Arts Arts & Books

The men who stopped Bonnie and Clyde

They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people.” That was the famous tag-line for Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), as unforgettable now as it was then. The film was about Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker who, as an FBI website reports, killed 13 people in a “crime spree” that lasted 18 months and captured the imagination of a public hungry for the exploits of various “Robin Hoods” as they robbed the “greedy” banks.

There’s no denying that “young and in love” plays well, perhaps especially for gangsters. Fifty-two years ago Penn wisely cast two glamorous leads, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, and showed them, at least part of the time, loving and laughing their way from one murder to the next, each death filmed with an unromantic realism that was unprecedented at the time and can still make viewers wince.

To what point? “It’s about us,” Roger Ebert wrote on its release, “showing with sadness, humour and unforgiving detail what one society had come to.” To him and eventually other critics, it was crystal clear that “one society” meant American 1967 far more than 1934. It was an amoral country in which the cops “killed people” as violently as the robbers; one where, necessarily, the good and the bad were hopelessly blurred. It didn’t occur to many to reflect that America’s once optimistic march into the golden future had come to a grinding halt because the country had endorsed a secular dream, pinning its hopes either on the liberal state (“If we won World War II, we can abolish poverty!”) or the counter-culture (“Make love, not war!”). In the absence of a reigning Christian ethos, being young, in love and killing or robbing people was the effect of godless causes.

The Highwaymen, now on Netflix, tells the criminals’ story from a different angle. Young and in love? Not really. We don’t see Bonnie and Clyde’s faces until seconds before their deaths. Who are they? As Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner, right in the picture), one of the Texas Rangers in on the kill, tells one of the notorious duo’s high-school friends, the people they knew then have become “animals”. And very little in The Highwaymen leads one to conclude otherwise: Bonnie Parker’s laugh as she kills a wounded patrolman says it all.

Yet, unlike in the 1967 film, Hamer, accompanied by his sidekick Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson, left in the picture), does give the couple warning before the shooting begins, a gesture that says, all in all, that decency even with human “animals” is still necessary.
That may not be “who we are”, but it’s much closer than Penn’s more celebrated film ever got to showing us who we might be.

Dr Carl C Curtis III is a contributing editor at The Christian Review and professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia