JUNIOR BONNER starring Steve McQueen, Ida Lupino, Robert Preston. An ABC Pictures production filmed in colour and TODD-AO, and directed by Sam Peckinpah. Released by Cinerama Releasing (UK) Ltd.
Peckinpah is desperate about the disappearance of the old pioneering America, the rough, wild, dangerous way of living. He’s an artistic, romantic, reactionary who doesn’t fit into the new style frozen fish colour TV style of life. Nor do a lot of us, but in this glorification of the past, he tends to forget about the traumas of pioneering, like poverty, illness, etc. Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen) who in 1972 is gradually ageing, fading just like the travelling rodeo circuit he’s on. After all who wants to see a man risking his life riding bareback on a rampaging bull when the ‘Lucy Show’ is on the colour telly.
The rodeo circuit brings Jr. back to his home town of Prescott, Arizona, where his first sight is the family ranch being bulldozed into a gravel pit. He looks on shocked and stupefied, and Peckinpah’s brilliant direction makes the bulldozers and earth movers look like monsters out of a King Kong film. Jr’s mum (Ida Lupino) seems fairly resigned to her son and husband (Robert Preston) refusing to conform, but approves of her other son, Curly, who is in the tourist trade and making money. Dad, known as Ace Bonner, is 60 and still involved with rodeos. He’s an eccentric womaniser, who wants to go to Australia to mine for gold, as there’s nothing left to pioneer in America, and one can’t help feeling he is Peckinpah transferred to the screen.
Curly, who’s respectably married, wants Jr to join him in ripping off tourists in his Arizona history museum. His wife, as she serves her two kids with yet another bottle of cyclamate filled Coke, comes out with comments like – “Once you’ve seen one rodeo you’ve seen them all”. Curly and Jr are always fighting, the conflict between the old and the new which is very effective, but Peckinpah does overstate his case in the big fight scene in the bar, which while technically superb, attempts to suggest visually that the couple of hundred people there are enjoying fighting each other, rather like one enjoys watching a funny film.
After seeing Junior Bonner I have begun to understand Straw Dogs, Peckinpah’s last film, which appalled and puzzled me when I first saw it. Peckinpah was seeking to destroy the epitome of the 1970’s pseud, the ‘liberal’ American university professor renting a cottage in a Cornish fishing village while writing his thesis, and being patronising to the locals. They set out to destroy him and rape his wife, and if you accept the violence as a symbol – why not? What does the American bullshitter know of their boring and useless lives?
Peckinpah undoubtably tends to be excessive in his images, but his films are made . with real feeling and understanding of the awful plight of man, his degeneration into a plastic culture where he can no longer initiate or invent. Perhaps Junior Bonner is a tamer film than ‘Wild Bunch’ and ‘Straw Dogs’, because of all the criticism Peckinpah has received for the violence in these films, but it is rich in beauty and atmosphere, and I highly recommend it.