Never was an actor better cast than Ben Johnson, who of course began his career as a rodeo veteran
Suppose there were plenty of successful rodeo-themed westerns back in the day, perhaps the kind interrupted by a cowboy song every ten minutes or so. But there must be an unwritten Hollywood law for filmmakers to stay away from dramatic movies about the circus of western cowboy skills. 1952’s The Lusty Men is one of Nicholas Ray’s best pictures, with excellent work from Robert Mitchum and Susan Hayward, but I doubt that it set box offices afire. I suppose you could call The Rounders an exception, even though it’s mostly a comedy. Right around 1970 or so there arrived a spate of rodeo pictures, all of which were box office poison: The Honkers with James Coburn, J.W. Coop with Cliff Robertson, and the studio debut of young Frederick Forrest, When the Legends Die. It ought to be fairly easy to see why they didn’t do well — they’re major downers, about cowpokes that don’t fit in modern times. The rodeo circuit is a place of exploitation, alcoholism, and injury.
Steve McQueen’s Solar Productions found a man’s man role for the star in race car saga Le Mans. McQueen’s character was so dry and non-verbal, they must have looked for something a bit deeper on the next outing. Made in conjunction with producer Joe Wizan, Junior Bonner is the first collaboration between McQueen and Sam Peckinpah. The demanding McQueen was a good tonic for the problematic director, whose substance abuse and chaotic private life was already making his movie sets erratic at best. With his reputation at stake and his own money in the pot, McQueen wouldn’t put up with any BS.
The aim of Junior Bonner is laudable — it’s a realistic portrayal of the rodeo circuit life without prejudice, and taking it easy on the theme of the end of The West. Steve McQueen had played a lot of laconic loners, but not too many guys that would really like to get along with people; Junior Bonner is downright sociable. Peckinpah came from a notable family of genuine California ranchers from the foot of the Sierra Nevadas. His relationship to that venerated background informs most of his movies, even if his erratic lifestyle made a mess of his own family life. Junior Bonner spends quality time among the cows and horses in the rodeo arena but its real focus is on the notion of Family and personal responsibility. Sam Peckinpah shows a sensitivity for relationships, that makes us wish his later career hadn’t taken such a downturn into mediocrity.
Itinerant rodeo competitor Junior ‘JR’ Bonner (Steve McQueen) still attracts women on the steer ropin’ and bull ridin’ circuit, but anybody can see that he’s far too old for the game. In good spirits but dead broke, he rolls into Prescott with his rusted Cadillac and horse trailer, and pays to enter a number of competitions, including one with his father, Ace (Robert Preston). But first he has to find Ace, who has spent the night in a hospital after totaling his truck. JR drops in on his mom Elvira (Ida Lupino). She and Ace are separated, mainly because the troublemaking old timer blew all his money while supposedly prospecting for silver, and is too ashamed to come home. Elvira can’t understand why JR is still risking his neck doing rodeos but she knows better than to lecture him. While looking for Ace, JR finds out what his enterprising brother has been up to. Curley Bonner (Joe Don Baker) is selling Prescott real estate with a carnival-like attraction that buses prospective buyers out to the lots — some of which is acreage that Curly bought from Ace, for peanuts. Curley’s on his way to making his first million, and wants to turn JR into a salesman too.
Everybody admires JR’s dangerous lifestyle, but he hasn’t found anything that he wants to do more and he won’t be co-opted. Rodeo kingpin Buck Roan (Ben Johnson) offers him an attractive managing job, but even that doesn’t appeal. The family gathering highlights all the incompatibilities. Curley’s kids think JR is cool, but their mother Ruth (Mary Murphy) sees the prodigal brother-in-law as a dangerous bum. The 4th of July rodeo brings everything together in a downtown bar. Curley isn’t happy with JR, and things get tense when Ace and Elvira finally get together after a long separation. JR can’t seem to win a competition, but he has the right attitude. Besides, he attracts the attention of Charmagne (Barbara Leigh), a high roller’s girlfriend.
Junior Bonner is about people as opposed to violent action, a formula that likely made it a tough theatrical sell with or without the trumpeted McQueen-Peckinpah teaming. The excellent ensemble cast is a winner, proving that these two talents could get almost anybody they wanted. Ida Lupino is back on the big screen for the first time since 1956, but was busy acting and directing in TV. Robert Preston is also back from a nine-year break to perform on the stage. You’d think that Ace Bonner would make the perfect salesman/huckster for his son Curley’s retirement property rip-offs. It’s a compliment to the show that Robert Preston i s able to leave the Harold Hill character behind.
The excellent Joe Don Baker hadn’t yet become hot in Walking Tall; his somewhat greedy Curley Bonner is not set up as a cardboard villain. With the name Curley, we think of the air-headed hero of Oklahoma!, who goes forward at the finish to build a grand New West without a single idea of how to go about it. Never was an actor better cast than Ben Johnson, who of course began his career as a rodeo veteran. Viewers that know Johnson only from Peckinpah movies and The Last Picture Show should take in his aw-shucks honest young cowpoke in John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950). He’s the genuine article.
Good direction softens a screenplay riddled with statements about the betrayal of western values. Ace Bonner shatters a TV screen, thereby continuing the lame mirror-breaking motif in Peckinpah films. JR confronts a tractor driver who is bulldozing the old homestead, in a canned re-cap of The Grapes of Wrath. Curley’s tourist trap features a caged coyote and mountain lion, obvious markers for the way JR’s lifestyle has been corralled and marketed. But the rodeo itself is not criticized. JR has a good buddy & competitor in Red Terwilliger (Bill McKinney) and the very presence of Ben Johnson tells us that everything is on the up ‘n’ up.
Peckinpah shows zero subtlety with the cowgirls that hang around the rodeo, like groupies. They leer unconvincingly at McQueen, as if they want to jump him and pull his pants down. Thankfully this idiocy passes quickly. McQueen’s wham-bam affair with Barbara Leigh’s champagne cowgirl is at least presented with some discretion.
The very good rodeo scenes are a workout for Peckinpah’s editorial notions, courtesy of Robert L. Wolfe and Frank Santillo. Santillo had been with Peckinpah since Ride the High Country, where his interesting work miraculously survived MGM’s cookie-cutter editorial standards of the day. I’m assuming that somebody else (Frank Kowalski) actually shot the miles of multi-speed rodeo action, which all looks marvelous in 35mm Panavision. When McQueen and Robert Preston are doubled, careful cutting minimizes the mismatch — anyway, it really is Steve McQueen in the release pen, where he could easily have received a broken bone without doing anything wrong. In a rather good, unrehearsed-looking moment away from the crowds, McQueen personally faces down a dangerous bull in casual ‘toreador’ fashion. The bull doesn’t look drugged. Was that filmed when most of the show was already in the can?
I remember the trailer trying to sell the movie with the slow-motion scene in which Ace and JR ride a horse out of a parade and make a mess of a lady’s laundry on a clothesline. The really affecting material centers on Robert Preston and Ida Lupino. Peckinpah shows a lot of respect and sensitivity for the 60-ish couple. He’s a foolish braggart with style, and difficult not to like. She is too strong to be humiliated by his errant nonsense, even when his present girlfriend shows up. The pair even generates a convincing mutual sexual attraction. I know that Peckinpah adepts would strongly disagree, but after this film there were precious few sustained relationships in Peckinpah movies that even approach these scenes. Did the director’s personal instability derail a more committed directing career? I remember him being attached for a time to Something Wicked This Way Comes and thinking it would be a fine career comeback picture.