In Junior Bonner, Sam Peckinpah uses montage to express the cascading nature of longing and regret. Junior (Steve McQueen) is a fading rodeo star, son of a legend of the field, Ace (Robert Preston). In the film’s opening, via a series of freeze frames, Junior takes a tumble off a vicious bull. One doesn’t need to understand the rules of bull riding to discern the defeat in his body language, or in the bandages that he wraps around his stomach. Peckinpah intersperses Junior’s memories of the bull with his drive to Prescott, Arizona. Piquant details abound, such as when Junior stops at a gas station to buy gas for his convertible and apples for his horse—a moment that encapsulates the film’s concern with the clash between the antiquated and the modern.
Junior strives for a rematch with the bull, a quest that has a Hemingway-esque aura of macho existentialism, but the film’s really about the path preceding that second confrontation. Prescott is Junior’s hometown, where he re-encounters Ace as well as his mother, Elvira (Ida Lupino), and brother, Curly (Joe Don Baker). Prescott’s about to stage its Fourth of July parade, which physicalizes Junior and Ace’s nostalgia for a wild west that was probably gone before Junior ever entered the rodeo. While Junior and Ace wander the world, moving from scheme to scheme and leaving Elvira in the lurch, Curly has made himself rich selling mobile homes. We first see Ace through a picture in his abandoned house, while Junior regards it as Curly’s bulldozers plow the place into oblivion. The destruction of Ace’s ranch is a traditional Peckinpah action sequence: fragmented, hallucinatory, tightly coiled. Under his direction, the bulldozers resemble giant monsters. Junior’s memories of the inside of the home—which are only minutes old—are juxtaposed with its erasure.
Peckinpah’s romanticism is more complicated than even his acolytes often acknowledge. Peckinpah knows that Junior and Ace Bonner are fools. But they’re glorious, quixotic fools, chasing a dream of America that never existed. In a lesser film, Curly would be a villain, a representation of everything about the Man that Peckinpah holds in contempt. Instead, Curly’s a drab realist who sold out as a reaction to the flakiness of his brother and father; he made boring choices for which he refuses to apologize.
The film’s aching, tender poignancy often hits you on the rebound, as the anecdotes are structured so as to appear tangential, merging docudramatic detail of Prescott with the subtle mythologizing of the performances. When Ace and Junior finally meet up again, after just barely missing each other earlier in the film, Junior jumps up on the horse his father’s riding (which is Junior’s horse) and gives pop a pat on the back. The familiarity of this gesture—evocative of father and son’s obvious love for one another—is beautiful and heartbreaking. Junior and Ace reunite at the parade, and Peckinpah cuts empathetically to Curly, who sees the ease that his brother and father enjoy as partners—an ease that he’s probably never known with anyone. Curly’s always regarding these sexy and charismatic icons from the outside.
Peckinpah stages these moments with a master’s sense of fleeting, glancing texture, which is why Junior Bonner has been mistaken for a lark. Even the film’s greatest scene is staged with deceptive casualness, when Junior and Ace stop at an empty train station to swig bourbon and talk up the good old days. Ace hits Junior up for money to go on a wild goose chase in Australia, not knowing that Junior’s busted. When Junior tells his father the truth, the man knocks off his son’s hat, picks it up, and crosses the train tracks. With no warning, a train comes through, briefly separating father and son.
The train embodies Ace’s temptation to do what he’s always done: leave in the face of disappointment and catastrophe. Ace remains though, returning Junior’s hat. Ace is a likeable, minor-key scoundrel who gets by on his profound charm. Yet he and Junior are also striving to attain a different courage—a willingness to stay put and plant figurative seeds. Peckinpah knows, however, that a man’s innate desires and neuroses don’t conform to a tidy and transcendental ending. Junior and Ace leave again, having temporarily satiated themselves with memories, which is to say that Junior Bonner understands “individualism” for what it truly represents: selfishness.
The image is clear and detailed but lacks a crispness that one associates with a modern restoration. At times, this image suggests that of a good DVD transfer, rather than of a Blu-ray, which is never ideal. Colors are faded, though that quality is potentially truthful to the film's sources and serves an aesthetic concerned with a west reaching the end of its epoch. It's a solid picture, then, that offers nothing revelatory. The soundtrack feels more modern, juggling the film's intricate layering of on-screen clashing and clanging, most notably in the rodeo sequences. The clomping of hooves and the opening of gates are notably visceral, and the songs have been rendered with the crispness that eludes the image.
The audio commentary by Sam Peckinpah experts Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle, moderated by film historian Nick Redman, offers a conversational deep dive into the subtle and intricate symbolism of Junior Bonner. The commentators are revelatory when discussing the rhyming of images and the fleeing resonances of the film’s editing syntax, such as how Junior’s placement of his hat is introduced and revisited. The depth of Steve McQueen’s performance—of all the performances—is also refreshingly celebrated. The "Passion & Poetry—Rodeo Time" featurette has interviews with a variety of people connected to Junior Bonner but is centered on screenwriter Jeb Rosebrook, who discusses his initial idea for the film and how that led to meeting Peckinpah and McQueen to talk of rewrites. Rosebrook provides a vivid account of Peckinpah’s process, and it’s complemented by the "Passion & Poetry—Peckinpah Anecdotes" featurette, which contains a wide-ranging recollection of the filmmaker’s notorious adventures, featuring collaborators such as L.Q. Jones and Kris Kristofferson, who always give good interview. (Even if they’re mostly tending to Peckinpah’s mythology, as well as their own.) The package is rounded out by an assortment of trailers, trivia, and TV and radio spots.
Sam Peckinpah’s most underrated film receives a good rather than great transfer, with an audio commentary that formidably analyzes the filmmaker’s autumnal art.