Steve McQueen and Barbara Leigh in Junior Bonner (1972)


(director: Sam Peckinpah; screenwriter: Jeb Rosebrook; cinematographer: Lucien Ballard; editors: Frank Santillo/Robert Wolfe; music: Jerry Fielding; cast: Steve McQueen (Junior Bonner), Robert Preston (Ace Bonner), Ida Lupino (Elvira Bonner), Ben Johnson (Buck Roan), Joe Don Baker (Curly Bonner), Barbara Leigh (Charmagne), Mary Murphy (Ruth Bonner), Sandra Deel (Nurse Arlis), Charles Gray (Burt), Dub Taylor (Del), Bill McKinney (Red Terwiliger); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Joe Wizan; CBS Fox video; 1972)


Sam Peckinpah presents a sharp look at the “new west” in contrast with the fading frontier scene.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Cult fave director Sam Peckinpah presents a sharp look at the “new west” in contrast with the fading frontier scene. This comedy/drama as written by Jeb Rosebrook is a lyrical reworking of Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men, though not as powerfully wrought. It is both a thoughtful and brazen family Western about the clinging nostalgia attached to the rodeo circuit and the character-study of a former champion, past his prime, who must reevaluate what winning means. The first-class performances by the talented ensemble cast are realistic, though there’s some heavy-handed symbolism in the works that centers around bulldozers tearing down the dreams of the weak former cowboy landowner for those urbanizing the “new west” on past memories as selling points and a wild bull that must be ridden for the motel cowboy to save face. But the film was enjoyable and convincing in its sure-handed character development and atmospheric look at both a frontier town and its historical rodeo. It’s a most affectionate look at the west in transition, capturing its flavor and hopes for the future. By switching between the parade and the rodeo scenes, one can see how intertwined the past is with the fickle future–where only the strong and cunning seem to survive.

The film opens to a country song waxing poetic about the Arizona sunshine featuring the lyric “A man ain’t beat until he’s breaking.” Aging rodeo circuit cowboy Junior Bonner (McQueen), a former champion, is returning to his hometown of Prescott, Arizona, for the annual Fourth of July rodeo, as he hopes to leave the demanding rodeo circuit and settle down. But he discovers his rascal father Ace (Preston) has sold his inheritance, lot parcels of the family home, for a song to his ambitious brother Curly (Baker), who is on his way to making millions in his Reata Ranch mobile home retirement plan he’s pitching. This “new west” goes against Junior’s grain, as he realizes that there’s no place here for him as an urban cowboy. He reunites with his drunken dad who the night before totaled the car and is hospitalized with minor injuries, but walks out of the hospital to do a rodeo stint with his favorite son. Dad is disappointed when his prodigal son can’t stake him to some cash for his prospecting venture, as he tells how he squandered the money he received from Curly in silver speculation and on women and booze.

Visiting his mom, Elvira (Lupino), who is estranged from his father and runs an antique shop in town, Junior learns further how his dad has distanced himself from her. That his dad was turned down by real estate developer son Curly when asked to invest in sending him to Australia as a prospector, bothers Junior. The domesticated Curly, whose life centers on his sourpuss wife Ruth and three small children, puts dad on an allowance and plans to take care of mom by selling her house and putting her in one of his mobile homes. Lupino and Preston give excellent performances as parents unable to face reality and who are living intemperate lives, barely able to communicate with each other except through drunken memories.

But the film hinges on McQueen’s stellar performance, as he is determined to show he can still be a winner even though his best days have passed him by. During the rodeo he makes eye contact with cowboy garbed beauty Charmagne (Barbara Leigh) and with her sassy talking cowboy dressed businessman boyfriend Burt, who has bad memories of Junior from six years ago. It leads to a dance with her in the Palace Hotel, as the jealous Burt sneers and what follows is a familiar barroom Western brawl with the playful Junior stealing the girl during the chaotic fight for a few moments of pleasure. Later on in the day Junior rides Buck’s (Ben Johnson) prize bull Sunshine, a wild animal that no one else has been successful staying on. Winning means saying goodbye with pride intact to Charmagne and his family, and going back on the rodeo circuit to appear next in Salinas, California.