The Movie Only Captures the Middle Part of a Two-Year Crime Spree
Because of running time, films usually depict a truncated version of events. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde was no exception, as it had to cover a period of history that took place over the course of several years, and which involved several dozen people, places and incidents that couldn’t have all been included in a feature-length film.
However, there was a huge problem with the way the 1967 movie did it. Instead of truncating the Bonnie and Clyde story for the sake of movie length, it left out certain details to give a very misleading impression about the couple and their exploits. For example, going by the movie, you’d think that Bonnie met Clyde one day, almost immediately formed a gang of five people (a gas station attendant, Buck and Blanche) and then hit a few banks for a few weeks before getting ambushed.
The reality is that the events of the movie captured the middle part of what was a four year saga that started in January 1930 when Bonnie met Clyde, one that was marked by a two year separation when the latter went to jail. To make matters worse, the film limited its focus to the few short months that Buck and Blanche ran with the Barrow Gang, in what was a two year crime spree that included multiple accomplices who came before and after them.
In fact, as we’ll learn later, C.W. Moss, Buck and Blanche were composites of four other accomplices that had joined Bonnie and Clyde from the time they started on their crime spree in 1932 to nearly two years later in 1934, when they were finally ambushed. These accomplices weren’t just minor players, either; some of them played an even greater part in the real-life Bonnie and Clyde saga than Buck or Blanche Barrow.
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.