From the late 1960s director Sam Peckinpah built a solid reputation for his intensely violent action films that usually featured slow motion shoot outs and bloody hyper-realistic reaction shots of the victims and perpetrators of such violence. But in 1972, after making The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, Peckinpah took a turn to a much quieter, low key, character-based little gem called Junior Bonner.
Steve McQueen stars as “JR” Junior Bonner, a one-time rodeo champ who returns to his hometown’s annual Prescott Frontier Days rodeo celebration. And while the film’s focus is on this beyond-his-prime rodeo star and the rodeo competition, a major focus of the film is Bonner’s reconnection with his somewhat dysfunctional family.
JR is the somewhat typical cool loner character that McQueen specialized in his hey-day. His character is made more provocative by his interactions with his smooth-talking father Ace (played with grace and bravado by Robert Preston), his ever-tolerant mom Ellie (Ida Lupino) and brother, superficial real estate developer Curly (Joe Don Baker).
In fact, the film’s script, penned by Jeb Rosebrook, so leisurely develops JR’s situations and relationships that it is a full hour into the film before you actually witness a rodeo competition. JR seems to be in competitive drought, having reoccurring flashbacks of being thrown and beaten by a large bull named Sunshine.
His spiteful brother Curly exclaims, “I’m working on my first million, you’re still working on 8 seconds” (the required amount of time to stay on the rodeo bull). His dad, Ace, a former rodeo legend, is a happy-go-lucky alcoholic who is now somewhat homeless since he sold his homestead to Curly and lives apart from his estranged wife. Ace’s latest scheme is to head off to Australia and prospect for gold and possibly raise sheep.
While the film contains the requisite amount of atmospheric country-western music, rich rodeo characters (including tough old rodeo stock man Buck Roan, played with smooth charm by veteran Ben Johnson), a short romance and a full scale bar room brawl, Junior Bonner avoids many of the clichés of the “good ole boy” modern cowboy tale.
The film is crisply shot by Lucien Ballard, Peckipah’s director of photography on his classic The Wild Bunch. McQueen so loved this laid back role that he reportedly rewrote much of his dialogue to more closely fit the feel he had for his character. The less violent, casually paced Junior Bonner clearly proved Peckinpah could not be typecast as a violent action filmmaker.