I’m calling it best, maybe, because it starred two of my favorite actors, Steve McQueen and Robert Preston. True to the spirit of rodeo, it’s also a comedy. Surprisingly, it was directed by Sam Peckinpah, who was hardly known for his light touch.
Junior Bonner was one of those movies that fell "under the influence" of the early 1970s. It came in that aimless trough between Easy Rider (1969) and Jaws (1975), when Hollywood was willing to let filmmakers try about anything to hang onto a youthful audience. It was a period also more than a little challenged by the post-Vietnam years of national bafflement.
The movie grabs for this mood from the opening credits, with kinetic split-screen images showing in slow motion a disastrous ride on a bull. These are intercut with shots of McQueen driving a mud-spattered and beat up white Cadillac convertible, towing a horse trailer. Altogether it’s the picture of a man down on his luck.
|Pendleton Roundup, 2004. Photo by Bobjgalingo.|
Then we get a vision of an American West exhausted and resold as suburban housing developments of so-called rancheros (never mind that "ranchero" in Spanish means rancher). The marketing involves busloads of prospective buyers shepherded by young women in cowboy hats and hot pants.
McQueen's rodeo cowboy, Junior Bonner, returns to the home place outside Prescott, Arizona, to find heavy equipment operators fiercely tearing up the earth and anything that gets in their way. He stands there in his Lee jeans, western shirt and straw cowboy hat, surveying a land laid waste. Like the mood of the country at the time, the scene portrays a promising future that has seriously run aground somewhere.
But after this downbeat start, the movie becomes a kind of romantic comedy. We meet Bonner Senior (Robert Preston) rising from his hospital bed with a dream of prospecting in Australia. He’s also making a last attempt to win back his wife of many years, played nicely by Ida Lupino.
|Calf roper, Pendleton Roundup, 2004. Photo by Bobjgalingo.|
There is plenty of farce, including Preston and McQueen riding a horse through backyards and getting hung up on a clothesline, a comical barroom brawl, and a punch that sends a man through a front porch window. The rodeo itself is a rapid montage of graceless falls from rough stock played against turkey-in-the-straw music.
Meanwhile, Junior, as an aging, stove-up bull rider, is the calm at the center of this storm. Preston clowns, Lupino frowns, Joe Don Baker fumes, and Ben Johnson grins and cracks jokes. There’s even a girl with an eye on Junior. But he is untouched by it all.
McQueen does what he does best, reflecting a quiet cowboy reserve. Though the West is no more, Junior continues to represent a long line of western heroes holding true to the cowboy code of generosity, individualism, and toughing it out when the going gets rough. Before all is said and done, he gets the girl, but not for long, because true to form, he has to get on down the road.
Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: W. K. Stratton, Chasing the Rodeo