Bonnie and Clyde Film (1967) versus the historical facts


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This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of the release of the feature film Bonnie and Clyde.  It was directed by Arthur Penn (1922-2010), who also directed around two dozen other films including The Missouri Breaks, Night Moves, Little Big Man, Alice’s Restaurant and The Miracle Worker.  Penn had received his start in the early days of television, having been involved with productions in series including The Gulf Playhouse, Goodyear Playhouse, Playhouse 90 and others.

Penn received Academy Award nominations for Best Director for three of his films: The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant.  Eight actors in his films have received Academy Award nominations: Patty Duke, Anne Bancroft, Estelle Parsons, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard and Chief Dan George with Duke, Bancroft and Parsons taking home the Oscar. Bonnie and Clyde was nominated for several Oscars and received two awards: Best Supporting Actress (Estelle Parsons) and Best Cinematography (Burnett Duffey).

This film starred Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow, Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker, Michael J. Pollard as the fictional character C. W. Moss, Gene Hackman as Clyde’s brother Buck, Estelle Parsons as Buck’s wife Blanche, Denver Pyle as lawman Frank Hamer and a number of other actors including Dub Taylor, Gene Wilder and Francis Fisher.

The comments that follow are not intended to criticize the film, but just to look at how the account presented in the film compares with the known historical record.  The lives of these two individuals are likely better documented than many other outlaws simply because they were popular figures then and remain so.  A good factual source is Jeff Guinn’s excellent book Go Down Together.  In it, he devotes several pages to the topic of historical accuracy of this film and others.  Another is The Bonnie and Clyde Handbook by Jacqueline Leonard.

Guinn notes that the title itself places Bonnie’s name before Clyde’s whereas at the time, Clyde was depicted as the head of the gang.  In newspaper articles of the day, he received most of the focus.  The fictional character C. W. Moss appears to be a blend of gang members Henry Methvin and W. D. Jones, who are not named characters in the film.  Lawman Frank Hamer is portrayed in the movie as being somewhat of a bungler, dressed as a Texas Ranger, and is shown as having been captured by the gang.  In the screenplay, Beatty and Dunaway pose with the captured Hamer in a snapshot that later appears in print.  After a fight between Hamer and Clyde, they tie Hamer up and set him adrift in a fishing boat.  In all, it is a somewhat comedic scene.  In reality, several lawmen were actually killed or kidnapped by the gang, but Hamer was not among them.  Hamer was a well known lawman, a former Texas Ranger having just retired in 1932 with the election of Miriam “Ma” Ferguson as Texas governor, and had been asked to come out of retirement by the Texas prison system in order to apprehend the gang.  Hamer had never met the pair before the ambush in Louisiana when the duo was killed.  The latter point was one of the reasons that Dallas County deputy sheriff Bob Alcorn was asked to accompany Hamer and his associates to the Louisiana ambush location, since Deputy Alcorn knew the duo by sight.

In the film, Bonnie first met Clyde when he tried to steal her mother’s car, whereas the two actually met at a small gathering at the home of a mutual West Dallas friend.  In the  dialogue Clyde says that Bonnie was born in East Texas, although she was actually born in Rowena, south of Abilene, in West Texas.  Late in the film, Bonnie is seemingly unaffected, and not at all crippled or impaired as she was in reality, from injuries from the Wellington, Texas car crash, from which she never recovered.

Guinn notes in his book that there were several suits filed regarding the film, but that the only known monetary award was the out of court settlement received by the family of Frank Hamer.  Other suits including some originating from the characters’ families were dismissed.

The movie shows the gang using Thompson sub-machine guns (popular in the gangster film genre) rather than Browning automatic rifles, which they preferred.  Bonnie is shown shooting a pistol or machine gun in several scenes, where most accounts say that she is not known to have fired a gun.

Also mentioned is that in the Louisiana ambush, Clyde is shown exiting the car to assist Moss’s (Methvin’s) father but in the actual incident, Clyde remained inside the vehicle.  There are several other points with which writers quibble with the film, such as Dunaway’s hair style and clothing not being from the period.  Certain events were also shown out of their actual sequence.  Some characters were given fictional names and locations of events were changed, both of which are commonly done in film.  Some of the vehicles shown were newer than the time period of the gang’s activities, which was from around 1932 to 1934.

Guinn is quoted in an NPR interview as saying though the film is wonderful entertainment, it is “less than 5% historically accurate,” though his comment may have been intended as hyperbole.  Guinn also adds that the couple is romanticized in the film but allows that the sensational way they died is much more interesting than if they had just been arrested and incarcerated until their senior years.

After all, Bonnie and Clyde is not a documentary but was intended for entertainment and to make money for those involved in the project.  By Hollywood’s yardstick, the film was an enormous success, per the Internet Movie Database, grossing over $50,000,000 against an estimated budget of only $2,500,000.

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One thought on “Bonnie and Clyde Film (1967) versus the historical facts”

  1. The sequence with Wilder and Evans is based on the kidnappings by the Barrow gang of undertaker H.D. Darby and his acquaintance Sophia Stone, near Ruston, Louisiana on April 27, 1933; they also stole Darby’s car. The film is considered to stray far from fact in its portrayal of Frank Hamer as a vengeful bungler who was captured, humiliated, and released by Bonnie and Clyde. Hamer was a legendary and decorated Texas Ranger when he was coaxed out of semi-retirement to hunt down the couple. He never saw them before he and his posse ambushed and killed them near Gibsland, Louisiana on May 23, 1934.


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