Rounders, Rednecks, And Lusty Men
The movies go to the rodeo
The action and drama of rodeo have inspired filmmakers from the classic western era through the present day. To get you pumped up for the chutes opening in Las Vegas, here are 10 of the most memorable movies about the rodeo life.
The Lusty Men (1952)
The best rodeo movie ever made is an often-overlooked classic western starring Robert Mitchum as a former champion bull rider, now broke and broken down, who helps train another rider (Arthur Kennedy), while pursuing his wife, played by the stunning Susan Hayward. Everything about The Lusty Men is first-rate, from the cast to the remarkable cinematography of Lee Garmes, much of it on location at rodeos in Tucson, Arizona; Spokane, Washington; and Pendleton, Oregon. Watch for appearances from such real rodeo champs as Gerald Roberts, Jerry Ambler, and Les Sanborn.
8 Seconds (1994)
Largely dismissed as a vanity project for Luke Perry, who at the time was making teenage girls’ hearts flutter in Beverly Hills, 90210, 8 Seconds actually offers a substantive and largely accurate biography of the late rodeo champion Lane Frost. Perry closely resembles Frost, and he nails the Oklahoma accent.
Junior Bonner (1972)
Junior Bonner was a departure for director Sam Peckinpah, best known for his operatic sequences of bloody violence, and for star Steve McQueen, whose screen persona was a cocky man of action. Critics loved this story of an aging rodeo champ hoping to win one last contest, but fans of the star and director didn’t get the high-octane mayhem they had come to expect, resulting in low box office receipts. Western lovers will enjoy it for the appearances of old cowhands Ben Johnson, Dub Taylor, and Donald “Red” Barry.
Rodeo Girl (1980)
Katharine Ross in a western is like Hayley Mills in a Disney film — always worth a look, regardless of the particulars. In Rodeo Girl, based on the life of rodeo world champion Sue Pirtle, Ross plays Sammy Garrett, a cowgirl whose dedication to building the Women’s Rodeo Association threatens her marriage. Ross brings her usual authenticity to the role and is ably supported by Bo Hopkins and Candy Clark.
J.W. Coop (1972)
One of the more authentic dramatizations of the rodeo world, J.W. Coop was a labor of love for Cliff Robertson, who starred as the title character, produced and directed it, and spent two years working on the script. Robertson interviewed professional rodeo riders and shot the movie on location at actual rodeos, including the world’s largest prison rodeo at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. He even performed some of his own bull riding. Filmed in just 35 days, this story of a rodeo rider trying to resurrect his career after 10 years in prison offers a deft balance of drama and action, with an ending that’s as brave as it is unexpected.
The Cowboy Way (1994)
Take two rodeo cowboys and deposit them in New York City on a rescue mission to find their missing friend. The classic fish-out-of-water setup in The Cowboy Way plays out well thanks to the likeability of stars Woody Harrelson and Kiefer Sutherland, and the amusing if predictable moments when their country smarts keep them one step ahead of the city dwellers. It’s worth seeing just for the interrogation scene at the Central Park Zoo.
In the ’50s, the era of the first 3-D wave, the screen-busting technology was used on low-budget horror movies like House of Wax and Bwana Devil. Bucking that trend, MGM opted to make its first 3-D movie Arena, a loose remake of The Lusty Men, starring Gig Young as an egotistical rodeo star, opposite Jean Hagen and Polly Bergen. “Although it rarely leaves the dusty, sun-baked arena in Tucson over which death sometimes hovers in the hot afternoon, its illusions of depth are few and far between,” opined a contributor to The New York Times, adding that “the muscle-jarring, ‘sun-fishing’ ‘sidewinding,’ charging broncs and Brahma bulls that provide the visual drama” in 3-D would have been just as effective in two dimensions.
Colorado Cowboy: The Bruce Ford Story (1994)
“I’m a cowboy. It was born in me and bred in me,” says Bruce Ford. “It’s a life I love.” This documentary follows Ford through bareback riding competitions on the rodeo circuit, showing both the thrill of the competition and the stress on a cowboy’s family when he is away from home for months at a time.
The Rounders (1965)
It’s hard to imagine that a western starring Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda would, in its original release, be relegated to the bottom of a double bill. But that was the fate of The Rounders, a highly underrated comedy-action film about two old cowhands scuffling to earn a buck in Sedona, Arizona. Legendary bronc rider Casey Tibbs appears in the film, which inspired a short-lived TV series starring Patrick Wayne.
Ruby Jean and Joe (1996)
Though Tom Selleck plays an aging rodeo star, there’s admittedly not much rodeo in this made-for-TV film. Instead, the focus is on Selleck, as Joe Wade, and his unlikely relationship with Ruby Jean (Rebekah Johnson), a young hitchhiker who hangs around after the ride is over.