Bonnie and Clyde, America's Deadly Sweethearts, 75 Years Later

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Even though they were Swiss-cheesed by a blizzard of bullets 75 years ago, Bonnie and Clyde are still on the run. They're not so much robbing banks nowadays as they are gracing the covers of books -- at least a dozen in the past decade, and two within the past month. They're also singing and dancing, in four different stage musicals in development. Bonnie will be channeled by Hilary Duff in a feature film that starts production in July on the same Southern back roads the infamous duo once terrorized. In Gibsland, La., next weekend, thousands will watch shootout reenactments during the annual Bonnie and Clyde Festival. People will gather at the site of their fatal May 23, 1934, ambush to watch them die all over again.

It's everything this pair of 20-something ne'er-do-wells ever wanted: fame, immortality and the elevated regard they never received (or deserved, some say) while they were living. How did this happen? How do two reckless losers -- amateur stickup artists who killed at least 10 people on a haphazard spree across six states -- remain celebrated icons capable of inspiring this current glut of projects?

Bonnie and Clyde were killed at the right time (at height of John Dillinger hysteria) and in the right way (in a dramatic, headline-friendly fusillade), and the media and the masses took it from there, says Bryan Burrough, author of "Public Enemies," the 2004 book that tracks the 1933-34 crime wave.

"The American public tries to read altruistic motives in their story, to glorify criminals into more than what they were," Burrough says. "The current fascination can clearly be traced to the 1967 movie and a new generation of historians trying to reconcile the movie with history. Which can't be done."

It's been 75 years since the Year of the Gangster, as the FBI calls 1934, and Bonnie and Clyde remain at large, aided and abetted by a culture that imbues them with whatever significance fits the moment. Jeff Guinn, author of the new book "Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde," says they're rebounding because there's both an eternal market for youthful rebels and a cyclical nature to history.

"We may not be officially in a depression but there are very few Americans who aren't hurting financially," Guinn says. "We now see the banks as big, awful institutions taking away things we had already earned, like 401(k)s. . . . For young people today there's a sense of nervousness: 'What's there going to be for me?' When ambitious young people feel there's no hope, when they feel afraid and threatened, you see guns in school. That potential for that violence is still with us."

'We Rob Banks'

The 1967 movie is burned into our brains. We think of Faye Dunaway's golden hair and Warren Beatty's matinee-idol grin. We think of bullets perforating self-delusional young flesh, bloodying dapper clothing and Flatt and Scruggs plucking away on the soundtrack. We think of a duo on the open road, tearing along a path of last resort. We think of that final astounding sequence of their execution, edited for maximum emotional impact: 60 shots in four film speeds in less than a minute capture every thrash and flail as the law blasts them to oblivion.

But one particular scene sticks out today. Beatty, as Clyde, meets an evicted farmer who comes to see his house one last time.

"Used to be my place, but it's not anymore," the farmer says. "Bank took it."

Beatty fires a couple shots at the house, smiles, then hands his gun to the farmer, who puts a bullet through a sign that says PROPERTY OF MIDLOTHIAN CITIZENS BANK.

As they part ways, Beatty tell him pridefully, "We rob banks," as if that automatically makes him the good guy.

Outsize Outlaws

The film resurrected and redefined the story of Bonnie and Clyde as a tale of arrogant bravado pushed to the limit. It's a masterpiece of cinema, and a stylish doctoring of history, which lends a certain suspense to director Tonya S. Holly's project "The Story of Bonnie and Clyde," a $15 million indie movie that begins shooting in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana at the end of July.

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