They Committed a Whole Bunch of Grand Theft Auto and Carjackings, Too
If someone made a movie making heroes out of characters from the Grand Theft Auto series, you’d either scowl with contempt or laugh at the absurdity of it all. Yet that is exactly what the 1967 Arthur Penn movie did with Bonnie, Clyde and the rest of the Barrow Gang.
How so? In reality, Clyde was not a slick bank robber but an inveterate car thief and joy rider going back to his days as a juvenile delinquent. Carjacking and grand theft auto were so in his blood that it was these skills that helped him survive on the run for so long. During his and Bonnie’s almost two-year crime spree, the Barrow Gang stole a ridiculous number of cars, sometimes as many as two a week when police were hot on their trail. The theft had nothing to do with wanting to own them; it was a tactic that Clyde and the others used to evade authorities.
Besides evading the police, Clyde also needed to find cars with high speeds and the type of handling that could allow him to turn on a dime if approached by anyone suspicious. So, when one stolen car proved inconvenient, he would try to steal a different one that better suited him. The best car for this was the Ford V8, which he stole regularly, and his love of them was enough to where either he–or someone on behalf of him as a joke–wrote a letter thanking Henry Ford for having produced such a great vehicle.
A cartoon published in a Dallas newspaper, The Dallas Journal, also found Clyde’s carjacking skills funny, as shown in this cartoon. It depicted a sheriff trying to catch the Barrow gang, but less in a game of cat and mouse than Whack-A-Mole.
As cute and as funny as this may have seemed to some people at the time, the car jackings and countless thefts were no laughing matter to the countless victims of the Barrow Gang. Many victims had their cars stolen at gunpoint, and others were carjacked (taken along for the ride before they were dumped off). Some victims, like Doyle Johnson, were gunned down in cold blood. Of course, you would never know this, going by the Arthur Penn movie. You’re left with the impression that grand theft auto were beneath Bonnie and Clyde, because as stylish bank robbers, they were far too classy and sophisticated to commit something as lowbrow as car theft.
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.