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.

Sam 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.)

Junior Bonner’s 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 in 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 and the 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 for 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 this time.

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 anyone. He’s 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.

One story 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 three years 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 ligament 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 of oxen with it, 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 blade to 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.

Whenever 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 doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety until the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. 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 satisfaction. 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.

Junior’s relationship with his brother is one of the central familial conflicts of the movie. Curly is a man who has bought out his father’s 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.

Junior’s 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 streak.

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 and self-awareness from each other, Peckinpah simultaneously satirizes Western machismo and confirms its utility as a means of respect.

Throughout 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 perfect.” This 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 letting go 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 emotional storm 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 by one’s 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.