Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rodeo Week, Junior Bonner (1972)

It’s Rodeo Week starting Monday at BITS – reviews of five great books about rodeo. Today I’m giving y’all a heads up with a review of not a book, but one of the best movies ever made about rodeo.

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


  1. Another excellent film about rodeo life is J.W. COOP(1972), starring Cliff Robertson as an ex-con released from prison after 8 years and returning to the rodeo circuit. This may be as good as JUNIOR BONNER.

    I served two years in the army and was friends with another soldier who was a rodeo rider. We used to go with him on the weekends to rodeos in Missouri and watch him. Once while on leave he went back to his home in Texas and found his wife partying with some guys. He cut short his leave and came back to Fort Leonard Wood where he concentrated on the rodeo life. He swore he was through with women.

    Rodeos are fun to watch and read about but it's a rough life.

  2. Walker, I have a copy of J.W. COOP and have watched only half of it so far. Cliff Robertson is great in it, as he is in THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID as Cole Younger. Geraldine Paige as his mother steals her scene with him, as I believe she did with nearly every actor...Rodeo and wives don't tend to mix well. Garth Brooks even has a song to that effect.

  3. Ron - Thank you very much for those kind words!

    I'm glad you like the blog and the way that I post not only my own pictures but also link to whatever inspires me at the moment. At first I started blogging a year after I'd moved to Germany (my mum's native country, I grew up in London; my father is English) to share my pictures and thoughts but during 2010 it has evolved a bit.

    I like Steve McQueen's movies. He had a screen presence that not many actors have nowadays.

    There are several reasons why I like your blog
    a. you write very well
    b. I like how you recommend books or movies to your readers.
    c. both with my parents when I was younger, and alone since I've had my driving licence, I've visited the U.S. many times and I liked the countryside much more than the cities... I just love the West. There are a few pictures in previous blog posts and some attempts to describe my experiences, but I guess I should better leave the story telling to the locals. :-)

  4. All the performances in JUNIOR are superb. I haven't seen this in almost twenty-five years. Might be time to check it out again.

  5. Nice review... You do a good job with movies, just as you do with books. I like Steve McQueen and if you're interested in him, you should check out Michael Manning's blog:

  6. I've always loved Steve McQueen and thought Junior Bonner is one of his best. Thanks for giving it some attention.

  7. I also loved Steve McQueen and saw all his movies. I was sorry to learn recently, he was not a very nice man.

  8. Dominic, I'd like to know more about your travels out West.

    David, Ben Johnson and Ida Lupino are especially good in supporting roles.

    Sage, thanks for the kind words.

    Laurie, McQueen had that persona down already in his TV years.

    Patti, isn't that typically the case?

  9. It's funny but around 1972 there were several rodeo movies. In addition to JUNIOR BONNER and JW COOP, there were also WHEN LEGENDS DIE, starring Richard Widmark as an aging rodeo rider, and THE HONKERS starring James Coburn.

  10. Walker, I'm going to look for the Richard Widmark film. I don't think I knew of it, and I think he'd do a great job in the kind of role you describe. Pete Postlethwaite did something similar in COWBOY UP.

    I'd also like to see a 1952 film, THE LUSTY MEN, which is supposed to be a good rodeo movie, with Susan Hayward, Robert Mitchum, and Arthur Kennedy, directed by Nicholas Ray.

  11. I looked up THE LUSTY MEN in Brian Garfield's WESTERN FILMS and according to my notes I've seen it twice and liked it alot. In fact Garfield calls it the classic rodeo film which the others are judged against. It came out in the early 1950's. Maybe you can do a special rodeo film piece on this interesting topic.