Bonnie and Clyde Went on a Crime Spree for Completely Self-Serving, Cowardly Reasons
Arthur Penn’s film paints a picture of Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and other members of the Barrow gang as having naively stumbled into a life of crime after deciding to become a modern-day Robin Hood and Maid Marian. They wanted, in other words, to steal from the banks to give money back to the farmers whose lands had been seized in foreclosures.
Needless to say, this scenario is absolute nonsense, a complete fairy tale. There were three specific reasons why Bonnie and Clyde went on a crime spree, all completely selfish and not one having to do with any social awareness.
First, let’s talk about Clyde. After being holed up for two years in prison, Clyde was determined to avenge himself against his former place of incarceration. So, as soon as he got out in 1932, he embarked on a grand scheme to go back and raid the prison and free as many inmates as possible. He then rounded up a few accomplices–which included a prison buddy, Ralph Fults–to start hitting places for cash, weapons and ammo. However, things took a left turn when he and his crew became wanted for murder in the first of a number of deaths, which included two police officers and a businessman, John N. Bucher.
Everyone had the option to turn themselves in or allow themselves to be captured peacefully at any time, which is exactly what all of Clyde’s accomplices did at some point or the other. However, Clyde decided that he would never be taken alive, knowing full well that he’d be up for the death penalty. What resulted was almost two years of Clyde going on the run, robbing various places for supplies to survive on the road as long as possible without getting ambushed or captured.
Bonnie had joined Clyde for a life of crime for completely self-serving reasons as well. After her husband ended up in prison, she became fascinated with gangsters and the criminal underworld. Not only did she hungrily read crime and detective magazines, she tried learning gangster lingo as much as possible, which resulted in a poem she wrote called “Suicide Sal,” in which she seemed to be using it to practice newly-learned underworld terms like “on the spot” and “moll.”
Also, at the time, Great Depression gangsters like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd were becoming celebrities in the press. Bonnie–who had dreamed of becoming famous–joined Clyde in a misguided attempt to achieve fame. When her plans backfired (she wound up being wanted for murder), she nevertheless was so wrapped up in this narcissistic desire to be remembered by the public that she wrote a poem, The Story of Bonnie and Clyde, in a last-ditch attempt to spin herself and Clyde as a legendary outlaw couple.
Bottom line, Bonnie and Clyde became outlaws to survive on the run from the police, to collect supplies for a prison break, and to achieve fame. That was it. They didn’t care about making a political statement about anything or helping anyone other than themselves. That was a lie.
Speaking of which–
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.