Monday , June 17 2024

Bonnie & Clyde: The movie that made moral stupidity ‘cool’

Fifty years ago, the movie that changed the movies premiered. Anybody old enough to remember films before “Bonnie and Clyde” can testify to the jolting power of Arthur Penn’s kinetic blend of bluegrass slapstick, Depression-era nostalgia, and gruesome, stylised violence. But something else was revealed then, something that I, just 14 at the time, was too callow and ignorant to notice behind the movie’s aesthetic sheen—the moral idiocy that has since come to define so much of contemporary popular culture.

“Bonnie and Clyde” staked a claim to a moral seriousness that supposedly validated the stylistic innovations and elevated the film beyond mere flashy entertainment. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, played with fashion-magazine glamour by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, are “just folks,” as Dunaway says in the movie, salt-of-the-earth Americans driven to crime by the machinations of the evil banks they rob for some justified payback, Texan Robin Hoods admired by the common-man victims of American capitalism. Yet “the Man,” embodied in the sadistic Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, wouldn’t let them be, hunting them down and slaughtering them in the film’s famous bloody climax, just after Bonnie and Clyde had finally found the soft-focus sexual fulfillment long a cliché of Hollywood romantic sentiment.

“Social Bandits” on Screen

The Marxist folk-tale underlying the movie’s otherwise conventional star-crossed-lovers plot was obvious, and as such the cinematic innovations accounted for the film’s popularity with many critics (TheNew York Times’s Bosley Crowther was a noble exception). The movie was, in fact, a popularised version of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s 1959 “social bandit” thesis, a bit of communist agitprop arguing that robbers and thieves were really expressions of the “people’s” legitimate resistance to unjust economic and political structures. This notion helped to glorify and justify the violence against authority that exploded in the 1960s, from the bombing of college labs to the depredations of the Black Panthers, the Oakland street gang that was shrewd enough to exploit the delusions of privileged white kids in order to provide cover for the gang’s crimes.

The corollary to the “social bandit” idea was that those responsible for maintaining social order—particularly the police—were, in reality, the goons of an oppressive establishment, and as such legitimate targets of retributive violence. The “pigs” were now the enemy, at best oafish dupes of “the Man,” at worst sadistic crypto-fascists who delighted in inflicting pain on the “people”.

This demonising of legitimate authority is obvious in “Bonnie and Clyde,” where all the police are depicted as anonymous shock troops of capitalist oppression, genetically deprived hillbilly racists spraying bullets with moronic glee, as in the scene showing the capture of Clyde’s brother Buck. Frank Hamer is particularly creepy, obviously sexually oppressed and filled with vengeful rage over the gang’s playful kidnapping of him (which never actually happened). His sadistic nature is obvious in the film’s slow-motion climax, when he engineers the couple’s death with a fusillade of excessive force, repeatedly raking the bodies with machine-gun fire.

The Real Bonnie and Clyde

And here we come upon the monstrous lie at the heart of the film. The historical Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were not beautiful Robin Hoods but psychopathic killers—Clyde had jug-ears and a weak chin, Bonnie had a mean mouth and ferret eyes. Their sexual proclivities, which perhaps included their younger male accomplices, were sordid, not romantic.

And their violence was usually an unprovoked sadistic indulgence, like their killing of two highway patrol officers on Easter Sunday in 1934. Their 12 victims were mostly police officers who, in accord with the laws Barrow and Parker scorned, announced themselves as such before they were gunned down in cold blood. Nor did the gang rob that many banks, their targets just as often being small mom-and-pop stores. As for distributing the money to the “people”—those scenes in the film were actually based on anecdotes about John Dillinger—there is no evidence that these predators ever gave a dime to the victims of the Depression, some of whom the pair robbed.

So, too, with the movie’s despicable portrayal of Frank Hamer, the Texas lawman who doggedly tracked the two and put an end to their murderous career. Hamer’s methods do not meet our modern standards of police work founded on solicitude for criminals and a fetishizing of process. He lived in a tougher world where such luxuries were fatal. In fact, the reason he and his fellow lawmen killed Bonnie and Clyde the way they did was because of Clyde’s long record of resisting arrest and shooting down police officers on sight. In life, Hamer, who once single-handedly faced down a lynch mob trying to murder a black man in his custody, was one of those grim, unpleasant men whose bravery makes it possible for spoiled plutocrats like Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn to make “mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep.”

This distortion of historical truth has come to dominate popular culture, which has made the leftist libretto its default narrative, one immune to the repeated demonstrations of its falseness and bloody failure. Warren Beatty’s “Reds,” a ludicrous valentine to John Reed, one of Lenin’s most useful of useful idiots, used the same technique of papering over historical lies with cinematic glamour and wide-screen flair. Just about every war movie made is pretty much a lie, depicting brave soldiers as psychopathic killers, pathetic idealists, or drug-addled victims drafted into an unjust war to serve the capitalist Evil Empire. In fact, if I ever needed 10 good men, I’d take any 10 veterans picked at random over any 10 university professors or reporters or movie directors.

Fashion vs. Truth

Just as bad, “Bonnie and Clyde” also enshrined the wrapping of this Orwellian reversal of historical truth in the glamour of style—the essence of what Tom Wolfe called “radical chic.” Truth doesn’t matter, as long as you’re in fashion. Politics isn’t about coherent principle and the possible, it’s about stylistic display, sensibility, and politically correct sentiment, a way for the privileged to show how much better they are than everybody else. Worse, this attitude has legitimised a complete disconnect between word and deed, between what one says and how one lives. Privilege and power can now be enjoyed and indulged, as long as one mouths the proper progressive pieties: conspicuous consumption is OK if one agonizes over income inequality, and King Kong-sized carbon footprints accepted if one rails against global warming.

In short, “Bonnie and Clyde” is a milestone in the transformation of culture from one that reflects the mentality of adults, to one that enshrines the mentality of teenagers; one that celebrated moral intelligence to one that revels in moral idiocy. Unfortunately, an adolescent disregard for reality and an obsession with fashion and feeling are dangerous indulgences in a world filled with ruthless enemies who see our cultural immaturity as the sign of our moral exhaustion and deserved extinction.

This article was originally published at:

About Bruce Thornton

Check Also

The War on the Moon

There was a time when the HG Wells story ‘War of the Worlds’, made into …

One comment

  1. Having just seen the film, I take issue with this article.

    First, there’s no evidence Hobsbawm’s book influenced anyone working on the movie. There are plenty of instances within America of criminals being admired and mythologized, such as (to give just one pre-Depression example) Lee Shelton. But then again, quite a few reactionaries in the 1950s were damning Robin Hood as “communist agitprop” as well.

    Second, I don’t see what bombing college labs to protest their role in the Vietnam War has to do with Depression-era outlaws robbing and killing to enrich themselves. As for the Black Panthers, if you had suggested to Huey Newton or Eldridge Cleaver that they or their white admirers were influenced by Warren Beatty (rather than, say, Frantz Fanon, Robert F. Williams, Mao, the Vietcong…), they’d probably start laughing really hard.

    Third, the notion that the film depicts police “as anonymous shock troops of capitalist oppression, genetically deprived hillbilly racists spraying bullets with moronic glee” is nonsense, first because the main cast aren’t exactly portrayed as Yankee valedictorians themselves, and second because such depiction of the police simply does not exist in the film. At no point is the relationship between the police and capitalism (or anything other than apprehending or killing criminals) established. The police really *did* spray bullets, for the simple reason that Clyde was a very dangerous man skilled with multiple kinds of weapons.

    Fourth, one of the points the film makes is how Bonnie & Clyde turned into subjects of fascination in the minds of ordinary people, helped by the media and police who in their own ways sensationalized them. The protagonists being “beautiful” is par the course for Hollywood and does at least remain consistent with the theme of society glamorizing and mythologizing outlaws. Again, the parts about “distributing the money to the ‘people'” are similarly part of the theme of mythologization. I doubt many popularly-praised outlaws gave much thought to ordinary people either, except perhaps to justify their own outlawry.

    Fifth, it’s one thing to take issue with how Frank Hamer fared in the hands of Hollywood screenwriters, but an article accusing the film of “moral stupidity” only to grumble about how modern police are bound by “solicitude for criminals and a fetishizing of process” chops off more of its toes than Clyde did his.

    Sixth, Lenin never used the phrase “useful idiot” and the term doesn’t even apply to someone like John Reed, an avowed Communist. Unless, of course, the article’s author would like to claim Lenin didn’t actually care about the international communist movement which he revived in 1919, with Reed serving as one of the functionaries of the Communist International and founders of the communist party in the United States.

    Seventh, Warren Beatty has never claimed to be a revolutionary. He’s a liberal who served as a pallbearer for John McCain’s funeral. Complaining about “radical chic” and style over coherence is one thing, but not when the same article (falsely) claims a film popularizes a thesis by one of the most famous Marxist historians of the 20th century.

    Eighth, the article concludes by referencing “ruthless enemies” who see the United States as experiencing “moral exhaustion and deserved extinction” thanks to films like Bonnie & Clyde. Personally I’d wager they’d consider conservative endeavors like Rambo II or An American Carol more reflective of a culture that is morally and intellectually unfit to survive, but it’s nice to know the author would find much to concur with noted anti-communist Osama bin Laden about the decadence of Warren Beatty flicks.