Peckinpah went straight from 'Straw Dogs' to 'Junior Bonner', marking the first and only time in his career he directed two films in the same year. Steve McQueen was already attached to star. The shoot was untroubled and Peckinpah's drinking - which had precipitated his hospitalisation during 'Straw Dogs' - was under control for the duration of the production. Although Peckinpah only went a day overschedule, he exceeded the $2.5 million budget by an extra $1 million. Ignorning both Peckinpah and McQueen's assertion that the film should open small, generate reviews and word of mouth and gradually find its audience, the studio gave it the kind of "opening weekend" release better suited to one of McQueen's action pictures. Despite some very good notices, it flopped. Nonetheless, the relationship between Peckinpah and McQueen remained strong and it was on the basis of 'Junior Bonner' that the actor offered Peckinpah directorial duties on 'The Getaway'.
Rodeo cowboy Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen) nurses a grudge and hell of a lot of bruises from an encounter with a Brahma bull of intemperate disposition named Sunshine. Returning to his home town of Prescott for a return engagement with said bovine, Junior is just in time to witness the house he grew up in demolished by bulldozers to make way for a new real estate development. The realtor: Junior's corpulent and money-obsessed brother Curly (Joe Don Baker). Curly tries to inveigle Junior into acting as a spokesman for his business, taunting him about how little he makes on the rodeo circuit. Junior also discovers Curly's condescending treatment of their father Ace (Robert Preston), struggles to reconcile his affection for the old man with his awkward and stilted relationship with his pragmatic mother (Ida Lupino), and ignores the taunts of his rodeo rival Red Terwilliger (Bill McKinney). There's a few things on Junior's mind, then, as the rodeo gets underway, a carnival atmosphere grips Prescott and Ace tries to talk Junior around to his latest hare-brained scheme: a new life on a ranch in Australia.
It was usually the case that Peckinpah responded to screenplays for their potential; he would then develop that potential, often by laborious re-writing or re-imagining. Often Peckinpah is credited as co-author and even in the cases of 'Ride the High Country' and 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue', where the original writers retain full credit, Peckinpah rewrote entire sections of dialogue, infusing these films with saddle-creased poetry. With Rosebrook's screenplay for 'Junior Bonner', however, nothing needed to be done. Peckinpah signed to direct after reading it once: it was a jewel of a script, in tune with the key themes and concerns that define Peckinpah’s work.
We have a hero schooled in the old way of doing things who resents the changing times: Junior's life is the road and the rodeo, he’s more at home outdoors or on horseback than anywhere else, he has a frontiersman’s tough but laconic attitude, and he balks at his brother’s entrepreneurial mindset. Same goes for Ace: he's a drifter and a dreamer, a man whose natural habitants are the saddle and barstool, and he has arguably less place in the modern world than his son.
We have technology as a destructive force: large machines destroy a homestead to make way for a land/property deal driven by a businessman's greed for profits – a nakedly Peckinpahesque subtext that, as we shall see, recurs explicitly in 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid'. When Junior sees the bulldozers ramming through the walls of his childhood home, Peckinpah intercuts the scene with shots of the house while it was still standing and close ups of its interior, harshly contrasting the warm, homely details (including, poignantly, a yellowing newspaper cutting about one of Junior's earlier rodeo successes) with scenes of impersonal destruction. Junior drives over, but he's prevented from getting any closer by a 'dozer driver who threatens to dump a load of gravel into Junior's open-top car if he doesn't back up and depart.
This is where the aesthetic of 'Junior Bonner' differs from any other Peckinpah film: where Steve Judd or Gil Westrum, Pike Bishop or Dutch Engstrom, Pat Garrett or Billy - hell, even Cable Hogue - would have filled their hand at that point and done something about it, Junior just sticks it in reverse, goes on his way and has to live with it.
There isn't a single shot fired in 'Junior Bonner', which makes it unique in Peckinpah's filmography. Even 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue' - which is essentially about love and redemption - has its hero blow a couple of recidivists away. It is completely non-violent: a bar-room brawl that breaks out towards the end is played for laughs, while the inevitable dust-up between Junior and Curly consists of exactly two punches being thrown. Junior hits Curly. Half an hour passes. Curly hits him back. End of.
Nor is the rivalry between Junior and Terwilliger in the same league as the compromised relationships between Pike Bishop and Deke Thornton or Pat and Billy. Indeed, Junior's chatting up of Red's girlfriend (apropos of which the brawl erupts; ironically, Junior ducks any involvement and uses the melee to cover his absconsion with the girl) is the only real dramatic development that this subplot engenders.
It never ceases to amaze me just how genial, laconic and unhurried 'Junior Bonner' is. But for the excitingly shot and edited rodeo sequences (DoP: the incomparable Lucien Ballad; editors: Frank Santillo and Robert Wolfe) and the colourful pangeant scenes, there would be no pace to the film at all. And yet it's as watchable and engaged as anything Peckinpah did. Why? Because the man was an actor's director and for an actor's director the character study is as dynamic and dramatic a thing to direct as the most full-on, visceral, cathartic scene. McQueen, who took the role in an attempt to move away from the action hero roles that define his screen persona, achieves in 'Junior Bonner' an acting style as minimalist and unfussy as that of Clint Eastwood. It's such a different side to McQueen and so refreshing to watch.
The rest of the cast do stellar work: Robert Preston is rogueish and irrepressible as Ace; he gives a performance that outshines anything else on his CV. Ida Lupino, no stranger to giving beautifully nuanced performances, brings a spiky vulnerability. Her scenes with Preston zing with acerbic wit. Peckinpah Irregulars Ben Johnson and Dub Taylor make every second of their supporting roles count. And Joe Don Baker, a scene-stealer in everything from 'Charley Varrick' to a couple of the Brosnan Bond movies, justifies every scene he steals by fleshing out Curly and making him more than just the profit-obsessed villain-by-default businessman. When he asks Junior to work for him, he makes no bones about being able to exploit his rodeo reputation to generate business ("big cowboy like you, sincere, genuine as a sunrise"); and yet the offer's motivated by a genuine desire to see Junior better himself, even if Curly's way of expressing it is misguided. "I'm working on my first million," he tells his brother. "You're still working on eight seconds."
It's Junior who gets there first, though. And what he does with the prize-money provides the most affirmative finale in Peckinpah's ouevre.