Although Sam Peckinpah’s films are routinely described in terms of their often-fetishistic fascination with violence, influential deployment of such devices as slow motion, split screen and contrapuntal editing, and preoccupation with what we might call the “end of things”, his filmography is also littered with autumnal, quiet and introverted moments and works, extending from Ride the High Country (1962), Noon Wine (1966) and much of his deflating TV series The Westerner (1960) early in his career to many sequences in otherwise orgiastically staged and decadent opuses like The Wild Bunch (1969), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Cross of Iron (1977). But this low-key, often self-consciously undemonstrative, slow-burn sensibility reaches its peak in two movies from the early 1970s, the chaotically shot The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and the more focused and contained Junior Bonner (1972). The latter, a particularly affectionate, ‘vacation’-like work that Peckinpah completed between the fraught UK shoot for the troubling and incendiary Straw Dogs (1971) and the subsequent runaway box-office success The Getaway (1972), stands as one of his most underrated creations. Both Junior Bonner and The Getaway feature Steve McQueen at close to the peak of his celebrity, but whereas his character in each film relies upon the taciturn qualities of his star image, as well as his ability to command the camera while seeming to ‘do’ very little, he exudes an amiability and lack of urgency in Junior Bonner that is icily absent in the later work.
The extended, leisurely credit sequence sets the tone and style for the rest of Junior Bonner, alternating between quick flashes of action and more extended moments of reflection, carefully composed widescreen compositions and cramped, constipated inset frames. This is a markedly un-urgent if visually arresting sequence that takes its time to carefully set up its milieu, situation and environment as well as its measured and affectionate approach to narrative and action. Although the often dynamic and incisive editing of even its very quiet scenes takes us a long way from contemporary ‘slow cinema’, this is a movie that isn’t going to be rushed. Junior Bonner is short on incident and long on mood and feeling (and, luckily for Peckinpah and us, it’s generally light on indulgence other than in its extended bar-room brawl). If the brief sojourn of several days by Junior (McQueen) back in his hometown of Prescott, Arizona (with the actual town standing in for itself), to participate in the local rodeo competition, drop in on his fractured family and open old wounds, and observe the “Frontier Days” parade doesn’t sound appealing, you’re probably in the wrong movie.
The early sequences also clearly establish that this will be an itinerant commentary on the Western and the form’s debasement in its confrontation with modern America. In this regard, it sits alongside a wide range of other films dating back to Lonely Are the Brave (David Miller, 1962) and Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963) in the early 1960s and a whole swag of similarly themed movies in the first half of the 1970s. It equally resonates with a closely aligned array of rodeo films – all about the passing or precarity of a certain type of masculinity – such as Nicholas Ray’s soulful The Lusty Men (1952), J.W. Coop (Cliff Robertson, 1971) and The Honkers (Steve Ihnat, 1972).
Junior Bonner is full of small and large details that mark the passing of the Old West. Even the central point of contact between its characters, the somewhat anachronistic and debased ‘sport’ of rodeo riding, highlights the commercialisation, confined staging and overt passing of the West. Only for brief moments within the paid spectacle of the rodeo are characters allowed to practice these once ‘productive’ skills. Elsewhere the film is full of moments that probe the continued relevance of the Western, working hard, but often unselfconsciously, to reverse or question specific conventions and clichés. For example, in the credit sequence we see Junior loading his horse into its trailer, but we only ever see him drive his car, ironically towing his horse in and out of the film’s opening and closing scenes. In one of its more forceful moments, the abandoned home of Ace Bonner (Junior’s ageing father and former rodeo champion, played by Robert Preston) is torn apart by graders amidst a vision of toxic, environmentally ruinous America enabled by Junior’s entrepreneurial brother, Curly (Joe Don Baker). Although this sequence does present a nightmarish image of the environmental devastation wrought by mining and exploitation, it also highlights the fragility and flimsiness of the surviving remnants of the Old West. Ace’s home essentially appears as a Western set quickly swept away by the facelessness of progress – none too subtly embodied by the sunglasses-wearing driver of one of the graders. Although Junior is allowed a moment to contemplate the remnants of his father’s life left in his abandoned home, this sequence has a snatched quality that separates it from the emotional catharsis of a similar return ‘home’ at the beginning of The Lusty Men. In essence, this is less a vision of the last days of the rodeo or the West than an affectionate portrait of characters way too set and complacent in their ways.
Although Junior Bonner does have its more pointed moments of commentary – at one stage, Curly declaims Junior as nothing more than a “motel cowboy”, the kind of figure who populates the work of Sam Shepard – it offers a rounded, subtle and carefully articulated portrait of family, gender and the malady of contemporary America (or at least in Prescott, Arizona, in the early 1970s, which probably seems like ancient history to most contemporary viewers in terms of many of the values, attitudes and actions displayed). Curly is a partly affable symbol of modern greed, but he is also a sympathetic and even caring sibling who wants to bring his brother (and father) along with him. He has seen the writing on the wall. But, in some ways, Ace and Junior have done so too. They have made a pact to pursue a rootless and itinerant lifestyle to its logical end.
This is not a film about competition in the mould of Michael Ritchie (see his The Candidate , Smile  and The Bad News Bears , amongst others) but a quotidian portrait of its central characters’ complex and largely unstated motivations fuelled by their anachronistic life choices. The ultimate triumph of Junior in his home rodeo doesn’t lead to an existential crisis of feeling (à la George Segal’s character in Robert Altman’s California Split ), but is just part and parcel of the daily grind, repetition and ebb and flow of his profession. This is not a forensic exploration of the life of a rodeo cowboy, but a character study of figures who just happen to choose a particular way of life. While the sympathies of the film are largely with those (such as Junior and Ace, who longs for a ‘new’ start in Australia!) who drift from one town to another, basking in their hard-won but increasingly distant reputations, it is also grounded by the figures of Curly and Elvira (Ida Lupino), the accepting but disappointed mother and wife who waits for each of her charges to return. One of the great joys of Peckinpah’s cinema is the rogue’s gallery of supporting players who help grant his work its lived-in and expressively organic – if slightly outlandish – feeling. Peckinpah had a way of choosing actors who could populate a vivid fresco of expressive faces, varied body types and vocalities. It helps create a world that one can imagine Lupino feeling at home in after her work alongside the richly variegated stable of Warners stars and character actors in the ’30s and ’40s and the ‘backlot’ of studio television in the ’50s and ’60s.
But perhaps the great theme of Junior Bonner is time. It is a movie that constantly shows time through its leisurely approach to action. As it’s a Peckinpah film, it also explores or demonstrates cinematic time through the use of slow motion, editing and the freeze frame. For example, part of its affection for its characters is demonstrated by the granting of a freeze frame to each of its major players in its closing sections. But the key way in which time is made palpable is through an extended contrast between the concentrated time of the rodeo (that magic eight seconds, which can seem like an eternity) and the extended waiting and boredom endured preparing for each ride or demonstration and travelling from town to town. It is in these moments of waiting or studied time that Junior Bonner’s greatest pleasures hide. But it is also the spectacle of getting together a range of actors who span various eras of Hollywood cinema that will stay with you. The inherent coolness of McQueen bumps against the amiability of the character he plays – with only short bursts of violence that register very little impact – as well the qualities of longevity, wisdom, weariness, toughness and vulnerability characteristically embodied by Lupino. Although Lupino would feature in several more films and TV episodes, Junior Bonner represents a fitting coda to her endlessly adaptive and often courageous career.
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Junior Bonner (1972 USA 100 mins)
Prod Co: Joe Wizan-Booth Gardner Productions/Solar Productions Prod: Joe Wizan Dir: Sam Peckinpah Scr: Jeb Rosebrook Phot: Lucien Ballard Ed: Frank Santillo, Robert Wolfe Art Dir: Edward S. Haworth Mus: Jerry Fielding
Cast: Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Ben Johnson, Joe Don Baker, Barbara Leigh, Mary Murphy, Dub Taylor