- Jul 6, 2003
Film Length: 100 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Letterboxed Widescreen (2.35:1)
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
Audio: English - Monaural
May 25th, 2004
Distilled down to its essence, Junior Bonner can be characterized as a thoughtful, touching Western about a former rodeo champion who is now past his prime, and must analyze his life to determine what is most important to him. As the film opens, J.R. “Junior” Bonner (Steve McQueen), an aging bull rider, is heading back to his hometown of Prescott, Arizona for the annual Independence Day rodeo. Injured by an ornery bull at the last rodeo he participated in, J.R. is hoping for the opportunity to redeem his failure by hopping on the beast’s back for another attempt.
While in town, J.R. pays a visit to his mother Ellie (Ida Lupino), the proprietor of a small antique shop, and discovers that his father Ace (Robert Preston) is currently being hospitalized for minor injuries suffered in an accident. He is also given the disturbing news that his brother Curly (Joe Don Baker) bought out their father’s ranch for far less than its market value, and has been plotting to sell off Ellie's antique shop as well, so he can set her up in a mobile home at the new Reata Ranch trailer park he is running.
J.R. takes a little time to let all he has learned sink in, and then goes to see his dad, who was once well known on the rodeo circuit, but has most recently been fruitlessly prospecting for precious metals. Indeed, despite his lack of success, he still believes that riches are awaiting him, and he is planning a trip to yet another location where he is sure his fortune is lying in wait. He also laments the fact that he squandered most of the money that Curly had given him on broads and booze, and seems upset that Curly will not supply additional funds for his next prospecting expedition.
But as the old maxim goes, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, which may explain why J.R. displays some of his father's tendencies to cling doggedly to a dream. To be certain, J.R. is a tad long in the tooth to be hanging around the rodeo circuit, and yet he persists in making an appearance at each successive rodeo. Ironically, most of the folks he comes across, from his shady brother Curly to businessman Buck Roan (Ben Johnson), want to bring J.R. into the fold as a business partner, but he turns each of them down flat, electing to continue participating in the rodeos instead.
In looking more closely at the character, it can be argued that J.R. Bonner, is among the last of dying breed; a man struggling to cope with the cultural/industrial changes that are reshaping his world. Still, however, “Junior” is resilient, and decides to go against the grain instead of riding off into the gentle glow of an amber sunset, like most heroes of the West do when their day is done. Though he would undoubtedly be more comfortable in decades that have long since been overrun by the sands of time, J.R. is determined to find a way to make his preferred existence fit the times.
The J.R. Bonner character is also enriched by Steve McQueen’s portrayal, which was as organic and effortless as any he ever put forth. Although he may be better remembered for his roles in Bullitt or The Great Escape, McQueen was probably never better than he is in Junior Bonner, as he makes his character a likable, honorable (for the most part), and complex rodeo cowboy, who is faced with the challenges of accepting his fading fame and dealing with some pretty serious family troubles.
As Ace, an all-round scoundrel, former rodeo man, and J.R.’s father, Robert Preston also turns out to be an engaging presence. Indeed, he makes Ace brash and rugged, and yet somehow immensely charming, although it is abundantly clear why his marriage to Ellie did not work out. Speaking of Ellie, Ida Lupino is absolutely phenomenal in her role as a woman struggling to hold off her son’s assault on her independence, and she really shows off her acting chops during her interaction with her character’s former husband.
The movie also scores points in the detail and the editing departments, especially in terms of the close-ups used by Peckinpah for punctuation. Indeed, Peckinpah was always a masterful editor, and Junior Bonner is a good vehicle to exemplify the smooth, natural way he cuts films together. His shots are usually very well planned and perfectly timed, and in this case, even the slow motion shots flow together seamlessly while the story is being moved along. Basically, in terms of its subject matter, this film is quite a departure from the more violent works Sam Peckinpah is known for, but his editing here is no less solid.
Lastly, as I alluded to earlier, the fine performances by a very talented cast give an aura of authenticity to the film, though some might argue that Peckinpah goes a little overboard with the imagery of construction crews leveling off land formerly occupied by “cowboys” to erect the more urban settings associated with modern society. In spite of this quibble about Peckinpah’s use of visual cues, however, Junior Bonner is an enjoyable film, highlighted by excellent character development and a realistic look at how the residents of a small town cope with the painful process of change.
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
As has been the subject of much discussion, despite being offered in widescreen (2.35:1), the image has not anamorphically enhanced by MGM. Without question, this has to be viewed as a big disappointment, especially since the practice is so commonplace now. In my case, it was particularly bothersome, not because Junior Bonner’s visuals look especially “bad”, but because I know they should have looked better.
Right from the opening of the film, the image exhibits its soft appearance, which is most evident in the somewhat blurry appearance of shots taken from a distance, and the less than impressive amount of detail. This problem is exacerbated by the application of edge enhancement, which results in a halo effect that can be distracting at times. Finally, color rendering is also a bit of a disappointment, as the film’s color palette appears to be faded. On a more positive note, however, excessive grain is not a problem, and the print is free from serious defects or damage.
Things could be worse, I suppose, but fans of this film will definitely be upset by the lower resolution of this non-anamorphic transfer, not to mention the general flatness of its colors and the application of edge enhancement. In my opinion, this film certainly deserved a better visual treatment than it received.
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
Keeping in line with its virtually “no frills” approach to this release, the soundtrack for Junior Bonner is presented in its original monaural format. I cannot say I am disappointed by this, however, as I don’t see how remix would have benefited the source material too much. Basically, this monaural track suits the film fine, and presents its audio information in a serviceable manner, with only moderate hissing.
On the whole, this monaural presentation sounds decent, with dialogue coming across as more robust than it normally does in monaural presentations, and dialogue, music, and effects being well balanced against each other. I must say that the sounds of cattle and horses tramping about also packed an unexpected wallop!
NOTE: I found the track’s overall volume level to be rather low, so you may have to dial the volume up on your amplifier or receiver to obtain sufficient dynamic range.
For Junior Bonner, the sole extra is a feature-length audio commentary provided by experts Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle (who are moderated by Nick Redman). As they are experts on the work and career of Sam Peckinpah, the three men discuss the film in a very intelligent manner, and provide a mind-boggling amount of insight into the film, Sam Peckinpah, and some of the actors. I will forego my usual practice of listing highlights, because there are simply too many, but take my word for it – this is a really worthwhile commentary, especially if you are a fan of either this film or Sam Peckinpah’s other works.
(on a five-point scale)
Episodes: :star: :star: :star: :star:
Video: :star: :star: 1/2
Audio: :star: :star: 1/2
Extras: :star: :star: 1/2
Overall: :star: :star: :star:
THE LAST WORD
Junior Bonner, Sam Peckinpah’s affectionate treatment of a broken down rodeo cowboy’s transition toward an uncertain future is a very well-made movie, featuring some solid filmmaking and acting, as well as a touching story. The DVD presentation, however, is another matter entirely, and leaves quite a bit to be desired. Specifically, the non-anamorphic transfer is somewhat of a disappointment; the audio quality is no more than serviceable. Moreover, the disc only includes one extra, although the audio commentary is quite good.
If you absolutely MUST have this movie in your collection, than nothing I can say will dissuade you from a purchase. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the film is worth watching, but the ho-hum visual presentation limits my recommendation to a rental for all but Junior’s most strident supporters. I know this is a catalog title, but given the effort MGM seems to be putting into their recent releases, I hoped for much more. Fans of this film deserved better! Of course, that is just my .02, for whatever it is worth.