My favorite class to teach is a course on Film and Twentieth Century America. I patterned it after the one I had taken with one of my mentors at Loyola University Chicago, Lewis Erenberg. In his version, we watched Bonnie and Clyde (1967). When it came time for me to offer it, I decided not to include it. I understood what he was going for by showing it, but as I was giving it to undergraduates, I felt I needed a different direction. Though the film is about the famous bank robbers who operated during the early 1930s, it speaks more to the culture of the 1960s than the Great Depression. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. Historically based movies may say that they want to capture the essence of whatever era they are depicting. Their directors, though, often did not live through those times, so their productions reveal more about their own sensibilities than giving an accurate rendering of a bygone era. You can take your pick of a period piece, and while some are better with the historical material than others, I could also tell you how they relate more to modern times. As for today’s offering, you basically have Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) forming a hippie commune centered on crime. That may not sound like it makes sense on the surface, but then again, this was the 1960s.
Bonnie and Clyde starts with a nude Bonnie lounging around in her room, bored. What catches her attention is a nattily attired Clyde outside attempting to steal her mother’s car. Immediately, she can tell there is something different about this man, and decides to go along with him. They head further into town, and Clyde begins recounting his criminal past, including stints in prison. Bonnie initially does not believe him, and essentially dares him to pull off an armed robbery when she sees the pistol tucked into his pants. He then promptly enters the nearest store, and on the heels of a few shouts, emerges with a wad of cash and a grin on his face. They then take off out of town and into a legendary crime spree. As they speed away, Bonnie is all over him, but Clyde throws her off saying that he is not like that: a fast guy looking for a cheap thrill. Still, they take refuge in a nearby abandoned farm house. Soon after awakening the next morning, and Bonnie receiving a few shooting lessons, they are visited by the former owners of the homestead. They tell the pair that it had been the bank that had taken the land from them. This sets Clyde’s resolve to start robbing banks, which earns them the respect of the common folk of Great Depression era Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas where they focus their activities. They are also joined by others. The first is a gas station attendant, C. W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), a young man who is impressed by the pair’s bravado. The next to come aboard is Clyde’s brother Buck Barrow (Gene Hackman), and his bride Blanche (Estelle Parsons). In fact, Bonnie and Clyde are on hand for the newlyweds entering their first home. Blanche, however, is not thrilled to be having the outlaws take up residence. Further, Blanche and Bonnie do not get along. Because of Clyde’s devotion to Buck, Clyde is consistently smoothing over the arguments that erupt between the two. It becomes too much for Blanche, and when the police track the gang down to the location, she nearly gives away their position. Instead, they shoot their way out and escape. Now, it is the five of them going around knocking over banks. Eventually, though, Bonnie decides that she wants to go home and visit her mother, which Clyde agrees to do. They have a picnic with the Parker family that is guarded by armed locals, but Bonnie’s mother (Mabel Cavitt) tells them that they are going to have to be on the run for the rest of their lives. This is not to Blanche’s liking for soon thereafter she alerts the authorities to their next hideout. Again, the gang must fight their way to freedom, but this time Buck is killed and Blanche is wounded. Bonnie, Clyde, and C. W. take refuge at the home of C. W.’s father Ivan (Dub Taylor). Initially, Ivan feigns excitement at providing a haven for the famous pair. In private with C. W., Ivan expresses anger, seeing his son as being led astray by Bonnie and Clyde. Once they recuperate from their own wounds, Bonnie and Clyde begin to look forward to resuming their spree. What prevents them is Ivan’s betrayal. Ivan meets Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle) and works out a deal for clemency for C. W. in exchange for giving up Bonnie and Clyde. Thus, on their way back from picking up groceries, Ivan helps set up an ambush for the two by pretending to need assistance on the side of the road back to his house. When Bonnie and Clyde stop to help, they are brutally gunned down by Hamer and his posse, and that is when the film ends.
Bonnie and Clyde romanticizes, to a degree, the famous outlaws. That is another way of saying that they take historical license. The rough parameters of everything is true enough, but there is much that is made up for the film. C. W., for example, is an amalgamation of a few figures. Clyde is also portrayed as being impotent and potentially homosexual, which does not also seem to fit with the facts. Again, this is a movie more of the 1960s than being faithful to the source material. However, as I mentioned, the big things are true. It also makes for an interesting angle for my Catholic perspective. The real and Bonnie and Clyde were hailed as heroes. They targeted an institution, in this case banks, that were seen as having destroyed the livelihoods of so many poor folks at that time. They also killed many people in the process. Faith would tell you that getting even in this matter is not the best response. The poor are always with God, and this is a big reason why we as a society have a moral duty to help as we are able. In Matthew, Jesus puts himself in the place of such people, telling His disciples that caring for them is akin to caring for their Savior. You can infer from other parts of the Bible that this does not mean taking a gun and robbing banks to fulfill this veritable commandment. Nor should we react to this kind of behavior as did Hamer. The film does not speak to their thinking in this regard, but you can watch The Highwaymen (2019) to get a sense of their side of this story. Bonnie and Clyde is light on the murders the two committed, and this is why Hamer decides to summarily kill them instead of taking them into custody. So much for the Christian ideal of respecting life and rehabilitating those who have gone astray. As such, there are no heroes in this film.
There are some beautiful shots in Bonnie and Clyde. It is for this reason that it won an Academy Award for best cinematography in 1968. If this sort of thing interests you, then I guess that would be a reason to watch it. Yet, part of the reason why I have this blog is to explain how a lot of times, this is not enough of a reason to watch a movie. It is irreverent and violent, and the nudity at the beginning, while tame by today’s standards, is unnecessary. I do not think it celebrates the famous criminals, and I suppose the message in the end is that crime is without reward. I could just do without some of the material in it.