Commentary Magazine

Clyde and Bonnie Died for Nihilism

Route 154 seems like a road out of a Beckett landscape, a long, hot, flat, dusty strip that runs through a featureless pine forest. It comes from nowhere, it goes nowhere—connecting, on a more-or-less straight shot, Mt. Lebanon and Sailes, in Bienville Parish in Louisiana’s northwestern corner. Not much has changed in 75 years. Someone has asphalted what was once raw earth and now, of course, you may Google up a certain point and view it through the satellite’s eye, sliding through the magnifications from the comfort of your own home. What you see, no matter the height, is a ribbon of road running through a green nothingness. But in that desolate place at 9:10 a.m. on May 23, 1934, something memorable happened.

If the outer-space eye existed then, it would have presented the image of a sleek Cordoba gray Ford V-8, expertly driven, raising a shroud of dust as it roared along at nearly 70 miles an hour in the direction of Sailes. It would observe neutrally as the vehicle slowed as it approached what appeared to be an old farmer’s truck, in some distress, off the side of the road. As its occupants recognized the truck and possibly the owner—accounts differ as to his presence—they halted.

Without blinking, the satellite would chronicle the next development: Six police officers arose from the bushes at roadside, the closest 25 feet from the Ford. All six officers opened fire with a variety of high-powered weapons, including two—or was it three?—powerful Browning Automatic Rifles. One of them, Dallas Deputy Ted Hinton, fired his 20-round BAR clip, grabbed a semi-auto 12-gauge shotgun and emptied it, then snatched his .45 automatic from a shoulder holster and emptied that magazine. Twelve seconds later (or was it 16?) the lawmen had fired over 150 bullets and shells (or was it 168?) into the vehicle and inevitably its occupants.

The car was transformed into a macabre American icon, a stern message to all road desperados of what lay ahead as both John Dillinger and Babyface Nelson would learn in the next few weeks. So spectacular was the carnage of pierced metal, fractured window, and bloodstained upholstery that the vehicle itself went on national tour of carnie grounds and state fairs and even today is displayed in tacky splendor not in a museum but in a Nevada casino.

It was death for Clyde and Bonnie. Their bodies were so mutilated by high-velocity bullets that a coroner in nearby Arcadia didn’t even bother to count the holes. The autopsy pictures are easily accessible on the Internet: two scrawny bodies (“That little pipsqueak was Clyde Barrow?” a viewer asked) literally torn to shreds, frosted with blood, faces pathetically slack, eyes resolved into coin slots. And so Clyde and Bonnie entered history.

Or did they?


The squalid ambush that ended their careers in 1934 disappeared down the collective memory hole in the years that followed. The two diminished into a narrow regional celebrity, if that. I was the little boy who wanted to be a G-man and work for Mr. Hoover and I knew of all the great law enforcement triumphs of the 30s over the Dillingers and the Nelsons and the Capones. I had never heard of Bonnie and Clyde.

That all changed in 1967 when Arthur Penn’s film version came out with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway and created the Bonnie and Clyde most people remember: vibrant, beautiful movie stars with witty ripostes on their lips and grace in their limbs and superbly tailored haberdashery on their shoulders, while bluegrass legends Flatt & Scruggs plucked away brilliantly behind them. Quickly, they commanded the allegiance of Baby Boomers hungry for anti-establishment heroes, killed (virtually crucified) by ruthless officers out of mean-spirited vengeance. It was an easy generational transference for the nascent Boomers to see themselves as so beautiful, so in love, so radical, so entitled to self-expression, so embittered by a failing economic system, so martyred by a crusty older generation that despised them for those attributes exactly.

Bonnie and Clyde pandered to and fed on the vanities of a generation hell-bent on avoiding an inconvenient war and exploring its awesome power in the marketplace. In fact, even now it’s difficult to know whether to regard the two outlaws as figures of the far-off Dust Bowl 30s, or symbols of the more insane 60s. If they’re famous today, it’s certainly because of the Penn film, not because of anything that happened in 1934.

Yet in the light of a current Clyde and Bonnie boomlet that is part of a larger arc that celebrates that outlaw year—the director Michael Mann’s huge-budget, star-driven retelling of the Dillinger story, Public Enemies, arrives this month—one has to wonder about the Penn movie, particularly in the light of two books recently published, Jeff Guinn’s Go Down Together and Paul Schneider’s Bonnie and Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend. It’s a shame the books aren’t better. They nowhere approach the majesty of the best of the 30s outlaw bios, Michael Wallis’s Pretty Boy Floyd. Guinn’s is poorly written and overly detailed and lacks any dimension of poetry or tragedy, much less melancholy. Worst of all, he has no gift for action and his re-creations of the pair’s major gunfights are lame, particularly the whirlwind of full-metal jackets that took them out. Schneider’s suffers from a supreme case of artistic misjudgment. In a poorly conceived attempt to turn his book more novelistic, he employs a second-person point of view when he addresses Clyde, calling the young scrapper “you” throughout.

But taken together they make a point. That point is that the legendary Penn movie that invented the New Bonnie and Clyde was such a ideological crock that it deserves placement in that list of other leftist crocks mistaken by gullible critics and film lovers as somehow great: Beatty’s own Reds, the appalling JFK, and the toxic oeuvre of Michael Moore and his tribe of screwball clones in the documentary field, as well as the recent spate of angry, misguided Iraq war films.

This really is not news; when Bonnie and Clyde was released and soared, following an initial few weeks of failure, the Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko launched a mini-crusade to restore Clyde and Bonnie to their actual dimensions, as vicious murderers, no matter that (as the ad copy said) they were young, they were in love, and they robbed banks. The only thing that mattered about them, Royko said, was that they killed, and killed a lot of people. The critic of the New York Times, Bosley Crowther, then the oldest, whitest guy in New York, also dared to denounce the film; he not only felt the lash of social ostracism and contempt, he may have even lost his job as a consequence.

I thought they were both idiots. I know better now.


Clyde and Bonnie were far more interesting than the moviemakers portrayed them to be. They were far from the sleek beauties embodied by the thirty-year old Beatty and the twenty-eight-year-old Dunaway (who in truth delivers a stunning performance that absolutely sustains the movie). They were essentially homeless: they lived in their car, wandering from town to town in a kind of loose circuit that always placed them close to state lines in the days when police agencies were unable to cross such borders. They robbed banks, once in a while. More frequently they robbed gas stations, broke into warehouses, held up family groceries and the like, each time securing as swag what was basically soda pop money to keep them going a few more days.

They were kids. (A more accurate contemporaneous movie would have starred Judy Garland and Alfalfa; in the late 60s, Cher and Opie.) They were tiny kids. They were brave kids, after a screwy fashion. And they appeared to be genuinely in love. And of course, they were extremely nasty. To stand against them in their infantile greed was to face Clyde’s superb marksmanship with the same type of Browning automatic rifle (his preferred weapon) that ultimately tore his body to shreds at the age of 25.

They were both West Dallas slum rats. She was a dim romantic and self-styled poet who dreamed of appearing on Broadway but had to settle for waitressing, after an early broken marriage (to another career criminal) and non-existent prospects. She was under five feet tall and weighed about 90 pounds. Everyone agrees she had a kind of charisma; she was the live wire, the jazz baby, Betty Boop.

She may never have killed a soul, though one of their gang members claimed she was the best reloader of them all. Both Guinn and Schneider point out that she was hardly even ambulatory: a car crash had burned one of her legs and she could only hop about or be carried by Clyde, who urged her to leave him before it was too late.

That wasn’t the only thing Clyde was right about. He was right about most things, in fact, and possessed a native ferocity and aggression so intense it would have made him a natural leader and hero in the Second World War, another Texas Audie Murphy. If ever a man had been born to lead an infantry squad against the German resistance points across Europe, it was Barrow.

He stood about 5’4”, weighed about 140. He had jug ears and a pleasant, unremarkable face. He liked to dress up in suits and kept his tie tight and his shirt clean no matter how many thousand-mile V-8 odysseys over dusty roads he took. Feral and cunning, he committed to crime early and stayed true to the calling. His life traced and exaggerated another American pattern: born into the rural proletariat, he arrived in West Dallas with his huge, poor, largely illiterate family when the Dust Bowl made living off the land impossible.


What set the pair apart, more than anything, was no genius or vision of their own, or the audacity of their usually petty crimes, but the fact that after narrowly surviving a police raid in Joplin, MO.—Clyde’s shooting and driving skills got them out of that one, as it did so many others—they left behind a Brownie camera full of cute shots of the sorts most young couples take, except that Bonnie and Clyde’s depicted them at play with weapons almost bigger than they were. The images of these frail children with their adult arsenal in the gleeful poses mimicking true banditry were widely reprinted, especially a shocker with Bonnie playing the gun-moll part to the hilt, with a big Colt .45 in her hand and a cheroot dangling provocatively from her dainty lips. She looked like a Kewpie doll from Hell and died wishing people didn’t think she really smoked cigars.

It is of course ridiculous at this late date to run a comparison of the movie and the just-published books and get hung up at the manifold elisions and mendacities of the later. Did you know that most of the men Clyde and his gang killed were police officers? Did you know that their last two killings were Texas highway patrolmen who bumbled upon them and were gunned down for their troubles, an act uncharacteristic of the gang and usually attributed to new member Henry Methvin, who later betrayed them? Did you know that on that last day Clyde never left the car, nor did he and Bonnie exchange an achingly poignant if resigned last lover’s look? His temple was bisected by a .35 Remington soft point on the first shot; the next 166 were largely irrelevant.

But it is worth noting that the movie, entirely gratuitously, gave flesh to a supposition that underlies much of the narcissistic culture that came after and skewed the culture in unhelpful ways. It made a tacit connection between Clyde’s impotence and his nothingness, assuming therefore that he had an inborn right to somethingness. When Bonnie tells his story (the film plays clever tricks with the real Bonnie’s naive folk-poetry) and newspapers publish “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde,” his sudden arrival at somethingness charges him sexually, completes his life. It reminds me of those screwball buttons an odd New York psychiatric cult used to send out, protesting the New York Times’s refusal to acknowledge them, insisting on “Aesthetic Realism’s Right to Be Known.” I suppose that underlies the 60s and the Boomers who ran it: that feeling of an innate right to be known. And of course it’s all utter fantasy, or at least, as both Guinn and Schneider point out, there’s not a single shred of evidence to sustain the impotence angle. But we loved it in 67, when we had just discovered the cocoon of our own profound specialness.

By far the movie’s gravest insult to posterity, however, is its treatment of the Texas Ranger captain, Frank Hamer, who may (or may not) have been instrumental in bringing them down. As seen in the movie, Hamer (played by Denver Pyle in an uncharacteristically dour performance) is a kind of harsh Puritan ideologue, so righteous that when Bonnie (whom Dunaway has made us love) flirtatiously poses for a funny snapshot with him, he spits savagely in her face. He considers her so morally tainted that he is sickened by her. Then later, like a serpent in a garden, he coos and caresses the blind Blanche (Estelle Parsons in a great, Oscar-winning performance), gulling her into giving up a vital clue that leads to his ambush murder by Thompson submachine gun.


In fact, Hamer was almost a prototype of the kind of man the Boomer generation would be taught to distrust, both in life and in fiction. Almost insanely brave and almost unbelievably tough, he was Texas’s most famous man hunter. He wouldn’t sell his life story to the movies; he was too dignified, too suspicious of the alien (even then) West Coast culture and of “dramatic license.” But if he had, John Wayne would have played him, with all 50 of his shoot-outs accounted for, as well as his numerous wounds.

The Duke would have been portrayed standing up against lynch mobs murderously incensed by African-Americans (Schneider re-creates this scene), uncovering murderous bounty-hunter schemes. And Wayne would have yelled out fair warning to the pair, as both he and another posse member, the selfsame Ted Hinton, claimed occurred in their written accounts of the incident. And the Duke would have replicated Hamer’s odd body posture so evident in the photographs, his almost contemptuous slouch, off center always and listing one way or the other as he refuses to look at the lens, sucking on an always-present tailor-made cigarette.

That movie, however, certainly could not have been made in 1967 and it certainly can’t be made in 2009: Hamer is too straight, too commanding, too uncompromising for such a treatment. The irony is that Hamer is forgotten while Clyde and Bonnie live on. Hamer stood for something: the idea of right and the guts to make it stick. Clyde and Bonnie stood for nothing, except perhaps infantile nihilism, unformed, incoherent, vicious. If they were ambushed without warning, it’s because each had weapons at hand, and so they wouldn’t widow and orphan other police families. If they were shot to pieces, it’s because the old-time law enforcement guys knew you shot them, and then you shot them some more.

Hamer stands for your grandfather’s authority, annoyance at fools, and the willingness to kill in the belief that he was saving the weak by eliminating their predator. He was a righteous killer, a dinosaur whose time has passed. He’s what Barack Obama swears he’ll change about America.

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