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Why We Keep the Legend of Bonnie and Clyde Alive
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Larry Fessenden and Lisa Bowman in 'River of Grass'

There must be a reason we keep remaking the story of Bonnie and Clyde, right? The couple on a crime spree long ago passed from historical fact—early twentieth century American criminals who robbed and killed people during the Depression—and into myth. They loom so large they’re now a narrative archetype, like Sisyphus, or Romeo and Juliet.

The real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow died on May 23, 1934, ambushed by law enforcement after four years on the run. Parker was 23; Barrow was 25. The historical details of their story take place during the “Public Enemy Era” (1931-1935), when criminals like John Dillinger and “Pretty Boy” Floyd captured the imaginations of Americans and became celebrities and, in some cases, folk heroes. Songs were sung. Legends were born.

'Bonnie and Clyde'

'Bonnie and Clyde'

But the legend of Bonnie and Clyde transcends them all. Something about the story, the trope with the couple on a murderous, exhilarating run, has beckoned to a murderer’s row of filmmakers and storytellers, inviting them to put their own spin on it and re-read the story for their own time. Musicians have told and retold the story, too, from folk ballads and country songs to a line of songs from Tupac, Eminem, and Jay-Z.

And like all good legends, the retellings interlock with one another.

In 1967, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway starred in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, widely considered a watershed moment in American film history, significant and influential for its use of sex and violence. Its protagonists are seductive and exciting, anti-heroes to the last. Young people loved it and claimed it as a rallying cry for the counterculture, even as it seemed less than convinced that individuals can really exercise freedom against the constraints of society.

'Badlands'

'Badlands'

Penn's protégé, Terrence Malick, turned to the trope for his first film, Badlands, in 1973, which stars Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. He was inspired by a different criminal pair: Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, whose two-month spree in 1957 and 1958 resulted in eleven bloody deaths in the midwest. But while the details of Starkweather and Fugate’s spree are different, the arc remains the same: young lovers in the middle of the country on a bloody road trip that can only really have one ending. Where Penn’s film is operatic and alluring, Malick’s is stark and cruel. It was a sensation. In the credits, Malick thanks Penn.

'Thieves Like Us'

'Thieves Like Us'

In 1974, Robert Altman took a crack at the archetype, casting Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall in a story based on Edward Anderson's novel by the same name. (Nicholas Ray made a film based on the novel as well, the 1949 They Live By Night, which is often considered a forerunner to Bonnie & Clyde.) In a typical Altman take, Thieves Like Us meanders across its Southern backdrop, lending a deep sense of lethargy and longing to the trope. “Bonnie and Clyde were anti-heroes, but this gang of Altman’s has no heroism at all,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. “Just a kind of plodding simplicity, punctuated by some of them with violence, and by the boy with a kind of wondering love.”

'Thelma and Louise'

'Thelma and Louise'

Ridley Scott shot his own version in 1991, in a film based on a script by Callie Khouri (who, interestingly, created the TV show Nashville). Thelma & Louise isn’t as obvious about its Bonnie and Clyde inspirations, but the references are still there. Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) aren’t lovers: they’re friends, but the men in their lives seem either impotent or evil, they’re prompted into a crime spree—and all they have is each other. It’s an archly, buoyantly feminist take, in which social restraints seem to give them no choice but to break bad. (So to speak.)

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Why We Keep the Legend of Bonnie and Clyde Alive