A Book Review by Tony Williams.
It is frequently true that publishers like Bear Manor Media not only offer the possibility of valuable access to books that are rarely considered by corporate concerns, whether inside or outside academia, but give any reviewer both light relief and pleasure from the heavyweight tomes awaiting review. Junior Bonner: The Making of a Classic by the film’s screenwriter is one such work. Not only is it modest in approach but also a lively memoir of a once-in-a-lifetime moment when its novice writer had the opportunity of having his work directed by one of cinema’s great (if also mercurial) talents but also privileged to be on location during filming. Free from irritating academic buzz words such as “flaneur,” “postmodernist” and other such terms those of us within “the institution” know so well, Jeb Rosebrook has written an accessible, engaging memoir captivating (but not alienating) the reader in the same manner he has composed his books, screenplays, teleplays, and other publications to record an unforgettable moment in time. If not Robert Mulligan’s Summer of ’42, Rosebrook’s memoir deals with the conception, production, and distribution of another Sam Peckinpah film far removed from the stereotypical demeaning conceptions of “Bloody Sam” and “Master of Violence.”
Junior Bonner is an elegiac film far transcending its identification with the rodeo movie genre that often means marginalization and box-office death despite honorable examples such as Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952). It has much in common with the “other side” of Sam Peckinpah readily identifiable during moments within his more celebrated work and has received respectful interpretations both by Peckinpah critics and commentators on DVDs. This book is not a critical analysis though but it is one that deserves an equal place on the shelf with other more interrogative studies due to its complementary personal perspective. While recognizing the dark side of the director, it chooses not to indulge in such reminiscences but places them in an overall context as mere elements within a more relevant approach highlighting both the collective nature of the filmmaking process as well as the hard work, idealism, and sincerity shown by all who worked on such a project.
Following a foreword and introduction, the book divides itself into a three-act theatrical structure each ending with stills from the author’s personal collection and those of others, concluding in a “curtain call” in which the author re-introduces all members of his “cast” before and behind the camera, most of whom are sadly no longer with us today. As well as documenting the later stages of their lives, the concept reminds the reader of that old 1930s Universal Studios credit, “A good cast is worth repeating.”
The brief prologue documents Rosebrook’s arrival at Warner Brothers, his meeting with producer Joe Wizan leading to an option to write a screenplay “for the highest paid actor in the world: Steve McQueen” (1) who had suffered his first critical and commercial flop Le Mans (1971) and who was looking for a project to return his career to its former successful trajectory.
Act One begins with the author’s family life, a salient factor in a film that would deal with a now dysfunctional but once strong family whose members still feel something for each other despite their different attitudes in a changing world they have no real control over, and the launching of a project whose director threatened the writer by wanting “to tie that thin can to my ass and mail me home” (57). As on other Peckinpah films many people returned on the bus, even some former close associates, but the writer survived his occasional sporadic baptisms of fire. Act Two concentrates on location shooting details with off-camera incidents duly reported but never sensationalized in a narrative that is as appropriately low-key as the actual film itself. Act Three covers the last days of shooting and the beginning of post-production during which the author met the great Jerry Fielding and was invited to his home to listen to the film’s score in progress (165).
Overall, this is a very touching memoir dealing with lives in transition both factual and fictional with the various ensemble cast members collaborating on a unique production before they would either part for good or keep in touch, as Rosebrook had the fortune to do with Ben Johnson. Like Ace and Junior during that unique railway scene, the author has his own encounter with a distant father, one less poignant than depicted in the film, but equally resonant when the son receives a silent affirmation from someone who had been initially skeptical about his move into the insecure world of writing (197). Parallels between the family lives of real life characters and their screen surrogates occur implicitly throughout the text, ones the author wisely chooses not to make explicit. While not reigning high in most people’s Sam Peckinpah lists, Junior Bonner is a film having a different style and magic of its own, revealing a facet of the director that Hollywood very rarely allowed him to explore in detail.
Both star and scenarist knew exactly the nature of the film they had worked on.
Steve went public in a taped interview that Junior Bonner was an art house film and should open slowly, market by market. My instinct was that it should not be advertised as a rodeo film but as a family in the midst of contemporary change with Steve as the centerpiece. (166-167)
Yet Hollywood market values won but while reviews were mixed but mostly positive, Warren Oates took issue with Time magazine reviewer Jay Cocks over the film supposedly failing to supply what he expected from the director. It was not going to be more of the same and, as Rosebrook shrewdly comments, “No one, to my knowledge, these years later, praised Sam for capturing a slice of hometown America circa 1971, and the changes therein occurring” (167). After the June 1972 premier, Oates’ voice proclaimed, “That was a goddamn poem” (167). But then audiences and critics wanted “Steve in action” directed by The Master of Violence, not the type of “gentle” or “elegiac” film the studio system never wanted them to make then or in the future. The film originally lost money but eventually over the years managed to achieve the only form of “The Sweet Smell of Success” that Hollywood wanted. But, unlike Heaven, Hollywood can’t wait.
This book is a modest, well-written memoir, appealing on all levels and another fine example of why we need alternative publishers like Bear Manor Media now more than ever. To modify Josh’s final lines in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), “Read this book, but I suggest you do not read it lightly.”
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. In 1994 he finally successfully chaired a Panel on Peckinpah at the illustrious Society for Cinema Studies Conference in Syracuse, NY, after taking more time and effort to combat various “red necked peckerwoods” on that society’s rigid committee year after year than occurred at the Battle of Agua Verde. He has written on Peckinpah for www.sensesofcinema.com. and Peckinpah Today: New Essays on the films of Sam Peckinpah (2012), edited by Michael Bliss.