Junior Bonner

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Nov 02, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s director Sam Peckinpah redefined the language of cinematic violence with the bloody western epic, The Wild Bunch, and the disturbing home invasion thriller, Straw Dogs. Known for his extensive use of slow-motion and obsession with old-school machismo, Peckinpah’s was infamous in Hollywood for being the kind of character one might find in his films: a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed scrapper with a hair-trigger temper and a fierce independent streak. In 1972, he teamed up with Steve McQueen - arguably the manliest actor in film history - to make a pair of films. One was The Getaway, a crime thriller co-starring McQueen’s future ex-wife, Ali MacGraw. The other was a film that would seem like something of a departure to anyone familiar only with Peckinpah’s hits: a low-key love letter to competitive rodeo culture called Junior Bonner.

Remembered now as a minor effort by both Peckinpah and McQueen, Junior Bonner is more in line with their respective bodies of work than one might assume. Part family drama, part docudrama, the film - like many of Peckinpah’s earlier westerns - depicts the slow decline of a distinctly American culture in the face of modernity. Just as the cowboys of The Wild Bunch saw their way of life obliterated by railroads, machine guns and automobiles, Junior Bonner, an aging rodeo champion played by McQueen, sees a similar writing on the wall in the form of his brother Curley’s real estate ambitions and his father Ace’s delusions of former grandeur. The drama that plays out among the Bonner clan - which also includes Ida Lupino as Junior’s mother, Elvira - is little more than a loose pretext around with Peckinpah constructs an on-the-ground exploration of rodeo cowboys and the spectator culture surrounding them. Working in a form that could be described as “shit-kicker arthouse”, Peckinpah utilizes everything from his famous slow-motion to split screens to New Wave style jump cuts to overlapping dialogue in order to create a slice-of-life snapshot of Prescott, Arizona in the early 1970’s; a place where an enormous bar fight can be stopped by the band playing the national anthem. It’s always clear though, that Peckinpah has an affinity for these people and their way of life, that he's celebrating it alongside them.

Likewise, McQueen starring in a film like Junior Bonnner isn’t that surprising, despite his rise to fame in rousing action roles like The Great Escape and Bullitt. McQueen was widely known as an aficionado of car and motorcycle racing; his acting career eventually became little more than a source of income to finance those and other manly hobbies. It’s not difficult to see what attracted him to a film about the dangerous art of rodeo and his measured, quiet performance contributes to film’s realism. You never quite forget that you’re watching Steve McQueen, but his presence doesn’t overwhelms the proceedings. Junior himself is less a protagonist than an anchor for the audience as they move about the rodeo arenas, bars and trailer parks that make up the films world. A more fitting protagonist might have been Robert Preston as Ace, Junior’s washed-up raconteur of a father. He probably has more lines than Junior despite having less than half the screen time, and his relationship with Ida Lupino’s Elvira is the the only one given a meaningful resolution.

Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray release of Junior Bonner includes a smattering of special features; standouts are a brief tour of modern day Prescott, as well as a series of interviews with many of Peckinpah’s collaborators, including Ali MacGraw, Ernest Borgnine, James Coburn and R.G. Armstrong. 



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