Gilbert: Bonnie and Clyde at 75

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(HOST) This week marks an historic anniversary, that reminds commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert of a film, in which myth, reality, early feminism and irony collide – big time.

(GILBERT) At the height of the Great Depression, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, both Texans in their early twenties, went on a two-year crime spree across a five-state area. Although Bonnie and Clyde were – and still are – notorious for robbing banks, they actually robbed mostly gas stations and small grocery stores.

They weren’t even that good at it.  In total they stole a paltry $2,000. In the process, they killed nine policemen and six other people. The public was fascinated by their ability to elude the police for so long, their fast-car get-aways, and their brazen self-promotion: Bonnie sent poems and photographs of themselves to the newspapers, which were happy to publish them. It all ended, as they knew it would, in a hail of bullets seventy-five years ago this coming Saturday, when they were ambushed by the police on a quiet road in rural Louisiana.

People today probably know Bonnie and Clyde mostly (for better or for worse) from the 1967 movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.  The film’s director Arthur Penn defended its many historical inaccuracies, arguing that he wasn’t out to make a documentary, but rather to focus on "the mythic aspects of their lives." The film turned conventional morality on its head, making the outlaws into heroes – outsiders who fought the system. The movie doesn’t let facts get in the way of a good story. Bonnie and Clyde are portrayed as populists, modern-day Robin Hoods who shot up banks, which in the Great Depression, were the most loathed institutions in the country because they foreclosed on farms and homes and because bank failures left millions penniless. This ‘sixties film seems to suggest that they may have killed bankers and policemen, but never "innocent bystanders." In fact, the real Bonnie and Clyde were hardly likeable people. The benevolence they occasionally display in the movie was borrowed  from John Dillinger’s life, the infamous bank robber and Public Enemy Number One. Dillinger reputedly claimed that the pair gave bank robbers a bad name.

If the film wasn’t a documentary, it was a strong statement about the violent ’60s  – Vietnam, President Kennedy’s assassination, American cities in flames; it was about America’s passion for guns, the desire to escape the mundane workaday world for an out-of-control life of excitement (think Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix). It was about the eroticism of fame – even, for Clyde, fleeting infamy. And it was about the anti-establishment youth movement, and what was then called "women’s liberation." (It’s a short leap from "Bonnie and Clyde" to "Thelma and Louise".)

But in the end, even this film seems to blame the woman: it’s Bonnie’s challenging Clyde’s masculinity that spurs him on in his life of crime. And as they’re driving unknowingly toward the police ambush and their deaths, Bonnie takes a big bite out of a piece of fruit and hands it to Clyde for him to eat as well. Even in this film, it’s Eve who’s blamed for causing her man to fall.

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