Better a motel cowboy than no cowboy at all
This lovely, sad, elegiac Sam Peckinpah film reminds us of The Ballad of Cable Hogue. It has the same feel of being past it, over the hill, in decline, and that feeling stinks.
At the same time there’s a rejoicing in it, even if it’s an ersatz West that is being celebrated. As Steve McQueen’s brother Joe Don Baker tells him, “You’re just some kind of motel cowboy.” But that’s better than not being a cowboy at all.
McQueen is called Junior Bonner because his initials are JR but also because he lives permanently in the shadow of his larger then life roguish father, Robert Preston, an outstanding performance. This is a film about many things but one of them is the father-son relationship. Preston’s estranged wife, Junior’s mother, movingly played by Ida Lupino (a very fine actress), understands her son truly, while her other son, Junior’s brother Curly (Baker) is a speculator on the make who has bulldozed the family home for bucks. He has so little in common with Junior and he has such an obnoxious wife (Mary Murphy) that the brothers come to blows. Yet it is Curly who supports the family. Jeb Rosebrook, the writer, and Peckinpah give even these characters a sympathetic treatment. We understand where they are coming from too.
The movie is slow, gentle and touching. There are old West moments such as a saloon brawl, and the rodeo scenes are real as hell. The film seems at times a documentary about the 84th Prescott Frontier Days yet it is far more than that. It is a moving family drama and tells of the passing of the old times.
Junior’s father wants to go to Australia but this is not like the throw-away lines of James Garner in Support Your Local Sheriff: here Australia represents the dream of a future in which Ace Bonner can find the past again.
Ben Johnson is superb as a worldly-wise ex-cowboy turned impresario. And it might have been McQueen’s best ever performance (this or Bullitt). All the acting is fine.
Lucien Ballard photographed it. The Jerry Fielding music is right. Peckinpah’s direction is perfect.
It’s a poignant, melancholy piece with real quality and one of Peckinpah’s finest efforts.
Do see it.
Do see it.