Clyde was Not Standing Outside His Car When He was Ambushed, Nor was Bonnie Just Chilling
The movie depicts the ambush of Bonnie and Clyde as happening like this: they come across C.W. Moss’s father, who pretends to need help with his car. Clyde comes out of the car to help, and Bonnie sits there observing him–smiling without a care of the world–until she’s distracted by a flight of birds. Then they both get gunned down.
This is, once again, one of those things that comes across as harmless artistic license but couldn’t have been more cynical. In real life, Bonnie and Clyde were locked and loaded at all times, and a hair trigger away from shooting anyone they suspected would be a problem. It was this perpetual state of vigilance that is how Clyde and his accomplices were able to immediately wound and kill so many LEOs without breaking a sweat, as well as blast their way past multiple police ambushes. Part of his and his gang’s strategy was to never get outside of the car unless absolutely necessary and in the instances that they did leave, to always be armed and ready at the first sign of trouble.
On the morning of their ambush, Bonnie and Clyde were no less vigilant than before. If anything, they were even more paranoid and ready for action in case the worst happened. Case in point–when Frank Hamer’s posse examined the car after the couple was dead, they not only found a ridiculous number of weapons and ammo, but a pistol in Bonnie’s lap and a weapon at Clyde’s feet.
This recreation, from the Netflix movie, The Highwaymen, is more or less exactly how the ambush happened. It’s based on the memoirs of Ted Hinton, one of the men who was part of Frank Hamer’s posse. Just like in real life, Bonnie and Clyde are depicted as being inside the car, fully armed, and ready to shoot.
Bottom line, the 1967 film version of the ambush deliberately had Clyde standing outside of the car and in a state of vulnerability, to make the ambush seem completely unfair, like they would’ve simply given up if given the chance. On the contrary, Clyde would’ve instantly mowed down Frank Hamer, Ted L. Hinton and the rest of the posse like he had done many times before.
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.