Friday, 20 May 2016

Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" – Trojan Horse

Bonnie and Clyde is an interesting film because it appears to be a semi-fictionalized account of American bandits Bonnie and Clyde and yet contains almost nothing that actually happened to the real-life crims.


Now I’m not one of these idiots who gets upset when some detail is changed from a historical account.  Once you write a screenplay you are in a world of fiction and besides, who can justifiably claim to be able to walk in the shoes of people from the past?  One, we can never know all the facts and two, the facts are unavoidably distorted through the prism of our modern lives.

Still, if you manipulate the narrative shape of a real-life story, you’d better make sure you do a better job artistically than the actual events.  Real life has a habit of providing messier but more satisfying cause and effect in narrative arcs than fictionalized screenplays, which can seem contrived in comparison.

But there’s more going on with this film.  When you name a film after two historical characters and when you have the two leads dominating the film to the extent that they do in Bonnie and Clyde, you might be entitled to think that there was at least a semblance of real events being shown, even if they are heavily fictionalized.  But beyond the idea that a couple go on the run robbing banks, write some bad poetry, and end up shot to pieces in an ambush, there is nothing historical here whatsoever.

The folksy stories of them acting all Robin Hood in hold-ups, the characteristics of Blanche, Clyde’s impotence, the character of C.W. Moss… in short, everything… is made-up or taken from other historical characters.

Why does it matter?  Well, the film spends a lot of time making the audience root for Bonnie and Clyde.  Blanche’s unhistorical screaming and pathetic behaviour are there to make Bonnie look cool.  Clyde’s journey from impotent gutter hogger to bowling a perfect strike in the sack would be a touching piece of emotional development if it wasn’t between two psychotic killers. And there are plenty of scenes designed to show the banks that B&C rob as heartless corporations taking houses away from hardworking Americans.

True, the wider impact of B&C’s actions is shown.  We see the heavily bruised face of a guard that Clyde has hit with his pistol.  We see another policeman shot in the face as the robbers try to get away.  There is a rather wonderful performance from Mabel Cavitt as Bonnie's mother, ignoring Clyde's attempts to charm her.  And Bonnie’s poetry is given plenty of airtime to dig its own grave.  These points are there but the overwhelming impression generated by the film is that the banks somehow deserve to be robbed, and that poverty has been a justifiable driver behind Clyde’s actions in particular.

When you combine this with the charismatic performances put in by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as Bonnie and Clyde, which again have the effect of making the audience root for the couple, the whole thing seems to add up to a slickly produced piece of propaganda for whatever social messages Beatty as the producer wanted to get across: a Trojan horse with the shell of a true story concealing a political payload.

Personal Score: 7/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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