America has always had a long obsession with the outlaw. Many classic outlaws include Jesse James, John Dillinger, Doc Holliday, Butch Cassidy, and the Sundance Kid. All of these fugitives have had romanticized legacies that have had their established legends further enhanced through the medium of film. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde focuses on the folk hero aspect of these two icons to create an Americana that favors myth more than truth. The legacy of the outlaw can be one be villainized or it can be one where the criminal is viewed as a hero with the common people. Penn creates these two lovers as populace icons by creating our heroes criminal activities with a sense of seduction and by having them stand up for the beliefs of the down trotted Depression era people.
The movie, especially the first half, serves as a glamorization of a life of crime. The appearances of the characters are exaggerations that make the characters seem cooler and more relatable. The real Clyde Barrow has a much earthier Okie vibe than Warren Beatty and has large white toothed smile. Faye Dunaway has much longer and blonder hair than the pictures of Bonnie Parker. The power of the characters also gets intertwined with sexual notions. While most of the movie Clyde is impotent, Bonnie is attracted to Clyde due to his outlaw nature. When Clyde first shows her his gun, it is seen as a major phallic symbol. He holds it by his crotch and she proceeds to touch the gun in a highly sexualized fashion. After he robs the store for the first time, she throws herself upon him because she is unable to control her sexual attraction to the danger. It is clear that Penn is linking a life of crime with sex appeal thus seducing the viewers to the likability of what could be viewed as two ruthless cop killers.
The characters likability is further cemented in their reliability to the populace. People of the day did not feel as though Bonnie and Clyde were robbing the down trotted Okies, they were robbing the immoral banks. The common men related the actions of Bonnie and Clyde to a Robin Hood story arc, making them heroes. Early in the movie we see a farmer with a repossessed house and his family boarded up in a car straight out of the Grapes of Wrath. Bonnie and the farmer proceed to shoot the banks foreclosure sign. This signifies how the Barrow Gang is targeting the establishment that is taking advantage of the common man. Later we see Clyde let a farmer keep the money when he is robbing the bank. The farmer would go onto say something along the lines of, “they are alright by me.” This reflects the folk hero view of the two characters and how they became martyrs for the populace.
The late 1960’s brought about a new era in Hollywood where the criminal did not have to be villianized. Cowboy movies have always been told with the sheriff being the hero, but that would shortly change with movies like The Wild Bunch. The outlaw is a classic Americana icon that was unable to be properly told until Bonnie and Clyde. Arthur Penn is able to balance seduction and populace imagery in his violent tragedy.