In Junior Bonner, Steve McQueen finds himself playing an over-the-hill rodeo rider, between Bullitt and The Getaway in 1972. Working with violent Western director Sam Peckinpah, McQueen helps tell a story that is not filled with gun violence, but does tell of a dramatic change in the lives of its characters and the America of the twentieth century.
Junior Bonner returns home to Prescott, AZ, and finds that his rugged childhood memories are no longer valid in the world where capitalistic greed and alcoholism threaten to tear up his family. His father Ace (Robert Preston) is a drunk and has driven Junior’s mother, Elvira (Ida Lupino), away; his brother, Curly (Joe Don Baker), has such a desire to accumulate money and fame that he has turned his back on the family’s needs and hurts.
By entering the annual hometown rodeo, Junior stands a chance to help himself and his family; he can win enough money to not be homeless or send his father on his quest to Australia (he wants to mine gold). By winning against the odds, he can put off his own mortality, the end of his rodeo days. With these goals in mind, Junior proves willing to face down the ‘villain’, here, a bull and the oncoming advance of time.
While this is a different spin for Peckinpah and even McQueen, it’s well-crafted and moving, as we watch a family crumble and a son attempt to save it. Most audiences will be able to relate to the disjointed nature of an adult child returning home to parents who have changed, too; sometimes, the pressure of that vise is enough to cause the fractures we see in tiny Prescott. But it requires something, a change, a new direction, an intervention, to save a family from itself.
All of this is made more interesting by the documentary, Steve McQueen: American Icon, that documented McQueen’s own struggle without a reliable father figure, and his struggle to figure out his place in a world pulled apart by money and fame. With Junior Bonner, we see a story where the rodeo could as well be Hollywood, and McQueen himself is battling old and new demons to make his own way, and figure out who he is supposed to be.
On Kino Lorber’s Bluray, several special features sweeten the deal! There is nearly an hour’s worth on the rodeo in the first “Passion & Poetry,” while the second gives a half-hour of “Peckinpah Anecdotes.” Audio commentary from Peckinpah, writers Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, all moderated by historian Nick Redman, join a variety of mini-featurettes that look back at the movie as well. Film buffs may dig into the original US trailer, radio spots, and TV spot included to see the differences between how it was done then versus now.