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With: Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Ben Johnson, Joe Don Baker, Barbara Leigh, Mary Murphy, Bill McKinney, Dub Taylor, Sandra Deel, Don 'Red' Barry, Charles D. Gray, Matthew Peckinpah, Sundown Spencer, Rita Garrison
Written by: Jeb Rosebrook
Directed by: Sam Peckinpah
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 100
Date: 08/02/1972

Junior Bonner (1972)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Bull Sessions

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

According to popular wisdom, Sam Peckinpah and Steve McQueen didn't make much of a team; the two films they made together in 1972 -- Junior Bonner and The Getaway -- are considered two of the weakest in Peckinpah's canon. Critic David Thomson wrote that Peckinpah was better with ensemble casts, and that a beloved star like McQueen demanded too much special attention. Yet Junior Bonner succeeds as one of Peckinpah's loveliest films, simmering with family animosity but also brimming with terrific moments of graceless quiet.

McQueen plays Junior Bonner, a rodeo star whose travels on the circuit bring him back to his hometown. He finds his drunk of a father (Robert Preston) in the hospital and his greedy brother (Joe Don Baker) bilking family and friends in order to make a killing on a land deal. His disillusioned mother (Ida Lupino) continues to cook dinner for anyone who cares to show up.

If Peckinpah is known for his deconstructionist Westerns, Junior Bonner is a Western in which the West itself has dried up and shuffled discontentedly into the modern world.

Peckinpah begins the film with flashbacks to Junior's previous, failed, rodeo ride, attempting to last eight seconds on a dangerous bull's back. He rolls into town, hoping to enter a cow-milking contest with his father and hoping once again to tackle the prize bull. The rodeo sequences are shot with Peckinpah's usual brilliant style, intense action with fast, rhythmic cutting.

But the film truly succeeds in the lovely scenes between Junior and his father, especially one in which Junior catches his old man riding his horse in the rodeo parade. Junior joins him on the back of the horse, and they ride off the parade path to a deserted section of town, where they share a drink. They rarely come right out with what they really want to say, but the actors convey their true feelings through their superb physical performances.

Later, Junior's father shares another moment with his nearly estranged wife, charming her but also hitting her with cold reality: he's an irresponsible wanderer and always will be.

Robert Preston gives an outstanding performance in this showy role, and he's the heart of the film. And in her last great role, Lupino proves that she was one of our greatest. McQueen's simmering stoicism works as well; he lets a sadness creep into his swagger. He knows he's near the end of his road and his future looks suspiciously like his father's present.

MGM/UA re-released this underrated Sam Peckinpah movie on a new DVD, updating Anchor Bay's 1999 version. I haven't seen the first disc and so I can't vouch for quality, but this new disc looks very good and comes with a new commentary track by three Peckinpah scholars: Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle, moderated by Nick Redman.

In 2017, Kino Lorber offered a new Blu-ray edition, beautifully capturing the film's soft grit and long shadows, as well as a tonally rich soundtrack. It includes optional subtitles, the aforementioned commentary track, an hour-long documentary on the making of the film, the 26-minute featurette "Sam Peckinpah Anecdotes," featuring many of the talented folks that worked with him; Junior Bonner trivia, running about 5 minutes; and a brief featurette on the film's anniversary. There are three image galleries, radio spots, and trailers, plus trailers Peckinpah's Convoy and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

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