My feature on Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner in running on Turner Classic Movies Online.
At first glance, the elegiac rodeo drama Junior Bonner (1972) might seem to be an anomaly in the career of Sam Peckinpah, famed as the director of controversial studies in violence such as The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971). That was surely one of the factors that attracted Peckinpah to this gentle tale of aging rodeo champion Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen), who returns to his hometown of Prescott, Arizona, for his first rodeo in a year – and a return match with an unbeaten bull named Sunshine. Yet the themes couldn’t be more suited to the director. Bonner is the last of the cowboy loners in the modern world where housing developments and high finance tear down the past. Peckinpah’s first contemporary western is another tale of an outmoded hero in a changing landscape, the (symbolic) descendant of the heroes of Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch and (later) Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).
Steve McQueen, who was looking for a change of pace role, signed on to play Junior and the film was rushed into production to shoot during the real-life Frontier Days Rodeo in Prescott. Peckinpah hurried back to the states from England, where he had been editing Straw Dogs, and quickly cast the supporting roles. Robert Preston plays Junior’s father Ace, a former rodeo champion now coasting on his glory and fantasizing about prospecting for gold in Australia. Ida Lupino is Junior’s mother, tired of Ace’s irresponsibility but still fond of the old charmer. And Joe Don Baker plays Junior’s wheeler-dealer of a brother, who buys out the family homestead and builds a housing development on it.
The film plays on Turner Classic Movies on August 27. Read the complete feature on TCM here.