The Tao of Junior Bonner
In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In daily life, be competent.
In action, be aware of the time and the season.
No fight: no blame.
— Tao Te Ching
Westerns are morality plays. Like Rousseau
or Hobbes with Winchester rifles, they take not-too-distant ancestors
(and sometimes contemporaries) out of civilization and put forth an argument
about people’s behavior. The most simplistic Westerns had white-hatted
good guys upholding the values of civilization (read “Enlightenment-based
liberal democracy”) against the black-hatted agents of anarchy.
The better Westerns are, like history or life itself, much more ambiguous.
Take The Searchers. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards chases the Native
American abductor of his niece all over Monument Valley for years at
a time for
reasons that are nebulous at best and downright heinous at worst, spouting
racist garbage the whole time. Yet when it counts, Ethan winds up making
the right decision — the life-affirming choice — for the
right reasons, maybe for the only time in his life. This is a hero? Well,
yes and no. America, this is your history.
Peckinpah’s Westerns are particularly interested in blurring
the line between “good” and “bad” men. Most
of Peckinpah’s major characters are unambiguously hostile
to civilization and often sociopathic, but still capable of honorable,
unambiguously moral choices. Only two major Peckinpah characters
are clearly good men following their own moral code on the right
side of the law. These are Steve Judd (Joel McCrae) of Ride the
High Country and Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen), the title character
of Sam Peckinpah’s seventh film. (Junior Bonner may
not be a Western in the traditional sense, but it’s close
enough to consider it a Peckinpah Western.)
moral sense is a curious one. He doesn’t
seem to be guided by any belief in a higher power, and he is hostile
to the idea of getting a regular job and joining mainstream society.
An aging rodeo star, he lives on the edge of society, tied only to
his car and his horse and following in his ne’er-do-well father’s
footsteps, although it’s hard to imagine two people less alike
than Junior and his father, Ace.
The movie starts with a difficult
rodeo, in which Junior is hurt when thrown from a particularly
rough bull, and follows him to his hometown
of Prescott, Ariz., for Prescott Frontier Days. There, Junior visits
each of his separated parents and his enterprising brother, competes
the rodeo and kisses a pretty girl. That’s about it for
plot: the strength of the movie comes from the reality of the characters
small conflicts between Junior and his family.
These conflicts are
all minor, and all are addressed and overcome
(in a Peckinpah movie!) by the honest familial love of the characters
each other (in a Peckinpah movie!). One results from the concern
that Junior’s friends and family have for his ability to
continue as a rodeo star. Junior is offered jobs twice in the film.
The first time
it’s his brother Curly (Joe Don Baker) who offers him a job
selling lots from their father’s ranch. Curly goes on to
insult Ace (rightfully, as it turns out), and Junior punches him
through a window. The second
job offer is from Buck Roan (Ben Johnson), a rodeo entrepreneur
and the owner of the bull that threw Junior. Junior declines, respectfully
Junior, you see, has his own way of being in the world,
with which he’s
perfectly content, involving shuttling from town to town and taking
his chances with the bulls. Junior doesn’t seek to move upward
or downward in society, and has no irrevocable differences with
happy to work on honing his skills and to live as simply as possible.
In short, whether he knows it or not, Junior Bonner is a Taoist.
Taoism — “The
Way” — is centered on a few simple concepts:
being happy and skillful in your craft, never seeking power or
status, living in harmony with nature, and being in society without
being a part
of it. Its major texts are Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and the
eponymous works of the philosopher Chuang Tzu. The Tao Te Ching is the more popular
of the two, but the Chuang Tzu, with its cryptic riddles and occasionally
nonsensical stories, is the more challenging and profound.
from the Chuang Tzu talks about Cook Ting’s skill in
carving oxen. When complimented, Cook Ting says:
What I care about
is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting
up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After
I no longer saw the whole ox. And now I go at it by spirit and
don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come
to a stop,
and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural
makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings,
and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest
or tendon, much less a main joint.
A good cook changes his knife
once a year because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife
once a month because he hacks. I’ve had
this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands
and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the
grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade
of the knife has
no thickness in such spaces, so there’s plenty of room for the
play about in. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my
knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.
I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell
myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m
very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety
until the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling
I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely
satisfied and reluctant to move on. Then I wipe off the knife
and put it away.
This passage is talking about ways to live. The Chuang
Tzu emphasizes skill, immersion in the moment and finding ephemeral
The Tao Te Ching is more general, telling people to
resolve conflict and
be honest, and to avoid looking to climb, instead finding one’s
happiness by finding a middle course, like water. These ideals
may sound like common sense, but think of how few people you
know who actually
live like this.
Junior Bonner does. Peckinpah thought that you
should, too. Taoism may seem to be an odd moral code from ol’
Bloody Sam (although the phrase “Straw Dogs” is from
the Tao Te Ching), but Peckinpah was capable of great contradictions.
Though his movies redefined the imagery of cinematic violence, Peckinpah
was a liberal who certainly saw interpersonal violence as normative
— even necessary — behavior, but who disapproved of
the large-scale violence of war. With Junior Bonner, Peckinpah
is telling us that living in peace with our family, friends and,
above all, ourselves is the key to happiness.
relationship with his brother is one of the central familial
conflicts of the movie. Curly is a man who has bought out his
ranch for a pittance and is building houses on it. Curly believes
that Junior, as a rodeo hero, would make a great salesman.
Junior, on the
other hand, has nothing but contempt for Curly’s plans,
which he sees as a betrayal of their father. Ultimately, however,
the two brothers
love each other (the expression of disbelief, embarrassment
and pleasure on Junior’s face when Curly tells him that
he loves him is a sight to behold) and forgive each other
for failing to meet their expectations.
relationship with his father is even more complex. Ace is a former
rodeo star, a rake whose philandering has led his long-suffering
wife Elvira (Ida Lupino, in one of her last feature films) to separate
from him, and a dreamer who squanders whatever money he can save.
Robert Preston plays Ace as a bon vivant whose perpetual need for
glory has alienated his family. It’s a nice touch that the
first half of the movie has Ace and Junior missing each other over
and over again; they don’t catch up until almost exactly halfway
through. When Junior finally catches Ace — in the middle of
a parade with Ace riding the horse he’s just swiped from Junior
— the two abandon the parade, cutting through back yards and
finally stopping at Prescott’s train station for what is easily
Peckinpah’s most observant scene in a career full of observant
scenes. As the two men sit on a bench next to the railroad tracks,
Ace hits Junior up for money so that he can go dig for gold in Australia,
and Junior reveals that he’s broke. Left unsaid is Ace’s
admission that he’s leaving his family for good and that he’s
pinned his hopes on having Junior underwrite his venture. Ace has
to admit that he has, in fact, spent all the money he got from Curly
for his ranch on liquor and women. Junior doesn’t need to
tell Ace what his being broke means — he’s on a losing
Ace knocks Junior’s hat off, and then
sheepishly steps forward to retrieve it. A train passes between
them; Junior holds his aching
back and winces. His face tells us that he knows that he is
getting too old for the life that he’s chosen and is
still hurting from his last bull ride, exacerbated by a few
falls on the way to the station.
Ace just looks lost and sad, maybe even a bit ashamed of himself.
In this moment, with father and son hiding their weaknesses
from each other, Peckinpah simultaneously satirizes Western
machismo and confirms its utility as a means of respect.
the movie, Junior flashes back on that first bullride — which
was shot in washed-out, barely-there color — and the
expression on his face reveals his simultaneous fear of the
bull and his fearful
knowledge that he must ride it again to turn his losing streak
around. He tells Buck (in a clumsy bribery attempt) that he
needs to beat the
bull because he’s in his hometown, but that’s not
necessarily true. He needs to ride the bull in his hometown
because it is the only
place where the odds are on him beating the bull.
From the Chuang
Tzu, “To him everything was in process of destruction,
everything was in process of construction. This is called tranquility
in disturbance. Tranquility in disturbance means that it is
especially in the midst of disturbance that tranquility becomes
is another Taoist idea: making oneself at peace with one’s
emotions and surroundings. Where can Junior be more at peace
than in his hometown
with his family, just after addressing the stress in his mostly
stress-free life? Junior, putting aside his fears that his
body will let him down,
spends his time before the bull ride coming to peace with his
family, honing his skill with the events leading up to the
bull ride (in one
funny scene, when he and Ace lose the wild cow-milking contest,
Junior sits down and drinks the milk right there), and generally
of his points of stress, which allows him the room to forget
his fear of the bull. Junior puts himself at the heart of his
to conquer his problems.
Peckinpah’s heroes are usually
compromised, as heroes have been throughout history. He placed
worth on certain values shared by his heroes
and antiheroes: loyalty to friends, honor of commitments, living
own ideals, rejection of mainstream society. Most of his protagonists
are not people to emulate. Junior Bonner is the exception:
it’s a prescriptive movie, Bloody Sam telling us to do what
we love. The cost of doing otherwise
is simply too high.