Junior "JR" Bonner is a rodeo rider who is slightly "over the hill". Junior is first seen taping up his injuries after an unsuccessful ride on an ornery bull named Sunshine.
He returns home to Prescott, Arizona, for the Independence Day parade and rodeo. When he arrives, the Bonner family home is being bulldozed by his younger brother Curly, an entrepreneur and real-estate developer, in order to build a trailer park. Junior's womanizing, good-for-nothing father, Ace, and down-to-earth, long-suffering mother, Elvira, are estranged. (Note: both Preston and Lupino were born in 1918, making them just twelve years older than McQueen.) Ace dreams of emigrating to Australia to rear sheep and mine gold, but he fails to obtain financing from Junior, who is broke, and refuses to ask Curly for it.
After flooring his arrogant brother with a punch, Junior bribes rodeo owner Buck Roan to let him ride Sunshine again, promising him half the prize money. Buck thinks he must be crazy but Junior actually manages to pull it off this time, going the full eight seconds on the bull.
Junior walks into a travel agent's office and buys his father a one-way, first-class ticket to Australia. The film's final shot shows JR leaving his hometown, his successful ride on Sunshine continuing to put off the inevitable end of his career.Steve McQueen as Junior 'J.R.' Bonner
Robert Preston as Ace Bonner
Ida Lupino as Elvira Bonner
Ben Johnson as Buck Roan
Joe Don Baker as Curly Bonner
Barbara Leigh as Charmagne
Mary Murphy as Ruth Bonner
Bill McKinney as Red Terwiliger
Dub Taylor as Del
Sandra Deel as Nurse Arlis
Don 'Red' Barry as Homer Rutledge
Charles H. Gray as Burt
The story explores one of Sam Peckinpah's favorite themes - the end of a traditional form of honor and the arrival of modern capitalism on the western frontier. In a memorable scene, Ace and Junior escape from the rodeo parade on Junior's horse, ending up at a deserted railway station where they drink and despair at the state of the world and their indigency. The film has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the mid-2000s because of retrospectives of Sam Peckinpah's work and the screenplay's predictions regarding capitalist development.
In May 1971, weeks after completing Straw Dogs in England, Sam Peckinpah returned to the United States to begin immediate work on Junior Bonner. The lyrical screenplay by Jeb Rosebrook, depicting the changing times of society and binding family ties, appealed to Peckinpah's tastes. He accepted the project, concerned with being typed as a director of violent action (at the time, The Wild Bunch was his most renowned film and Straw Dogs was in preparation to be released to theaters). Junior Bonner would be his final attempt to make a low-key, dramatic work in the vein of Noon Wine (1966) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970).
Filmed on location in Prescott, Arizona, Peckinpah utilized many colorful locales and residents as extras in the film.
Due to a glut of rodeo-themed films released at that time, including The Honkers (1972), J.W. Coop (1972) and When the Legends Die (1972), Junior Bonner fell through the cracks and performed poorly at the box office. It earned rentals of $1.9 million in North America and $900,000 in other countries, recording an overall loss of $2,820,000.
The film was unwisely promoted as a typical Steve McQueen action vehicle and critical reviews were mixed. Peckinpah would remark, "I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it." Stinging from the failure of Junior Bonner but eager to work with Peckinpah again, McQueen presented him Walter Hill's screenplay to The Getaway, which they would film months after completing Junior Bonner. The second collaboration proved to be a financially successful one, as the action film would become one of the biggest box office successes of their careers.
Junior Bonner was released to DVD on May 25, 2004 by MGM Home Entertainment as a Region 1 widescreen DVD and on May 17, 2005 as a part of the box set The Steve McQueen Collection, with Junior Bonner as the fourth movie of a 4-disc set.