In “Amarillo by Morning,” George Strait croons the credo of the rodeo rider: “I ain’t got a dime, but what I got is mine / I ain’t rich but, Lord, I’m free.” The rodeo rider as hero, however, belongs as much to the movies as to country music. I was reminded of that fact recently while watching The Lusty Men, which just broke for the first time on DVD.
Though French critics loved the film, calling it one of the best of 1952, The Lusty Men didn’t fare well over here (despite its misleading title), mishandled by scatterbrained producer Howard Hughes and mostly ignored after its delayed initial release – especially surprising given the star appeal of Robert Mitchum and Susan Hayward and direction by Nicholas Ray (Rebel without a Cause and Johnny Guitar).
The luxury of nostalgia, however, enables us to better perceive the real achievement of The Lusty Men. A small-scale drama of rodeo life, everything about the film is underplayed, making it all the more realistic and effective. Mitchum plays Jeff, a retired rodeo rider who, in the first scene, revisits his crumbling childhood home, forced to crawl under the house to retrieve a key hidden along with some childhood relics.
His glory days behind him, his past a fading memory, Jeff is taken in by Wes (Arthur Kennedy) and Louise (Susan Hayward), who work for a local rancher, trying to save enough money to buy Jeff’s old home. In short order, however, Wes succumbs to the quick bucks and excitement of the rodeo circuit, becoming a star under Jeff’s tutelage even as his marriage begins to fall apart.
A superb character drama, highlighted by terrific performances from the three leads as well as a number of colorful supporting roles, The Lusty Men emphasizes the dangers and destructive nature of the rodeo life, in and out of the arena. Ray’s direction is never heavy-handed, the characters never stereotypical. And Mitchum, whom Roger Ebert called one of the best actors ever, is quite good.
The Lusty Men concludes with traditional domestic values triumphing over those of the romantic, outdated loner. Almost 20 years later, however, Steve McQueen and director Sam Peckinpah opt for the other side of the coin in Junior Bonner (1971), which, like the earlier film, did not fare well on its initial release.
Already dubbed “Bloody Sam” for The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, Peckinpah was looking for a project outside the blood ’n’ guts action genre in which he’d been pigeonholed. McQueen, always anxious for a change of pace, signed on for this charming, sometimes comic look at a father-and-son rodeo duo (Robert Preston and McQueen) each of whom refuses to settle down. Unlike the occasional studio scenes in The Lusty Men, Junior Bonner was filmed exclusively on location, most of it in Prescott, Arizona, at a rodeo championship.
Utilizing his usual bag of visual tricks (flashbacks, multi-screen shots), Peckinpah produced an elegiac valentine to the values of the Old West, the flip side to the violence of The Wild Bunch. McQueen is a modern-day version of Mitchum, cool and laid-back, and Robert Preston as a smooth con man is just as winning in this version of The Music Man on horseback.
Though Junior Bonner failed at the box office, it’s aged quite well. Still, McQueen hired Peckinpah for his next feature, The Getaway, which proved to be the most financially successful film of both their careers.