Violent Masterpieces: BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) and THE WILD BUNCH (1969)

Most life-long film and Hollywood fans are equally fascinated by both the product and its history.  Of particular interest to me, for example, are the players and films that were influential in changing trends, the ones that pushed boundaries.  A while back I posted a write-up on Lowell Sherman’s, She Done Him Wrong (1933), one of the films responsible for the strict enforcement of the  The Motion Picture Production Code for its “suggestive” themes.  Some time later I posted the following entry on another blog I managed.  This one is dedicated to two films that also pushed boundaries, but this time in the late 1960s and with graphic violence at their core rather than suggestive sexuality.  They are Arthur Penn‘s, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Sam Peckinpah‘s, The Wild Bunch (1969).    After their release violence was never the depicted the same way again.

The late 1960s, which is the period many consider the “official” end of the classic era in film, brought forth a new realism to American film.  This is particularly true in the realm of violence as noted above.  I attribute the change to the fact audiences grew up and could no longer be presented idealistic views of the happiness and purity still being served by what was left of the big Hollywood movie studios.  Assassinations, the youth movement and the Vietnam War all played a part in the “awakening” of Americans.  Just as audiences grew up, so did filmmaking in a sense. A new crop of film director emerged to match audience cravings for realism.  Nothing has mirrored society as has film, after all.

Concerns that violence depicted in film affects audiences to act in similar fashion have been around since film began.  Along with sex depicted on film, it is the one topic that has caused uproar and the formation of groups that police media, films in particular, to save audiences from this terrible reality.  Let’s not pretend – like sex, violence is real – in every society.

Arthur Penn

Director, Arthur Penn once said we live in a very hypocritical society.  With all the real-life violence that we have to live with and that is caused by our own hands it is absurd that we should judge any film too violent or in bad taste for its depiction of that violence.  The truth is that if a director is to tell a story, I believe he/she should tell the story he/she wants to tell.  And if that story is about a certain time and place then it should show the whole truth, as the director sees it, including all that comes with the telling of that truth.  I believe as Arthur Penn believed in regards to violence and our society but I’ll go even further, venturing to say that many of the people who would deem a film too violent and brutal would also argue for our right to bear arms at any cost.  The same people who complain about the brutalities of war being shown on the big screen but wouldn’t bat an eye to send real young men and women into real peril in real wars.  Perhaps my political ilk is showing all too plainly with these statements but it is the way I feel.  As Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) tells Harrigan (Albert Dekker) in the beginning of The Wild Bunch, “How does it feel to get paid to sit back and have your killings with the law’s arm around you?”  Killing is killing and violence is violence no matter what side of the law you’re on.  In the end all that differs is perspective

Today, audiences are rather immune to watching violence in film although there are still those that argue against this as a major influence.  To young audiences in particular.  But it is debatable and I am of the belief that it is not as big an influence on actual acts of violence as many others think.  My generation, having grown up in the 1960s and 1970s watched violence regularly in all forms of media.  From the wonderful Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons that aired on television, to the new form of film made by those young and innovative directors, like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.  I never had, nor did any of my friends, any limitation placed on us as kids as to what films we could go see.  We went to see them all – explicit sex (by the standards of the day), violence and all else.  I’m not saying that’s right, but I don’t remember being shocked by any of it.  We were always able to distinguish real life from what was happening on the big screen.  Although certain films were shocking in their own right – it wasn’t the shock of the sex or violence that affected us.  But there was a time when violence in film was shocking to most everyone.  And Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch shocked almost everyone!   These still stand out as purveyors of the new bloody reality.   A new breed of screen bloody messes, if you will.  Both films are still worth a look from that perspective decades after they were made.  They both also still pack a proverbial punch. Oh, and be warned, spoilers lay ahead!

Bonnie and Clyde

on Bonnie and Clyde:  “I thought that if were going to show this (violence), we should SHOW it. We should show what it looks like when somebody gets shot. TV coverage of Vietnam was every bit, perhaps even more, bloody than what we were showing on film.”  Arthur Penn

Arthur Penn’s, Bonnie and Clyde was a surprise hit when first released.  A hit with audiences that is, as young people loved it and its shocking depiction of graphic violence.  Although I’m sure the film’s two young, beautiful stars helped.  Critical acclaim eluded the film, for the most part however, as many of the major periodicals of the time strongly criticized the film for glorifying murderers.  Many in the Hollywood community were also up at arms about the film.  Even on-screen “tough guy,” James Garner referred to the film as amoral.  Since the film’s initial release, many critics retracted their negative reviews, interestingly enough, praising the film as an essential, a landmark in the history of film for the same reasons it was initially criticized.  Through the years “official” accolades for the film are the norm.  Aside from being listed on the American Film Institute‘s (AFI) 100 films list, Bonnie and Clyde was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1992 as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”  In addition, and perhaps more significantly since the film industry recognized the film’s value then, Bonnie and Clyde received ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and won two – Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Estelle Parsons for her portrayal of Blanche, Clyde’s extremely annoying sister-in-law and fellow gang member, and Best Cinematography for the work of Burnett Guffey.

“This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.”

For anyone not familiar with the film, Bonnie and Clyde stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the infamous couple who went on an extended crime spree.  He, fresh out of jail when the film starts.  She, bored with her life and hungry for adventure.  They meet and become a lethal combination in all manner of ways.  Aside from Estelle Parsons, Gene Hackman also co-stars as Clyde’s older brother, Buck Barrow.


As far as the violence depicted in Bonnie and Clyde one has to defend it because it’s warranted, even for a 1967 release.  There’s really no way to tell that story about those people without showing the violence that is central to their story.  Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker choose to live a life that comes with violence, they accept it and so should we.  I do have to mention that the critics who complained about the romanticizing of violence in the film noted the truth.  It is not only romanticized, it is sexualized.

Tagline:  “They’re young…they’re in love…and they kill people.”

There is a scene in the film where Clyde shows Bonnie his gun, which she caresses in a sexual manner as it clearly arouses her.  She finds the gun and all that it stands for powerful and exciting and it is the deciding factor in her joining him in his life of crime, a life that’s the opposite of her boring life in a small town as a waitress.  Further, Clyde is impotent as he can’t seem to have intimate relations with her but she doesn’t seem to care all that much since their life together is so full of excitement.  The gun and the power that comes with it replaces, quite satisfactorily for both characters, the power and sensuality they don’t have otherwise.  A lethal replacement but one nonetheless.

Interestingly, as depicted in the film, I don’t think Bonnie and Clyde (Clyde in particular) consider themselves violent people.  They openly introduce themselves as bank robbers and are proud of their chosen profession and the fact that they are so good at running from the law.  The violence they are forced to commit is just that, something that they have to do to continue to live – or so they see, aside from the adventure.  They are not proud about having to kill people.  There is also a Robin Hood quality to Clyde.  He intends to rob banks and large institutions but is not interested at all in stealing from the “little man” as we see during one of the bank robberies where an old man offers him his money and Clyde tells him to keep it.  I assume he thinks that society has so much that what difference would it make if some of that lands in his hands.  Also during a robbery in a convenience store Clyde is insulted that one of the men attacks him.  “I ain’t against him” he says as he goes back to the car nursing his wounds.  He makes a separation between the individuals and what he takes from the store, he doesn’t mean to steal from them.  Finally, it bears mention that Clyde also plays the role of peacekeeper in their little gang.  Whenever the two women are at odds (Bonnie and Blanche) he steps in and tries to keep the peace.  He cares about the other gang members’ feelings and shares the wealth equally among them all, despite whatever role they played in the heists – surely the annoying Blanche didn’t deserve the same amount as the others, despite her argument to the contrary.

Because of all these qualities I’ve mentioned and the fact that these two people have feelings and problems of their own, I hate the way they die.  Stunning and unforgettable.  Her death in the car in particular is still stirring – and shocking for the excess.  Overkill to the nth degree.  This scene is not necessarily worse in the sense of showing graphic violence and bloody hell as compared to the final battle in The Wild Bunch, which I’ll mention later, but it is is some way much more disturbing.  The couple is riddled with bullets made worse by the way they were tricked into their deaths because they stopped to do a good deed for someone they trusted.  It was sneaky and the law fights dirty.  Had the Texas Rangers not been hiding in bushes they would have garnered more respect from me.  Here they are, Bonnie and Clyde, hardened criminals, murderers whose end seems unjustified.  That’s the beauty of this film for me – as is the case in The Wild Bunch.  Despite all the violence that results from their own hands, we care about them and about what happens to them.  I always remember one of my film professors saying that in all great films, we always have to “feel” for the characters in some way.  I’ve never been able to prove him wrong.  In the case of Bonnie and Clyde there’s no doubt that sensationalism works because I love it and these characters.

One last interesting thing to mention – despite all the initial outrage over the violence depicted in Bonnie and Clyde, theaters and producers took full advantage of the film’s popularity with young audiences to exploit that violence.  Even after the run of the film in many theaters across the country, theaters exhibited a clear adhesive decal that was placed on glass windows and doors and simulated bullet shots through the glass. The decals announced, “Bonnie and Clyde were here.”

The Wild Bunch

Sam Peckinpah

Unlike Penn’s film two years earlier, The Wild Bunch received mixed reviews, equally positive and negative.  Perhaps some critics learned their lessons with Bonnie and Clyde when their initial negative reviews were seen by many as being out of touch with the times.  The bottom line with Sam Peckinpah’s film was that those who really liked it considered it cinematic art to a large degree and seemed to accept it just as he intended, which was to give the audience “some idea of what it is to be gunned down.”  The film’s critics, however, were harsh due to its violence, which is not surprising.  Legendary actor, John Wayne complained that the film “destroyed the myth of the Old West.”

All that aside, The Wild Bunch, like Bonnie and Clyde is now considered a masterpiece by most.  Bunch received two Academy Award nominations – Best Music, Original Score for a Motion Picture (not a Musical) for composer, Jerry Fielding and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Material Not Previously Published or Produced for its three screenwriters.  In addition, the film is listed on AFI’s list of 100 best films and is listed as number six of the top ten Westerns of all time.  In 1999, the U.S. National Film Registry selected it for preservation as “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”

The Wild Bunch is about an aging band of outlaws in the Old West (1913 to be exact).  The band, lead by Pike Bishop (William Holden), is bound by codes of honor and friendship, but they are relentlessly stalked by bounty hunters and are out-of-place in the new society by this point in their lives.  Societal rules have changed but they haven’t.   The Bunch head for Mexico in what they know might well be a “last hurrah” and end up avenging the murder of a friend.  They’ve nothing to lose.  So, they purposefully stride in to confront the enemy in what turns out to be the most controversial battles in film history – to that point anyway.

In retrospect, it’s not a surprise that Sam Peckinpah would choose to make a Western in the late 1960’s that shows real bullets hitting real people with real blood spewing out.  This film is about a brutal war during a time where rules didn’t exist and so he shows that anything goes.  It’s worth noting it is not a coincidence that The Wild Bunch was made during the Vietnam War, a brutal, “anything goes” war.  But that aside, what else should Peckinpah have shown?  If you’re going to tell a story, tell it as truthfully as you can.  That’s how I feel about violence in film, if violence is a part of the story then the violence should be depicted as honestly as possible.  The robbery the bunch commits in the beginning is a little tough to look at in the sense that Peckinpah chooses to show children caught in the crossfire.  But this is exactly what I am referring to and I guess the reason why he shows this, when there is a war innocents do die and they are caught in the crossfire, it is a reality and it should have been shown in this film.  At the same time we should also be aware that not only do the outlaws shoot over and around the children, but so does the “law” – in fact, the “law” in this case starts the shooting.  It’s certainly worth mentioning the lines are blurred throughout the film as to which side is good and which is bad.

What I like most about The Wild Bunch are the characters,as is not surprising – it’s the same case as with Bonnie and Clyde.  We get to know what these men are about and it’s a bit surprising, in the end, that despite the fact they’re outlaws, they’re not only likeable but righteous.  One of my favorite exchanges, short as it is, is between Pike and Dutch who yell at each other over the importance of giving someone your word – it’s a matter of honor and these men live by it in an ever increasingly dishonorable world. In the end they are heroes because they risk their lives for a friend – actually, they don’t really risk their lives, they walk into their own certain deaths.  But these old and tired men give it a hell of a shot – or barrage of them – and it’s spectacular.

“It’s our last go-around, Dutch. This time we do it right.” – Pike Bishop

“Well, killing a man isn’t clean and quick and simple. It’s bloody and awful. And maybe if enough people come to realize that shooting somebody isn’t just fun and games, maybe we’ll get somewhere.” – Sam Peckinpah

The controversial ending in The Wild Bunch, the final battle, is my favorite scene in the film (although there are many gorgeous ones) and, in my opinion, what makes this good Western, art – despite the extreme violence depicted.  When the four men are taking that long (now iconic) walk toward El General’s courtyard I get chills.  They walk along as their attitude and confidence seems to swell with each step, more determined.  Then they go into this courtyard with all those drunken Mexicans as if they owned the place and it occurs to me that they’re crazy – for a moment.  But they’re not crazy, what they are is tired.  MAN, talk about going down fighting!  The shots of the four turning toward each other – then away – all in slow motion is just beautifully done.  I am always compelled to rewind and watch this scene again.  Suddenly they start laughing and I thought they had something up their sleeves.  It turns out, however, that what they had up their sleeves was to kill as many as possible because this was it!  Needless to say the spewing blood didn’t bother me at all.  It’s surprising even to me that I react to this scene as I do.  For all its gory-ness, it’s wonderfully orchestrated so we don’t miss a single shot hitting a body – definitive and unmistakable violence, as close as you can get to real bullets hitting real bodies.  It’s spectacular.

The Wild Bunch cast is superb.  The main players:  William Holden is Pike Bishop, Ernest Borgnine is Dutch Engstrom, Robert Ryan is Deke Thornton, Edmund O’Brien is Freddie Sykes, Warren Oats is Lyle Gorch, Jaime Sanchez is Angel and Ben Johnson is Tector Gorch.

Now you know how I feel about violence in film, which is probably what most feel about violence in film – excepting those who police it.  I am not offended by it.  Although I’ve seen films where foul language and violence are abhorrent and insulting and hard to take.  But in those cases the language and the violence was the featured motive to go and see that particular film with no other matter of substance offered.  Violence for violence sake doesn’t work and is something I don’t like to see.  However, a film whose story is about violent characters or violent lifestyles or violent places or times warrants violence as part of its plot.  So, without a particularly worthy reason because today most people would agree with me, here I am advocating for two films  that need no advocating.  But because they changed our attitudes I offer this as a thank you to the innovators who made them, who dared step outside the box to make films that made people yell and scream – yes, often violently in opposition of violence.  Here’s to bloody art.

“The end of a picture is always an end of a life.” – Sam Peckinpah

Amen.

14 thoughts

  1. Great job on these two landmark titles. Both had a profound effect on me seeing them for the first time around 1982. Action films and blood letting were never quite the same afterwards. Both classics and personal favorites. Especially the Bunch.

  2. I absolutely relish your comments on these two unforgettable films. So many times when I answer with THE WILD BUNCH as to my personal favorite film (SHANE is always tied for the top spot), I get quizzical responses that suggest I should reexamine my value system. As you say, “What a cast!”… perfect in every characterization, and please don’t forget the wonderful contributions of Jaime Sanchez and Emilio Fernandez. Your review brought agreeable manly tears to my eyes. I know “Bloody” Sam would approve.

    1. This may be the first time I post something on this blog that results in manly tears. YOU MADE MY DAY!! 🙂 And you’re right, Sanchez and Fernandez deserve kudos as well. Great cinema!

      Aurora

  3. Two prime examples of when film grew up in America, film should depict life, it shouldn’t always sugar-coat it. We need fantasy as much as we need film to reflect reality. Be that violence, language or content. You’ve made me want to watch Bonnie and Clyde again, back on as a revisit soon I think.

    1. Agree, Tim! Thanks for the comments and visit. You can never watch Bonnie and Clyde too many times so I’m not feeling guilty about making you want to watch it again. 🙂

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