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Exposing the Lies of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

The Barrow Gang Barely Robbed Banks–and Robbed a Whole Lot of Mom and Pops Instead

The most famous line in Arthur Penn’s movie is, “We rob banks.” This led audiences to believe that Bonnie and Clyde not only were slick and professional bank robbers, but that bank robbing was all that they did, and with a clear-eyed sense of purpose–to punish banks for their greed, but also to live large on nice things.

Bonnie and Clyde--We Rob Banks

Bonnie and Clyde–We Rob Banks

This idea–that Bonnie and Clyde–were dedicated bank robbers who dared to take on the banking industry is one of the biggest lies of the Arthur Penn film. Bonnie, Clyde and their accomplices were a couple of rank amateurs who just wanted to live day to day on the road as they were fleeing cops, after they were wanted for murder. They wanted, in other words, “easy money.” So, they had no interest in the type of major scores that would have them hitting banks. All they cared about was having enough food and supplies to live on for weeks at a time. Besides, hitting banks would’ve immediately alerted police to their whereabouts, anyway.

Because all the Barrow Gang wanted was spare cash–and because they didn’t want to draw too much attention to themselves while they were on the run–their targets of choice were actually the “small fry” of the finance and business world, not the banking industry. These places–incidentally–included the very mom and pop stores that Clyde Barrow’s father, Henry Barrow, ran–grocery stores, gas stations and drug stores.

Barrow Gas Station

The gas station owned and run by Clyde Barrow’s father, Henry Barrow. Contrary to the 1967 Arthur Penn film, it was these types of businesses that the Barrow Gang hit the most for “easy money.”

That Bonnie and Clyde only cared about stealing the barest minimum from mom and pops and small businesses became such a bone of contention that one of their accomplices–Ray Hamilton–bailed in a huff. John Dillinger, the most famous gangster of the 1930s, openly mocked Bonnie and Clyde, feeling that such amateurs were making a mockery of what bank robbing was all about!

So, were the Barrow Gang a slick outfit that dared to take on the biggest financial institution in the country on behalf of the little people? Of course not. If anything, Bonnie and Clyde robbed the very “little people” who did what they could to support themselves and their families during The Great Depression.


  1. Scott Lueck

    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…

    • Comment by post author

      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.

  2. Scott Lueck

    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.

    • Comment by post author

      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.

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