60 Years of Screenwriting Began with a Rodeo Winner

Jeb Rosebrook's first script, "Junior Bonner," was directed by Sam Peckinpah and starred Steve McQueen. It opened to lackluster reviews but is now considered a classic.

Jeb Rosebrook on set of Junior Bonner.
Jeb Rosebrook on set of Junior Bonner.

Most of the obituaries for the gifted writer Jeb Rosebrook, who died in Scottsdale, Ariz., last August at age 83, begin by identifying him as the author of the original screenplay for “the 1972 Sam Peckinpah-Steve McQueen film ‘Junior Bonner.’” Despite having the biggest movie star in the world at the time and the director at his peak as artist and celebrity auteur, “Junior Bonner” received mostly lukewarm reviews and did poorly at the box office. Though now considered a classic, and the best rodeo film ever made, even the few contemporary critics who appreciated it judged it “minor” Peckinpah.

The screenplay was Rosebrook’s first to be produced and helped launch a distinguished six-decade career that included two Writers Guild of America nominations, an Emmy nomination for “I Will Fight No More Forever” (a re-enactment of the story of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians), and Saturn and Hugo nominations for co-writing the 1979 Disney movie “The Black Hole.”  For television, he developed the series “The Yellow Rose” and co-created “The Outsiders,” based on the S.E. Hinton novel and the movie by Francis Ford Coppola. Among the many teleplays and specials Rosebrook wrote or co-wrote are four of the best episodes of “The Waltons.” (He turned the two-hour one titled “The Conflict” into a play.)

Still, whenever his name is mentioned, it is almost always associated with Peckinpah and McQueen, a connection ratified by Rosebrook himself with the publication of his 2018 book, “Junior Bonner: The Making of a Classic with Steve McQueen and Sam Peckinpah in the Summer of 1971,” an important enough undertaking that in order to write the memoir, he set aside the third novel of his Charlemagne Trilogy, which he never lived to finish. Thus, even Rosebrook seems to have agreed that “Junior Bonner” is his best work, the closest he ever came to a masterpiece. 

Steve McQueen, left, and Robert Preston in "Junior Bonner."
Steve McQueen, left, and Robert Preston in “Junior Bonner.”

Part of the frustration of being a writer for films and television is that the products of one’s labors do not constitute a “final” anything. No one reads screenplays for pleasure — they exist only to be made by others into movies or television shows. And while the writers are sometimes acknowledged in passing, and receive awards, it is the directors who usually get all the credit. And inasmuch as screenplays are realized principally through the talents, skills and sensibilities of directors, it can be exceptionally difficult, even for writers themselves, to discern the special qualities of the writing apart from the completed film.

In Rosebrook’s case, Peckinpah is not only the greatest director to have filmed one of his screenplays, he is the only great director to have done so. Stylistically, visually, thematically, in terms of character, milieu and genre, “Junior Bonner” is so clearly a Sam Peckinpah Film that the screenplay — on which, very atypically, Peckinpah appears to have done little rewriting of his own — merges into the artistic vision that is the final film, not least because Rosebrook brought his own serious experiential bona fides to the project. Although born in New York, he spent several years of his youth at the Orme School and ranch in Arizona, where his parents sent him because he was asthmatic. There, he acquired the skills of a cowboy and gained first-hand knowledge of rodeo culture of the Southwest. (Later, he spent 47 years in Los Angeles, then returned to Arizona.)

The screenplay was a necessary condition for the high achievement of this film, but it took Peckinpah to reveal to the world just how beautiful it is and what riches in theme, feeling and humanity could be drawn from it: “Junior Bonner” remains a true collaboration.

Paul Seydor is the author of two acclaimed critical books, “Peckinpah: The Western Films: A Reconsideration,” and “The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: The Untold Story of Peckinpah’s Last Western Film” about Seydor’s work on a restoration of the film. An award-winning film editor and Academy Award nominee, he has collaborated extensively with the writer-director Ron Shelton (including editing “White Men Can’t Jump”). He is on the faculty at Chapman University.

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