Set in the modern day and bereft of any gunfire, Junior Bonner (upcoming at BAM) is seldom invoked in discussions of Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns. Yet, as with his fighting elegies’ grandiose death spasms, Junior salutes Western individualism in the last, losing moments of its fight against obsolescence. There’s even your signature Peckinpah montages, pulverizing and reshaping the space-time continuum with cross-cuts, zooms, and frame-speed variations. The first comes as rodeo cowboy JR “Junior” Bonner (Steve McQueen) returns to his hometown of Prescott, Arizona (this after a credit sequence intercutting a bullride with its solitary, bone-bruised aftermath). He drives by his old-time rodeo champ father’s shack, not knowing dad’s sold out to the adjacent construction project, and when the house gets bulldozed Peckinpah gives it the full-scale William-Holden-at-the-end-of-The Wild Bunch treatment. And why not — both are symbols of a way of life dismantled by Progress.
But, long as we’re inviting Junior to the Peckinpah Western party, let’s point out that none of the other guests are as honest in their assessment of history’s losers, or as unsentimental. (Forget genre’s genders: what’s more melodramatic than agonized, slo-mo death amid a hail of bullets? Bloody Sam was a big softie.) Senior Bonner is Ace (Robert Preston, The Music Man’s Greatest American Salesman), still playing grabass at the expense of his marriage to Ellie (Ida Lupino, so down-to-earth she’s first glimpsed carrying tomatoes in the folds of her shirt), spinning Glory Days yarns, and stealing Junior’s horse to ride in the July 4th parade. And still cowboying up, to diminishing ends: he’s just gone bust prospecting for silver, and his newest scheme is an Australian sheep farm.
Jeb Rosebrook’s architecturally deft screenplay brings Junior back home for Prescott’s Frontier Days (motto: “stay cowboy”) Rodeo, to conquer the bull that threw him in the opening credits, for the prize money to buy his dad’s plane ticket; it also makes room for an exasperated, affectionate rivalry between Junior and his real estate big-hat brother Curly — it was Curly’s trailer park development (where wild animals walk stalk makeshift cages to entertain prospective buyers) that cleared out Ace’s house. In a town where, for a little longer at least, the family dinner table has room for mashed potatoes and Wild Turkey, Curly is the future; that Junior is aligned with Ace is recognized as romantic, in the most Quixotic sense.
Maybe because the summer-of-‘71 shoot coincided with Prescott’s actual Independence Day festivities, Junior is Peckinpah’s loosest, funniest movie: the parade and rodeo scenes corral stray bits of local color into on-the-fly love letters in montage. And within his frame’s ragged textures, Peckinpah makes space for McQueen; his weatherbeaten-but-unbowed performance is worthy of the camera’s reverence down to the last shot, of Junior driving off down an empty road and into, whaddaya know, the sunset, resigned to his self-made cul-de-sac. Maybe the real reason Junior Bonner isn’t what we talk about when we talk about Peckinpah Westerns is that the rest of Peckinpah’s iconic iconoclasts burn out, and Junior fades away.