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Junior Bonner: Steve McQueen Stars in Classic Rodeo Film

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 The Classic Connoisseur’s Guide to the Best Films and Stars

Steve McQueen and Robert Preston in Junior Bonner

When director Sam Peckinpah and his assistants headed out west to scout out sites for a new movie in 1972, one of their stops was in a mountain town a couple hours drive north of Phoenix that once was the state’s capitol. Since they were looking for a western setting for a movie written by an Arizona screenwriter, Jeb Rosebrook, Prescott seemed a likely choice. After all, the rodeo plays an important part in Junior Bonner and Prescott, Arizona’s yearly rodeo bills itself The World’s Oldest Rodeo, having been in continuous operation since 1888.

However, it almost didn’t happen. William Pierce, chairman of the rodeo committee was summoned to meet Peckinpah and give him a tour of possible locations in Prescott. He showed up in the morning at Peckinpah’s Prescott hotel room, where the director was lounging on the bed sipping a whiskey. Several other men were sitting around. No one said anything to Pierce, so finally he said, “Look, I don’t know what we’re doing here, but I’ve got better things to do than stand around watching someone drink.” Peckinpah got up and told the other guys to follow Pierce’s car, and they toured Prescott.

I heard insider stories like this about the making of the movie when I attended an Arizona Centennial History Conference where there was a showing of the movie, along with commentary by Rosebrook, Pierce, and Marshall Terrill, the author of Steve McQueen: The Last Mile. Some of the tales seem downright quaint by today’s movie-making standards.

For example, the screenwriter, Rosebrook, was the ONLY screenwriter from start to finish and with his name on the credits. Not only that, but he was welcomed on the set and consulted by the director and actors, particularly McQueen, who liked to change dialogue on the fly.

Ida Lupino played Steve McQueen‘s (J.R. Bonner’s) mother, and Rosebrook tells a story about a particular kitchen table scene. Lupino, the consummate professional, had every line letter perfect, but McQueen kept varying his lines until they had worked all afternoon without getting a final print. Lupino finally said, “You’d better know those lines tomorrow or you’re going to eat a lot of apple pie.”  McQueen came in the next morning and got everything perfect on one take.

Another story that seems quaint today is Bill Pierce’s account of the way that Prescott residents lined up to play extras or loan out cars, etc. without any charge. Everyone was just proud to have the movie being made in their town.

And, of course, there’s the fact that all the filming took place on location, like the streets of Prescott, houses borrowed and “redecorated,” and the famous Palace Bar in the middle of Whiskey Row in downtown. They did a slight revamp of  the 1920′s Hassayampa Hotel  into a hospital, but no sound stage filming. And all those breathtaking rodeo scenes were live action — no animatronics needed.

Although most  people refer to Junior Bonner as “a rodeo movie,” Rosebrook says it is a family movie.  And even more importantly, it is a story about the disappearance of the Old West as land development pushes out ranching.

The father, played by Robert Preston, is a rodeo rider, as is J.R., but the other son in the family, played by Joe Don Baker, subdivides land and builds trailer parks — the “wave of the future.” Family tensions echo societal tensions as these two worlds collide. In fact, the most violent scene in this uncharacteristically non-bloody Peckinpah movie takes place at the beginning as bulldozers rip up the old homestead of J.R.’s father and face down J.R.’s old Cadillac convertible with horse trailer behind.

The theme echoes real life Prescott, and much of the development drama plays out in what is actually Prescott Valley, a fast-growing suburban sprawl far removed in feeling from the World’s Oldest Rodeo, Whiskey Row, the downtown courthouse square, and charming blocks of Victorian houses.

Somewhat ironically, a quiet lake where J.R. spends the night before entering Prescott, is now part of a golf course.

McQueen came to this movie from a very bad year, says his biographer, Merrill. In 1971, his wife had filed for divorce and he experienced a terrific flop with the movie LeMans. During the making of Junior Bonner, McQueen was consoling himself with the movie’s dramatic interest, Barbara Leigh. Trouble threatened because she had been seeing Elvis Presley, and he called wanting to come to Prescott to visit.  To keep him away, she finally had to tell him she was otherwise occupied with McQueen. Now THAT reunion would have been worthy of a Peckinpah face-off!

Ida Lupino, who was chosen after they failed to get Susan Hayward,  had not acted since 1955. Instead she had turned to directing, and I intend to talk about Lupino’s career in a future Classics column.

While the folks in Mansfield Ohio, where Shawshank Redemption was filmed, have held reunions and built a tourist attraction,  Junior Bonner still takes second place to the World’s Oldest Rodeo, held each June in Prescott, Arizona.

This is an interesting movie with a lot going on beneath a deceptively simple surface. I could watch the artful opening sequence till the cows come home.  This is a rather lengthy video clip, but it is an unusually lengthy credit sequence at the beginning of Junior Bonner. Sam Peckinpah gave it his all. Notice how much is done with no or little dialogue.

For more about the writing of the film, see this great interview with Jeb Rosebrook.

 

Vera Marie Badertscher

Vera Marie Badertscher first went to the movies at the Duncan Theater in Killbuck, Ohio, when her grandmother was selling tickets. Now she watches Netflix and TV movie channels more often than movies in theaters, but she loves to rediscover old favorites. When she’s not at the movies, she’s reading and traveling and writing at A Traveler’s Library and Ancestors In Aprons. Follow her on Twitter at @pen4hire.

Vera Marie Badertscher has written posts on Reel Life With Jane.


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  1. I’m so glad you posted this! I haven’t seen a ton of Steve McQueen movies, including this one, and mostly know Robert Preston as Harold Hill in The Music Man. I’d definitely benefit from a little marathon of these two actors at some point. Any other films of theirs you’d recommend? I’ve had Bullitt sitting here for ages, and there will likely be a resurgence in The Magnificent Seven if Tom Cruise follows through on a remake.

  2. I’m sort of in the same boat as you are, Jane. As matter of fact, it is really hard to look at (and listen to) Robert Preston without thinking Harold Hill. McQueen was better known for his tough guy movies like The Great Escape and Papillon. I could do with a McQueen marathon myself. You buying the popcorn?
    Vera Marie Badertscher recently posted…SPAIN WEEK: Living With the FishermenMy Profile

  3. Chelsea Saxton

    Yes, Junior Bonner is a very interesting film. I’m a big Steve McQueen fan – love The Great Escape and Papillon.

  4. Maybe it’s the Entourage fan in me, but I love hearing behind the scenes stories about how a movie came to be. There are always some interesting tidbits you can pick up, and that makes the movie even better!
    Johnny recently posted…Does the New Upromise Credit Card Have Promise as a College Savings Tool?My Profile

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