Junior Bonner (1972)

Junior Bonner (1972), directed by Sam Peckinpah.

A low-key modern western, more or less a family drama against a rodeo background.

Steve McQueen is an ex-champion who has just had a bad encounter with Old Sunshine, an unrideable bull. He'd like a rematch. He visits his estranged parents (Ida Lupino and Robert Preston) and battles with his hard-working businessman brother, Joe Don Baker, who has pretty much taken over the family.

Good performances all around. Filmed in Prescott AZ, all real locations and with many locals as extras. It has a promising beginning but slacks off and never recovers. An extended comical bar room brawl doesn't help. But JR gets his rematch with Old Sunshine.

It's a familiar theme: the passing of the Old West with its virtues and standards. Not just the hard men who used to thrive there, but the sense of community where everyone knows the Bonners, the relaxed friendliness and the ease of men and women with each other, a portrait affectionate without being syrupy.

Several other familiar faces, always good to see: Ben Johnson, Dub Taylor, Bill McKinney.

Peckinpah was worried about being typed as an action and violence director and wanted to make something warmer and more gentle. It didn't do well, maybe because of too many similar films at the time. He said: "I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it."

The DVD is 4:3 letterboxed, a particularly unfortunate encoding for 2.35:1 aspect ratio titles. Four Peckinpah scholars contribute a commentary track. They point out how much the film communicates without dialogue, how skillfully the director tells a story by showing it with his editing.

This is the sort of fine commentary that makes me want to see it again and reevaluate. They praise his honesty and realism, and the look and structure of the film. One is a Brit who saw it as a teenager and says it showed the America he wanted to come and find.