Ageing rodeo rider Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen) returns to his hometown of Prescott, Arizona for the Independence Day parade and rodeo. He arrives to find his family home being bulldozed by a real-estate company fronted by his arrogant brother Curly (Joe Don Baker). Meanwhile Junior's no-good reprobate dad Ace (Robert Preston) finally rejoins the family he abandoned years ago including his more sensible though long-suffering wife Elvira (Ida Lupino). Ace has a hare-brained scheme to relocate to Australia to rear sheep and mine gold but, like all his dreams, lacks the money to pull it off. Between dealing with family problems and romancing Charlemagne (Barbara Leigh), a sexy photographer visiting town, Junior prepares to ride an especially ornery bull named Sunshine in the rodeo in spite of the fact he is nearing the end of his career.
Sam Peckinpah's first collaboration with iconic actor Steve McQueen, prior to the blockbusting action-thriller The Getaway (1972), showcases the more warmhearted, sensitive side of both these two famously rugged personalities. Junior Bonner is a typical Peckinpah protagonist: a man out of step with a rapidly modernizing world that no longer has any room for his sense of honor. A man who makes his living punishing his body in an archaic (albeit still popular) spectator sport at a point in time when most of his kind have either retired, died or moved on to something less dangerous. Peckinpah contrasts Junior's unflagging if seemingly foolhardy adventurous spirit with his brother Curly. He is pragmatic where our hero is romantic, crass by comparison with the former's integrity and, crucially, rich and thriving where Junior barely ekes out a living. The elder Bonner surmises the pervading theme of the film with his observation: "If this world is all about winners then what is for the losers?"
McQueen, at his most affable and empathetic, etches one of his most compelling characterizations. For much of the movie we simply follow Junior around watching the old familiar western landscape through his eyes as it crumbles away. Despite its then-contemporary setting Junior Bonner echoes the same "those old days are over" message found in Peckinpah's period westerns Ride the High Country (1962) and of course The Wild Bunch (1969) although Jeb Rosenbrook's beautifully poetic screenplay leavens the fatalism with warm humour and humanity. Junior willingly risks his life to redeem his pride even though, deep inside, he knows he is only delaying his own inevitable decline. For Peckinpah this is a heroic gesture that defines what it means to be a man. Here the celebrated maestro of movie violence utilizes his action movie techniques (rapid-fire montage, slow-motion, staccato editing) for straight dramatic purposes, getting his melancholy themes across in punchy, dynamic fashion. Interestingly Peckinpah plays the rodeo sequences and bar-room brawls for satirical comedy, showcasing a wry sense of humor often overlooked by his critics. Only a brief, blink-and-you'll-miss it moment of misogyny amidst the bar-room sequence sours an otherwise affectionate portrait of the rodeo life. Indeed Rosenbrook's script commendably embraces the culture of the American mid-west at a time in cinema when the community was more often demonized in horror and exploitation movies. Junior Bonner captures the outwardly rough and ready yet folksy, easygoing charm of the mid-west even as it acknowledges its passing into folklore.
The romantic subplot proves superfluous to the story and seemingly only included as a means of having Barbara Leigh inject a touch of glamour into an otherwise male-driven story. However, the film's chief strength is portrait of a fractured yet clearly still functioning family wherein tension simmers under the surface but love continues to abide. Armed with a roll-call of compelling character turns, Junior Bonner proves Peckinpah's ability to reach beyond his reputation for brutality as a keen-eyed chronicler of human behavior and a great director of actors. Nevertheless the focal point remains McQueen who brings pathos, charm and humanity to the titular tough but kindhearted rodeo rider.
American writer and director, a hard-drinking, producer-hating maverick who was as much reviled as he was admired. After a spell in the armed forces, he moved into television with a succession of westerns, and graduated to film with The Deadly Companions and cult classic Ride the High Country. When he worked on Major Dundee, the problems started, and, as would happen many times subsequently, the film was recut against his wishes.