As a big fan of film director Sam Peckinpah and actor Steve McQueen, I always thought I had seen their most substantial work. Much to my surprise, I viewed the 1972 film "Junior Bonner" for the first time recently and was stunned by its quality and depth. "Junior Bonner" is a terrific film, complete with Peckinpah's individualistic themes, McQueen's understated though electric presence, magnificient location detail, boozy saloons and elder statesmen (and women) coming to terms with a rapidly receding past.
A genre unto itself, the rodeo lifestyle was documented with surprising fervor in the early 1970s by a handful of interesting films including "Honkers," "J.W. Coop," and "When the Legends Die." Each film explored the themes of a changing civilization which embraced convention while muting individualism and personal freedom. Thus, Peckinpah and McQueen were truly in their element with "Junior Bonner."
The film covers a day in the life of Junior Bonner (McQueen), an aging rodeo star who returns to his Arizona hometown to participate in an annual rodeo competition. We are soon introduced to his family, including his estranged parents (Robert Preston and Ida Lupino) and his budding businessman brother (Joe Don Baker) looking to profit from the sale of his father's land while exploiting the frontier/cowboy persona.
"Junior Bonner" is so understated, that the viewer must read between the lines throughout its brief running time, including a fascinating dinner scene with McQueen, Lupino and Baker when they discuss the family's future. It is a moment of brilliant directing and acting.
Ironically, what is probably the least seen film of Peckinpah and McQueen's careers is also one of their best. Peckinpah has never before been so restrained, if not gentle. Known for his fierce action sequences in such films as "The Wild Bunch" and "The Getaway," Peckinpah utilizes his detailed, frenzied style during the exciting rodeo sequences. But his handling of the more intimate moments, especially those between Preston and Lupino, are some of his most gentle scenes he ever put on film. In many ways, Preston's character is just a scruffy version of Peckinpah himself - a deeply flawed but eventually loveable dreamer. It is Peckinpah opening up to the viewer for one of the few times in his career.
McQueen, likewise, plays a character very close to him as a man. The role of Junior Bonner is that of a gregarious loner, limping from the hard knocks of life, trying to quietly go about his business but discovering he can do anything but. His accent, his mannerisms and his reactions to everyday life always ring with a note of truth. It's absolutely one of his finest performances.
Perhaps the film's only fault is the rather abrupt ending which seems to come out of nowhere. It's unconventional, but then again, so were Peckinpah and McQueen. Unheralded, and relatively unknown, "Junior Bonner" is a great film ripe for discovery. Quiet, unassuming and good natured, "Junior Bonner" is a perfect display of two legendary motion picture talents (Peckinpah, McQueen) exploring themes perhaps closer to their hearts than any film they ever made.