Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #53 Junior Bonner (1972)
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the site and career sustaining feature where I give you, the big-hearted, devastatingly sexy, unmistakably heaven-bound Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron an opportunity to choose a film that I must watch and then write about in exchange for a one time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon account. The price goes down to seventy five dollars for each additional entry.
Or, you can choose not a movie but rather an entire filmmaker’s oeuvre for me to explore for this column, as one very kind, very generous patron, a real Medici type, if you will, did with the films of “Bloody Sam” Peckinpah, the hard-drinking, hard-living bad boy of Western filmmaking.
I love writing this column and would love to add one or two more to my workload, so if you if you desperately want me to write about the films of James Belushi in exchange for money I would be happy to do so. I would be more than happy. I would be overjoyed. But it doesn’t have to be James Belushi: I will happily write up anyone and everything that you’d like.
Writing about Peckinpah’s films has been a hell of an interesting journey and a nice change of pace from the random detritus I tend to cover for the column. Watching all of Peckinpah’s films in order and then writing about them in depth has given me a renewed appreciation for Peckinpah’s genius and a greater, more complete sense of him as a filmmaker, artist and man. Peckinpah was nothing if not an auteur, a visionary madman with a set of sweaty, booze-sodden obsessions that pop up in film after film.
1972’s Junior Bonner is a wonderful anomaly in Peckinpah’s filmography, a gentle, slice of life character study that takes place not in the Old West among cowboys and desperados but rather in the New West, among contemporary cowboys who make an honest, hard living trying to stay on a wild, bucking bull for at least eight seconds and latter-day prospectors chasing dreams of gold and fortune.
Junior Bonner is refreshingly devoid of the graphic sexual assault, stomach-churning violence, profanity and brutal misanthropy that characterize so many of Peckinpah’s other efforts. In that respect, it’s a little like Peckinpah’s The Straight Story, an uncharacteristically gentle movie about families and land and people and relationships.
I was so excited about revisiting the lovely, keenly observed rodeo world of Junior Bonner that I cheated just a little and decided to watch and write about it before Straw Dogs even though the notorious, controversial shocker was released in 1971, a year before Peckinpah’s lyrical, understated contemporary western.
Why is that? You can call me a beta cuck soy boy if you must, but if given a choice between watching a movie featuring graphic sexual assault and one devoid of sexual violence, I’m going to choose the option that does not involve sexual assault 95 times out of 100. So I decided to put off Straw Dogs until next month in favor of Bloody Sam’s least bloody movie.
A perfectly cast Steve McQueen, the quintessence of American cool in tight blue jeans and sunglasses, stars as the title character, a second generation hero of the rodeo and stoic embodiment of a dying breed of man. Junior Bonner is a cowboy who makes a lonesome living traveling from town to town, trying stay on top of bulls, ahead of the competition and at least one step ahead of jealous husbands and/or lovestruck rodeo groupies.
As the movie opens Junior is returning to his home town of Prescott, Arizona to compete in a rodeo and come to terms with his complicated, larger than life family. The great Robert Preston brings the unmistakable air of Broadway to his wonderfully theatrical turn as Junior’s father Ace, a legend of the rodeo with a twinkle in his eye, a weakness for loose women and liquor and dreams of making his fortune as a prospector in Australia as a sixty year old.
Preston loomed larger in my childhood thanks to my dad renting several of his most notable films, including his signature motion picture The Music Man as well as The Last Starfighter and Victor/Victoria.
In each of those films Preston was boldly, brassily, shamelessly theatrical, a well-seasoned ham clearly overjoyed to have juicy material to sink his actorly fangs into. Whether Preston was playing a space alien, a con man trying to pull one over on the good people of River City via an elaborate fake-band grift or a melancholy homosexual in 1930s Paris, he brought the same booming magnetism he does to the role of Ace here.
Ida Lupino, the pioneering character actress and filmmaker, is fantastic as Bonner’s weary survivor of an ex-wife, a woman with the character and strength to survive men like Ace and the hardscrabble world of the rodeo wife and mother. Joe Don Baker rounds out the cast as Junior’s vulgar, nouveau riche asshole brother Curly, a plum role the Walking Tall star won because Gene Hackman wanted too much money.
If Ace and Junior represent ways of life that are vanishing more and more each day, rugged realms of rugged individualism like prospecting, bull-riding and roping steers, Curly and his even worse wife represent the ugly, plastic present and future of the West. Curly is a mobile home mogul with a shamelessness and line of corny patter that would embarrass even Troy McClure.
Junior is cursed by fate to be bound by blood to a hokey self-promoter getting rich making Arizona an uglier place. Curly wants Junior to use his authenticity and homespun cowboy charm to help sell mobile homes. Junior is too polite to tell his brother that for a man of honor like himself, selling mobile homes would be a fate worse than death. It’s a Faustian bargain Junior finds easy to reject.
Junior is a champion and the sire of another rodeo champion but that doesn’t seem to matter much in the straight world. Despite his pedigree and his talent, Junior is unmistakably on the decline when Junior Bonner opens, a weary survivor whose body, timing and ability aren’t what they once were, but also a man without much to show for years of abusing his body and chasing death and destruction from town to town and beast to beast.
McQueen may have been in the golden prime of his youth and beauty when he made Junior Bonner but in the Darwinian world of rodeo riding his character is nevertheless in the bittersweet twilight of a brilliant career. The world that Junior grew up in is being torn down to make room for mobile homes and trailer parks. There’s an element of working-class sociology to Junior Bonner, an almost documentary-like verisimilitude that comes from rounding out the cast with actual veterans of the rodeo (including the great character actor Ben Johnson) and real rodeo action captured in split-screens and montages set to country music.
Junior Bonner is acutely tuned into the rambling, lonely rhythms of life on the rodeo circuit, where long stretches of travel and waiting and drinking and carousing pay off in mere seconds of terror and danger and glory. In Junior Bonner, Peckinpah and McQueen turn out to be a match made in hardboiled heaven: the preeminent tough guy actor of his era and the brilliant bad boy of Western filmmaking.
McQueen doesn’t have to do anything to be absolutely riveting. It’s enough for him to simply exist onscreen, to inhabit the soul of this lonely, dignified existential loner with his whole being. Junior wants to wow his hometown by successfully riding a wild-ass bull owned by a young Barry Corbin (who, even as a young man, was an old man) but in the tradition of the best, most subversive and substantive sports movies of the 1970s, Junior Bonner does not ultimately seem to care much about the main event. It’s not about who wins or who loses; it’s more about the tricky essence of rodeo life and capturing the particulars of this fascinating and under-explored cultural milieu. Junior Bonner is like a lovely country song in cinematic form. Think George Strait’s "Amarillo By Morning” by way of Sam Peckinpah and Steve McQueen.
Peckinpah’s boldly quiet western has a sure feel for the honky tonks, rodeos and tacky parades that make up the Bonners’ disappearing world. Junior Bonner is a wonderfully lived-in modern western, a lovely and unexpectedly understated elegy for a dying way of life.
It’s exactly what I remembered and exactly what I needed at this stage in my journey through Peckinpah’s life and career. Considering that it was squeezed in between the harrowing and controversial Straw Dogs and the similarly bleak and vicious The Getaway, Junior Bonner has the distinction of being the calm both before, and after, the storm.
Curly tries to win his way into his more dignified brother’s heart by telling him, “You’re as genuine as a sunrise”, a lyrical turn of phrase that applies to this uncharacteristic little gem from a man who not only specialized in, but helped perfect a more aggressive, much bleaker kind of western.
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