Junior Bonner Review

There’s a common misconception that Sam Peckinpah’s major talent as a director was for choreographing violent spectacle and gratuitous bloodletting. That this isn’t true is demonstrated by a number of his films and principally by the films that bookended one of his most brutal movies, Straw Dogs - namely, The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner. Both movies are meditations on changing times, both feature heroes who are men of the past stranded in the present and both are reflective, funny and gently sad. Junior Bonner in particular is one of the most impressive of Peckinpah’s films, a modern western that features some incredibly skilled filmmaking and one of Steve McQueen’s very best performances.

Steve McQueen plays J.R. Bonner, a rodeo rider who dreams of nothing except getting through one more competition. In need of money, he returns to his home town of Prescott, Arizona to compete in a rodeo and ride Sunshine, the bull that has thrown and nearly killed him. In coming home, he comes back into contact with old friends, such as half-shyster, half-businessman Buck Roan (Johnson), and with his family; brother Curly (Baker), father Ace (Preston) and mother Elvira (Lupino). J.R. finds that people have plans to sort out his life but the more they try to pin him down, the more he kicks against it. Meanwhile, the rodeo brings the opportunity for a reconciliation between his estranged parents and the chance of $5,000 for J.R. if he can win.

Like most of Peckinpah’s work, Junior Bonner is about people adrift in a time of change that they neither like nor understand. As J.R. arrives in Prescott, he visits the family ranch only to find that it’s being demolished by his brother’s realty company. He sits in his car directly in the path of the digger, like Canute trying to turn back the tide, and succeeds in stopping it in the short term but he knows that ultimately he is going to lose the battle against the destruction of the past which is known by men like his brother as ‘progress’. Prescott is a town in transition between old traditions and the modern economy which is necessary for it to survive. J.R., called a ‘motel cowboy’ by his brother, is a drifter in his soul, unable to put down roots because he is frightened that if he’s pinned down that it will be the end of him. He dreams of a big score at the rodeo in Salinas but doesn’t have any plans beyond that other than to keep on moving. His one long-term goal is to ride Sunshine, the incredibly aggressive bull, and conquer the almost mystical animal. This is an interesting development for Peckinpah, whose heroes tend to be dreaming of hanging up their spurs in a land of dreams, usually Mexico. J.R. doesn’t have any dreams left, he’s a man who has seen his dreams gradually die as his own star fades and he lives from day to day in the hope of finding a meaning to his increasingly irrelevant existence. It’s his father, Ace, who has the dream – a new life in Australia, sheep farming and gold prospecting. This is just as indefinable as the dream of Mexican idyll in The Wild Bunch but it’s something to hang on to. J.R. is past this but it’s his world weary cynicism, combined with old-world charm that makes him such an attractive hero.

But what Peckinpah and screenwriter Jeb Rosebrook see very clearly is the way that the modern world has gradually edged out people like J.R. in the name of ‘progress’. The rodeo itself represents this of course; developed in the late 19th Century as an occupation for former cowboys who were already finding themselves unemployable. Rodeo is a key stage in the transformation of the West from reality into myth. Without it, J.R. would have nothing to live for. With it, he’s just a “driving cowboy”, a relic of a world which vanished a century before. In a scene with his father, J.R. says “I’m busted”. He means that he’s got no money but the line has other resonances. He’s tired, injured, too battered by experience to be sad and too aware of his own inadequacies to be heroic. In other words, J.R. is the quintessential Peckinpah hero and probably the man who Peckinpah would have liked to have been and perhaps was, at least in his quieter moments. Steve McQueen’s poignant, restrained performance helps a lot. There’s no problem identifying with J.R. when McQueen plays him – he’s very good at suggesting hidden depths without descending into self-pity.

The shadow of the past hovers over J.R and it also hangs like a spectre around the other characters. Curly is the nearest thing the film has to a villain, but the movie is mature enough to recognise that his drive to clear out the past and stampede in with the future is perhaps the only way he can get out from under the shadow of a domineering father and a brother who, by leaving, managed to become a local hero. Joe Don Baker’s remarkably subtle performance gets across these emotions very well and he never descends to the level of a stage villain. We don’t like Curly but we can understand him. The same goes for Ace and Elvira. Robert Preston’s performance is perhaps a little too flamboyant for some tastes but he beautifully evokes the spirit of an old-time showman with nothing to do except drink and brawl. Clearly, there’s quite a bit of Peckinpah in Ace too. Elvira is more complex and a living contradiction of the commonly held view that Peckinpah didn’t have any interest in his female characters. Ida Lupino’s poignant, fiery performance is one of the best in the director’s oeuvre and Elvira is a fine, tough woman who doesn’t take any shit from her husband but is still prepared to give him just one more chance because she loves him, despite having every reason in the world not to. That’s another detail from Peckinpah’s own life; the number of women prepared to give him another chance despite his treatment of them is extraordinary. Elvira is the third of a trio of strong, memorable women in Peckinpah’s films, joining Stella Stevens in The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Susan George in Straw Dogs. Had he been able to cast a better actress than Ali McGraw in The Getaway then Carol McCoy might have made it a quartet.

The brilliantly controlled technique which makes Straw Dogs so exciting to watch is just as evident in Junior Bonner - in most respects, a very different film. The opening credits, like those in Cable Hogue, are presented over a lengthy split-screen/panel sequence which reveals the brutality of the rodeo life and shows us in exquisite detail the background to J.R. – the tiredness, the loneliness and the laconic machismo that defines him. The film then seems, initially, to drift but Peckinpah’s control of the material is always in evidence. He isn’t afraid to ramble and include seemingly irrelevant scenes – J.R’s trip to the gas station for example – in order to establish character details. The film has an attractively relaxed pace but it’s never boring or lazy. There’s always something to look at, whether it’s the stunning cinematography of Prescott, Arizona or the faces of the people, many of them real townspeople. It’s worth pointing out that everything is done for real (there being no CGI to fall back on) including dangerous scenes with the bull and McQueen did some of his own stunts – although no-one was inclined to let him really ride Sunshine! Peckinpah also works his usual miracles with slow motion, but it’s worth pointing out his ability to use differing speeds, from a relatively minor 40 frames a second to 96 and more. No other filmmaker in the modern era has used slow motion with the same precision as Peckinpah – the only other candidates in American cinema are Scorsese and De Palma. But Peckinpah never uses it for its own sake, he uses it to make particular points. He also recognises that to add suspense to bronco riding, you have to use slow motion or it will be over far too soon.

The film sees Peckinpah working with some of his favourite collaborators. The cast includes favourites such as Dub Taylor and, in a nicely ironic performance which is not dissimilar to his role in The Getaway, Ben Johnson. The sparse, elegaic music score is by Jerry Fielding – soon to be discarded, much to his disgust, in favour of Quincy Jones and Bob Dylan but brought back into the fold with Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. Lucien Ballard is the DP and his brilliance with desert landscape is much in evidence, while Robert Wolfe’s editing is typically razor sharp. Not a single scene in this film goes on too long or doesn’t serve to further either character or atmosphere. In some ways, it was the break-up of this team that made the later films so difficult for Peckinpah. He didn’t have anyone who knew him intimately to say no or to criticise his decisions or even to protect him from the studio suits who came along to cause trouble. Although studios might not have trusted Peckinpah, they did have a certain degree of faith in the experienced likes of Robert Wolfe.

Initially, Junior Bonner might seem atypical of Peckinpah, but in its themes of loss and regret, times changing forever and people lost in the past, it fits in very well with films varying from Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia to Ride The High Country. The film establishes once and for all Peckinpah’s ability to make a gentle observational drama and one scene, between Preston and McQueen in front of an empty railway line, is a little masterpiece of understatement, all things unsaid and feelings unresolved. Yet it also demonstrates his abilities with action, the rodeo scenes blazing with suspense and style. As such, it’s one of his most enjoyable movies, showing off his versatility and his skill with actors, and one which looks better and better as time goes by.

The Disc

Junior Bonner has been released before in the UK and US. The UK Region 2 disc is an abomination – fullscreen and hopelessly muddy. If there’s one film which makes no sense in pan and scan, then this is it. The US release from Anchor Bay was better but still not an especially good print. This new MGM release is an improvement on both, offering a reasonably good, albeit flawed, transfer and one hugely valuable extra feature.

The film is presented in the original Todd-AO ratio, 2.35:1. For reasons best known to themselves, MGM have not produced an anamorphically enhanced transfer. Given this bizarre omission – it would have seemed odd in 1999 and is now positively antediluvian – it’s a pretty good transfer. The colours are rich and evocative, there is a pretty good level of detail (although occasionally there is a very evident softness) and there are no serious problems with artefacting. The image looks properly filmic with a good level of film grain. Some of the blacks aren’t quite as deep as I would have liked however. Still, all in all, it’s pretty good for a non-anamorphic image but it could have been a lot better.

The soundtrack is the original mono track. Thankfully, unlike with Anchor Bay’s Osterman Weekend, no-one has taken a unilateral decision to remix the track into a surround-sound mess, and it’s a strong, clear track.

The only extra on the disc is an audio commentary and it’s a very good one. As with the aforementioned Osterman disc and the UK release of Straw Dogs, it’s supplied by Peckinpah experts Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, moderated by Nick Redman. As you’d expect, it’s utterly compelling and full of valuable information even to someone who thought he knew a fair bit about the director. It’s particularly good at putting the film in context and establishing the circumstances of its making. I enjoyed this a great deal. No other extras are present however, not even the theatrical trailer.

There are 16 chapter stops. Subtitles are included for the film, but not for the commentary.

Junior Bonner is a lovely film which deserves to be much more widely seen. The gentleness of it and the sense of elegaic reflection which infuses every scene with an overtone of sadness and loss are very attractive. The ending in particular is one of Peckinpah’s most eloquent expressions of how we can express love for someone without letting them see it. The disc is disappointingly non-anamorphic but otherwise an improvement on previous releases. The commentary in particular is essential listening for Peckinpah fans and worth getting the disc for, even if you have an understandable prejudice against non-anamorphic releases.

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