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Hollywood’s History: Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Director: Arthur Penn

Cast: Warren Beatty; Faye Dunaway


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Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow were American outlaws and robbers from the Dallas area who travelled the central American states with their gang during the Great Depression, robbing banks, grocery stores and rural gas stations. They left behind them a dozen or so murders in their wake as they fled from the authorities. Media hype surrounded their exploits at a time of the ‘public enemy era’ of 1931 and 1934.

The 1967 film itself is a somewhat romanticized account of the pair, and strictly speaking wasn’t intended to be viewed as a historical film. The film is heavily influenced by the issues surrounding the 1960s, for example women’s liberation and youth revolt, and as a result takes quite a few artistic liberties with the history.

In the film it is unclear who is leading whom astray. The opening scene of a half-naked Faye Dunaway, laying on the bed with the camera looking through the railings of the bed, suggests Bonnie’s discontent with her life. Until she meets Clyde who she stops as he attempts to steal her mother’s car. She is instantly attracted by him and is further intrigued rather than scared when he reveals his armed robbery past. Stroking his gun in an obviously sexual moment, she taunts him – “You wouldn’t have the gumption to use it”. With that simple taunt Clyde embarks on a life of crime again.

Clyde uses mental persuasion rather than sexual ploys to keep Bonnie with him, and finds it easy to control her, for example telling her fairly brusquely to get rid of the spit-curl on her cheek, which she does without question. He has seemed to instil his authority over her.

However, to a 1960s audience wrapped up in the Women’s Movement era, this would not be fully acceptable. With not having a conventional sexual relationship Bonnie is unable to bend Clyde to her will through sex, so instead she seems to hit upon his masculinity – or lack of – and subtly challenges him to embark upon increasingly deadly crimes. In one final scene when the couple are driving unknowingly to their deaths, Bonnie reaches to the back seat and brings a pear which after biting into she hands it to Clyde to take a bite. Clearly, according to Nancy F. Cott, this Eve has led Adam astray.

Apart from the film being a more romantic version of the history, several other mistakes or omissions are made. The fact that Clyde is extremely close to his mother and sister is not only mentioned, these characters are simply left out. The taunting of Frank Hamer did not happen. While he was involved in their case, he was never personally humiliated by them. The purpose for this change? Probably for Bonnie to assert her place as a liberated woman, free to taunt even figures of authority, including openly kissing him on the lips: not doubt a popular symbol for 1960s America, which included women claiming their own right to free sexual and political expression.

Another element in the film that was tweaked was Bonnie and Clyde’s apparent Robin Hood nature and the sympathy with the dispossessed. In reality they showed little remorse and little sympathy, and Clyde was careless and remorseless in his killings. In fact, it was ‘Public Enemy Number One’ John Dillinger who conducted mainly high-class heists and tried to avoid killing.

As a historical movie it doesn’t quite wash, there’s simply too many 1960s influences in a film set in the 1930s, including Bonnie’s make-up. But as a film, it is clear to see how it influenced directors today, including the likes of Quentin Tarantino, whose works, like Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, have been heavily criticised for the use of violence and graphic brutality. Penn defended his work saying that eliminating the violence would be ‘like eliminating one of the primary colors from the palette of the painters.’ And I agree without the violence the film would be too ‘cute’. And furthermore, as a film, representing the changes going on in the western world in the 1960s, especially for women and with the increasing use of the public political voice against the likes of things like the Vietnam War, it is a brilliantly made, ground-breaking film.

With thanks to Bonnie and Clyde; Nancy F. Cott in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies; edited by Mark C. Carnes, for valuable insights.

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