comedy. However, a deeper look reveals that “Junior Bonner” deals with many of the same themes the director has touched upon in the past.

Firstly, the film is a western of sorts. With its cowboys, horse riding, and Arizona setting, it would be impossible not to make that comparison. However, “Junior Bonner' is not so much about the mythic death of the American West. That legend is long dead by the time the story starts. The Bonner family ranch being turned into a trailer park – the conflict of which is shown early on, when Junior's car faces off with a bulldozer – is just the latest example of western legends facing off against modern commerce. Junior and his dad are anachronisms, adherents of a practically extinct lifestyle. The Bonner men's love of the ridin' and ropin' world is directly at odds with the world around them, the main source of conflict in the film. This is not too different from how “The Wild Bunch” or “Ride the High Country” depicted bandits and gunfighters racing off towards their own annihilation. Peckinpah often focuses on men out of step with their own time, aware that the world has little use for them. “Junior Bonner” is just a more mellow story about this same subject.

It's also a story about family. The brotherly bond between tough guys on long missions is another reoccurring element of Peckinpah's films. “Junior Bonner's” more literal blood bond is similar to this as well. Curly's ability to adapt to the modern world puts him in conflict with Junior, the two eventually coming to blows over it. The elder Bonner is a rascal, who's hellraising ways has alienated most of the people around him. Despite that, his wife can't quite let go of her feelings for him. They all have their differences. Yet they are bonded together, by blood and by experiences. This makes even their positive interactions tinged with melancholy, the hurtful memories hard to ignore, but family is still family. The film successfully captures that bittersweet feeling.

Since the film's western heroes have no outlaws to chase or banks to rob, they have to rope calves and ride bulls instead. This places “Junior Bonner” into a genre far more unexpected from Peckinpah: The inspirational sports movie. Junior's adversary at the rodeo is a feisty bull named Sunshine. The bull injuries him at the film's beginning. Near the end, he gets a rematch with the bunking bruiser. It's rare for Peckinpah's heroes to succeed. Yet Junior manages to best Sunshine on his second go-around, sitting atop the bull. The underdog besting the odds and claiming their long-sought prize is pretty common in sports movies though. This odd fusion of approaches ends up working pretty well. If nothing else, Junior has earned his win, after so much failure.

Steve McQueen and Sam Peckinpah are a good match. McQueen's brand of heroism is classically stoic but combined with a more post-modern, and thoroughly seventies, sense of cynicism. “Junior Bonner” is not an action movie, not really, but McQueen brings many of those same qualities to the role. JR usually doesn't say much. The film turns McQueen's trademark quiet act in a different direction. This time, McQueen's soulful blue eyes expresses the character's inner sadness and his nostalgia for a long-passed time. The star's rogue-like charm and rakish grin is also well utilized for a man holding onto whatever fading glory he has left. It's easy to see why Junior thinks of himself as a star, even if that stardom is short-lived and quickly falling out of his reach. It's a good performance from McQueen, who makes the character likable and soulful mostly with his body language and what he doesn't say.

As good as McQueen is, Robert Preston steals the show from him. The former Music Man plays Ace Bonner. Ace is a rowdy fellow. At the film's beginning, he's in the hospital. Being pinned in like this does not suit Ace, so he gripes and hits on his nurse and ultimately leaves early. Soon, he's drinking too much, stealing horses, and crashing local parades. Yet Ace still feels pinned out by the changing world, which is why he seeks the seemingly wild countryside of Australia. Despite his negative qualities, Preston makes the character incredibly charming. He has a big smile and is seemingly always having a good time. It's easy to see why Ace has made so many friends but also why he's alienated most of them over the years.

The rest of the Bonner family is no less defiant. Ida Lupino plays mother Elvira as a strong-willed woman. She learned long ago that the men in her life, including her sons, are always going to do whatever they want. Yet she also projects a sense of warmth, someone who is lovable despite the hardships they've faced. Joe Don Baker, who really seems like he should've worked with Peckinpah more often, appears as Curly, the more successful Bonner brother. Baker also had a fabulous shit-eating grin, managing to make Curly a charming good ol' boy with a keen business acumen. Also watch for smaller roles from Ben Johnson, as a businessman giving offers to Bonner, and Charles H. Gray, as JR's steely rodeo rival.

As a comedy, “Junior Bonner” is a lot less broad than “The Ballad of Cable Hogue.” There's no wacky, sped-up slapstick here. However, the film still got a few laughs out of me. The funniest  sequence in the film occurs near the end. JR ends up starting a rowdy fight at a bar. However, he quickly ducks out, to make kissy-faces at a rodeo groupie. Meanwhile, the fight goes on until the confused band begins to play the national anthem. At which point, the brawl pauses so the cowboys can take off their hats and stand at attention. That's a pretty amusing observation about life in the deep south.

Another decision added to “Junior Bonner's” particular charm. Peckinpah actually filmed the movie in Prescott, Arizona. He would cast many of the town locals in background parts. You can see these folks during the parade, the rodeos, and the bar fight at the end. This adds to the movie's sense of location, making “Junior Bonner's” setting seem more alive and lived in. It also adds a feeling of color. Prescott feels like a real place, with local characters who get into scrapes and adventures all their own.

“Junior Bonner” is most obviously a Peckinpah movie in the director's themes. However, you can occasionally see his visual style emerge. There's no slow motion shoot-outs but shots of the director's favorite tactic is employed during the bull-riding sequence. It actually helps stretch out the suspense during the climatic ride, as it makes you wander if Bonner will successfully best Sunshine. Peckinpah's fast-paced editing is also apparent during a montage, devoted to showing numerous other guys get tossed around by bulls. The camera quickly cuts between the spills, the bucking, and the flashing ride light the signals the end of the round.

Rather improbably, “Junior Bonner” had the bad luck to be released around the same time as several other rodeo-themed movies. The film was released within months of “J.W. Coop,” “The Honkers,” and “When the Legend Dies.” I guess bull riding, for whatever reason, experienced a brief popularity in the early seventies. When combined with a misleading advertising campaign, which sold the movie as a typical Steve McQueen action flick, the low-key “Junior Bonner” got lost in the shuffle. Since then, “Junior Bonner” has been taken in the context of Peckinpah's career. It was the last of his quiet films and it remains a charming, funny, and oddly sweet motion picture. [Grade: B]

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