Junior Bonner

JUNIOR BONNER got some admiring reviews but they, the star presence of Steve McQueen and the controversy-churning cachet of hardball director Sam Peckinpah didn’t keep it from hobbling at the box office. ‘Bloody Sam’s verdict: “I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it.”

‘J.R. Bonner’ (McQueen), a rodeo cowboy whose glory days are fading, comes to hometown Prescott, Arizona to participate in the July 4th parade and rodeo and visit his family. Cheerfully reckless dad ‘Ace Bonner’ (Robert Preston) is a legend in the sport (and in his own free-spirit mind). Salty mom ‘Elvira’ (Ida Lupino) has had it with Ace’s schemes and betrayals. Brash brother ‘Curly’ (Joe Don Baker) is raking it in as a real estate developer/huckster and wants Junior to quit the bull (ridin’) and settle down to sellin’.

Wistful, good-natured, lackadaisical look at a family and the subculture they inhabit is about as far from the temper and tone of Peckinpah’s previous venture, Straw Dogs, as he could get, that thriller’s baleful brilliance replaced here by a studied casualness. Aside from the rodeo scenes—some truly wild bronc and bull rides—the only action is a barroom brawl, done up to come off as a friendly fracas (if slo-motion assault & battery is genial)—the main focus is on the interpersonal family relationships and the mostly convivial camaraderie of the other contestants, promoters and fans.

Jeb Rosebrook’s script pokes along with folksiness, and the pace isn’t so much relaxed as somnolent. McQueen’s Junior is written wafer thin, and it pushes things a saddle too far to fully accept him, 41, as the son of Preston and Lupino, even if they’re aided by aging makeup: they were both just 12 years older than Steve. Preston had been off-screen for nine years, Lupino hadn’t acted in a feature in sixteen.

The above post-mortem observation from the director could be amended to “made a movie where not much happens”. It didn’t help to release it in a year curiously studded with modern day cowboy stories, the ambling Pocket Money and three more rodeo sagas, When The Legends Die The Honkers and J.W. Coop. All have their good points, none of them hit paydirt.

Junior Bonner cost $3,200,000 to make. Coming in 61st place, the $5,600,000 gross, matched against what was needed to recoup (prints, advertising) took a loss of $2,820,000. The ‘irascible’ director and prickly leading man made do (and a lot more dough) late that same year with The Getaway, more of a Steve & Sam type of machismo airing, 1972’s 7th biggest hit, and Peckinpah’s most financially successful.

With Ben Johnson (a real cowboy and rodeo champ), Barbara Leigh, Mary Murphy, Bill McKinney, Dub Taylor, Don Barry. 100 minutes.

* Joe Don Baker: “I didn’t care for Peckinpah at all. He was one of those little guys who tries to bully big guys and he almost got his ass whipped for trying to do it to me. Every time I was going to throttle Peckinpah, Steve McQueen would come over and calm me down like a brother would.”

While this movie and the rest of 72’s rodeo posse went down for the fiscal count, the Old West held true grit with Jeremiah Johnson, The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean and The Cowboys. Hellfar, pilgrim, there also wuz Joe Kidd, The Culpepper Cattle Co., Buck And The Preacher and Ulzana’s Raid. 

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