Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Rodeo movies

I’m probably missing some, but there have been darn few movies about rodeo. Taking them one at a time, I’ll share what I can about the ones I’ve seen.

J. W. Coop (1971)
This film was written and directed by Cliff Robertson, who also plays the title character, a rough stock rider just released from serving nine years in prison. Coop has not only missed a big chunk of what might have been a prize-winning career in rodeo. He missed the 1960s, too. Walking confidently from prison in a fresh pair of Lee jeans and a black Stetson, he finds himself in a different America than the one he left.

He’s not long on the road before a peace-and-love hippie girl befriends him, introducing him to soy nuts and talk about the environment. (He’s already been stopped by a patrolman for the gross polluting old Hudson he’s driving). Hitching rides with truckers, he gets an ear full of right-wing politics and devotion to big-ticket consumer products.

Worse yet, rodeo itself has changed. Riders now “specialize” in their events, and the high-flyers literally fly their private planes between rodeos, to take in two and three a day. It’s become a big-money business. Coop gives it a shot anyway, never daunted by the odds, and we follow him on the circuit all over the Southwest.

The film was shot at actual small and regional rodeos, winding up at the National Finals in Oklahoma City. (This was before the move to Las Vegas.) Robertson got real rodeo cowboys to play themselves in the film, including Larry Mahan, who was then a World All-Around Rodeo Champion. Also Myrtis Dightman who was a Champion Afro-American Bull Rider (see above).

The rapid, telephoto montages of cowboys riding and being thrown, with a spirited music track, make rodeo seem all non-stop excitement. In reality, there are often long waits between rides, which are themselves hard to see well from the grandstand. You find yourself restlessly drifting toward the beer tent.

The movie is very much a product of its time, with Vietnam-era social comment that we also get in Easy Rider (1969), Zabriskie Point (1970), and M.A.S.H. (1970). Robertson is enjoyable as the easy-going, indomitable, small-town Texas rodeo cowboy going for the brass ring – all the way until the last reel, where reality finally catches up with him.

Junior Bonner (1972)
Sam Peckinpah made this mostly light-hearted film with Steve McQueen as the title character. J.R. is much like Cliff Robertson’s Coop, congenial, easy-going and easy to like. Meanwhile, his sleazy brother (Joe Don Baker) is busy converting the old ranch into a housing development and getting rich.

J.R. subscribes to a more old-school style of manhood. He is untouched by the shoddy materialism of his brother, who has his female sales force dressed in cowboy hats and hot pants. Stove up from years of riding the circuit, and broke as usual, J.R. first appears in a mud-spattered and beat-up white Cadillac convertible. It’s his one proof of having seen better days. Still, he doesn’t seem to take his situation too seriously.

Robert Preston plays his father, a dreamer with plans of prospecting in Australia if only he can persuade someone to give him the money to get there. Ida Lupino plays J.R.’s sensible, long-suffering mother. There is plenty of farce, including a comical barroom brawl, a punch that sends a man through a front porch window, and Preston and McQueen getting hung up on a clothesline as they ride a horse through several backyards.

The film’s rodeo footage was shot at the Prescott, Arizona Rodeo. And similar to J. W. Coop, the rides are shown as a rapid montage played against turkey-in-the-straw music. There is even a cow-milking competition, with J.R. and his dad putting in an unceremonious and unsuccessful showing. Cowboy star Ben Johnson is an enjoyable presence in the film as a rodeo stock grower.

While Robertson’s Coop gets and doesn’t quite hang onto the girl, J.R. leaves behind the one he finds. No better and no worse than he was at the beginning of the film, he has to get on down the road to the next rodeo. His old-school code of values is still intact. Here’s a clip.

Briefly noted, here are three more . . .

8 Seconds (1994)
This biopic portrays the life of  bull rider Lane Frost (Luke Perry), who was killed at the height of his short career by a bull at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo in 1989. Frost was 25 years old and had completed his 8-second ride when he was gored by the bull and died almost instantly from a severed pulmonary artery.

As biopics go, this one tends toward a sentimental and worshipful treatment of its subject. Central to the story is Frost’s life-long friendship with rodeo cowboy Tuff Hedeman, played well by Stephen Baldwin. And there is the romance and marriage to his wife Kellie (Cynthia Geary). No disrespect to Frost’s memory, but you might want a box of Kleenex by your side for this one.

Cowboy Up (2000)
This is one for fans of Kiefer Sutherland, who plays a rodeo clown (bull fighter) and rough stock entrepeneur. He’s a likable guy, marked forever by the scorn of his rodeo champion father, played well in a cameo performance by British actor Pete Postlethwaite. Melinda Dillon puts in a fine turn also, as Kiefer’s shotgun-wielding mom.

His foil in the film is his handsome bull riding brother (Marcus Thomas), named Rookie of the Year and then put out of commission by a bull who nearly kills him. Undiscouraged, he returns to compete again, against the wishes of everyone in the family, including his girlfriend (Molly Ringwald).

Compared to 8 Seconds, there’s less glamour and a grittier realism, as we see the seamier side of the sport. When the relationship with the girlfriend goes south, Kiefer’s brother gets involved with a barrel racer (Daryl Hannah), who offers her coach and herself for some sweaty encounters. There's also pill popping, groupies, and other forms of misbehavior. The two brothers are eventually reconciled, but don’t expect a happy ending. In the words of Garth Brooks, “that damned old rodeo” takes its toll.

Rank (2006)
This IFC documentary portrays the lives of three professional bull riders - Justin McBride (on the right), Adriano Moraes, and Mike Lee during the 2004 season leading up to the PBR finals in Las Vegas. It’s a realistic film that doesn’t glamorize, editorialize, or sensationalize.

What you become aware of as you watch this film is the high risk of physical injury and the riders' almost incomprehensible disregard of it. The camera follows McBride as he hobbles around on an ankle held together with pins. Moraes, in his shorts, shows the scars of all his injuries, and we see his winces of pain after rides that further damage the bicep of his left arm. Along the right side of Lee's head, there’s a long, jagged scar from surgery following a concussion.

While there is seven-figure prize money at stake, the men focus instead on a love of the sport that defies logic. Of their personal lives, we learn that two are married - one of them has two children - and we meet the women in their lives. One of the men is a born-again Christian, with a fatalistic belief that if he dies in the arena, it is God’s will. Another is your standard beer-drinking, cussing cowboy and a total stranger to piety.

The film also devotes screen time to the professional bullfighters whose job is to keep the bulls from doing damage to the riders once they’ve dismounted or been thrown. And we learn about the Oklahoma stock growers who provide the bulls for the events.

One that slipped by me. I’ve read about but have never seen Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952). It’s got Susan Hayward, Robert Mitchum, and Arthur Kennedy, and the word on it is all good. Reviewers at give it a rare 100% approval rating. The trailer at calls it a story about a red-headed woman who comes between two red-blooded men. Here’s a clip. Some day I’ll finally get my rope around this one.

Anybody know of any others?

Picture credits:
1) Myrtis Dightman and Cliff Robertson,
2) Steve McQueen as Junior Bonner,
3) Luke Perry as Lane Frost,
4) Justin McBride,
5) Mitchum, Hayward, Kennedy,

Coming up: Review of Dane Coolidge’s Man From Wyoming


  1. Seen the Coop film and recently, J Bonnar.
    Never seen the last one but I`ll keep an eye open!

  2. Junior Bonner (1972)and the film, Lusty Men (1952) are both awesome films. I will add. J. W. Coop (1971),8 Seconds (1994),Cowboy Up (2000)and Rank (2006), to my list of "gotta see" films.

  3. You're right - there are very few. I've only seen Junior Bonner out of all these and that's because I'm a diehard Steve McQueen fan.

  4. You might remember The Rounders with Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda which has a touch of rodeo in it. They run across a horse which nobody can ride and enter him in the rodeo to see if anybody can ride him. I enjoyed the comedy in it.

  5. Thanks everybody. Cheyenne, you're the first person I know of who's seen J W COOP. I didn't know about it until I just stumbled across it.

    Dawn, I don't think you'll be disappointed with the rest of the bunch. I should get Ted Turner to put me on an alert list for LUSTY MEN.

    Laurie, I'm with you on the subject of McQueen. He was so good.

    Oscar, thx for the tip on THE ROUNDERS. I like both those actors and it would be fun to see them together.

  6. The Honkers, James Coburn from about 1972

    Painted Hero

    Ruby Jean and Joe

    When the Legends Die

  7. A so-so movie but, "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" with Scott Glenn, a slightly better one, "Convict Cowboy" with Jon Voight

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