The Barrow Gang Put the Fear of God in Their Captives
In the 1967 film, the Barrow Gang members are depicted as a bunch of fun-loving hicks who were so pure of heart that they even charmed the socks off their kidnap victims. For instance, in one scene, the gang is shown picking up a young couple for a joy ride, who at first are frightened out of their wits but eventually warm up to everyone, even going so far as to start yukking it up over hamburgers.
Wow! What a great, fun-loving gang! Not! In reality, abducted victims of the Barrow Gang were absolutely scared shitless and spent their entire ordeal wondering whether they would make it out alive. Some did mention that Clyde and the others would laugh and joke during their abductions, but hardly in the positive sense in the movie.
For instance, according to the real-life man and woman who were kidnapped–H. Dillard Darby and Sophia Stone Cook– Bonnie, Clyde and the others would issue threats one moment and joke and laugh the next, which made the frivolity all the more unsettling, since it made them incredibly unpredictable. At no time were they endeared by the Barrow Gang; they spent their entire ride expecting to never come out of it alive.
Seasoned LEOs were no less terrified, as Clyde had established himself as a criminal for whom cop killing came easy, but also seemed to kill based on a whim. Whether he would kill an LEO or grant mercy was anyone’s guess; in one case, he told a pair of officers that he would let them go because they helped Bonnie when she became injured. This was after Buck had casually asked his brother in front of the two frightened men if he wanted them killed. In other cases, when Clyde or other members of the Barrow Gang were feeling flighty, LEOs would be immediately gunned down without even so much as drawing a weapon.
In short, the image presented in Arthur Penn’s movie–of abductees getting so charmed by Bonnie and Clyde that they found getting kidnapped just a barrel of laughs–was not only false, but patently offensive. No one was charmed, but absolutely terrified.
Wow, you touched on everything I dislike about this movie. Great article! The only way I can come close to enjoying this movie is to pretend I’m watching a fictional film whose lead characters happen to be named Bonnie and Clyde.
The only thing I wonder is how much of the blame can be placed on Warren Beatty himself. He was the producer and the star, and from what I’ve read he had just about influence on the tone of the picture as Arthur Penn. A moot point, possibly, but worth mentioning…
In researching this article, I do believe you’re correct about the extent of his influence. I remember reading that the real life Blanche Barrow and some other people were either approached by him personally or were made to understand that he was the one who was behind the entire project.
Fortunately, there were a few people that, when the film was released, saw it for what it was. Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko wrote a piece where he used quotes from of some of the pair’s victims to show that they were not heroes in any sense of the word. Also, the Mad Magazine parody ended with Beatty announcing his next picture – a film about another cute, fun-loving couple of the 1930’s: Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun.
Unfortunately, much of the cultural elite of the time got on the ‘New Hollywood’ bandwagon, even going so far as to lambast film critics that saw the film for what it was, a cynical effort to cash in on youth coulture.
I remember reading a book on the history of film criticism that belittled an older NYT critic by saying “and he didn’t even get Bonnie and Clyde!” Well, maybe he did, and just didn’t like what he saw.
I’m currently trying to fill in the gaps of what I thought I knew about New Hollywood (to counter the decades of propaganda), and in all the material that I’ve read, it’s been nothing but infuriating to read how the cultural elites you talked about successfully used this movie as a cultural flashpoint. From what I understand, it was Pauline Kael who led the vanguard, who–ironically (or maybe not)–later got screwed over by Warren Beatty himself out of spite for having poorly reviewed Heaven Can Wait.
What’s so ironic about the movie being lauded as oh, so countercultural was that it was actually subverting it. Folk music had exploded in the 1960s when American youth rediscovered the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who had been the voice of the dispossessed and laborers during The Great Depression. When the folk music renaissance was at its peak, this movie appropriated it to glamorize two criminal sociopaths who killed police and robbed and steal out of cowardice.
What resulted were two things: a subliminal message to The Establishment that this is what the countercultural movement really stood for (violence and mayhem), as well as spoiling the folk music renaissance so that the true members of the counterculture would immediately abandon it. This subversion was so beautifully played that I have to wonder if it wasn’t planned.