The Barrow Gang Also Robbed National Guard Armories
While Bonnie, Clyde and the rest of the Barrow Gang were such amateurs that they mostly hit small businesses, they were successful at something else, which the Arthur Penn movie failed to mention: hitting up National Guard armories.
Why did they hit armories? For one, ever since he was let out on parole in 1932, Clyde Barrow had a mission. Imagining himself as a modern-day Spartacus, he dreamed of going back to his old prison (Eastham Prison Farm) and freeing as many inmates as possible. Naturally, with the prison being so heavily armed and guarded, pistols would be no match for him, so he rounded up a gang to steal a gigantic arsenal of weapons from National Guard armories.
Another reason why the Barrow Gang hit armories was sheer cowardice. When a nationwide manhunt was launched after the deaths of several law enforcement officers, Clyde decided that he would sooner die than allow himself to be captured by police. In anticipation of potential shootouts with LEOs, he realized that the best way to outgun and outmatch the police was to get military-grade weapons designed to pierce armor and make mincemeat out of the opposition.
Clyde and his compatriots were hardly amateurs when it came to guns, either. Clyde, particularly, not only knew his way around them but knew how to upgrade weapons to make them even deadlier. Clyde and the rest of the Barrow Gang were also the ultimate gun fetishists; according to Blanche Barrow, both cars and hideouts were always filled to the brim with guns, and Clyde and Buck would spend much of their free time altering, cleaning or transferring weapons from place to place.
Since the screenwriters of Bonnie and Clyde wanted to laud the two leads as righteous bank robbers who wouldn’t hurt a fly, this part of their crime spree had to be left out. After all, having scenes of Clyde and his friends breaking into armories and stocking up on military weapons specifically so they could easily blast their way past ambushes and cordons–and kill civilians and cops in the process–wouldn’t have flown in a movie going out of its way to reinvent the Barrow Gang as cutesy folk heroes who didn’t have a murderous bone in their bodies.
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.