Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bonnie and Clyde Go to War

A biographer I know, Charles J. Shields, posted a memorable entry on his “Writing Kurt Vonnegut” blog. It vividly details what happened when he approached several elderly combat veterans who, like Vonnegut himself, survived World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. Shields’ goal was to ferret out personal details that would help make Vonnegut’s wartime experience come alive. What he discovered was men who, more than sixty years later, were still traumatized by what they had seen and done on the field of battle.

A few years back, while researching the films of the landmark year 1967, I too found myself talking about the Battle of the Bulge. Director Arthur Penn, who set Hollywood on its ear with his brilliant work on Bonnie and Clyde, told me that he had served in the infantry in World War II, and that his experience at the Bulge was one he’d never forget: ““It was not glorious, not organized, nothing, nobody knew what the hell they were doing, it was just save your life and chaos.”

From Penn’s perspective, the turbulence of the Sixties sprang from the complacency of the post-war period: “After the war, there was this great wave of self-satisfaction, with America, the American family, everything was wonderful. And then some time passed, and there were the family troubles. Veteran father and the kids, and they begin acting out. And that was the beginning of the next phase.” That next phase turned up in such generation-gap movies as The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause. And then, of course, Bonnie and Clyde, which made the life of a young outlaw seem (for a while, at least) like fun.

In its day, Bonnie and Clyde was most notorious for its scenes of explicit violence, including a climactic slow-motion bullet barrage that in the words of Pauline Kael “put the sting back into death.” Penn’s handling of bloodshed in this movie came directly out of his World War II memories. He told me, “I had decided not to mollycoddle the audience about shooting and death. This, after all, was wartime. “ Penn was referring here to the fact that while Bonnie and Clyde was in production, the conflict in Vietnam was dramatically ratcheting up. The young people who championed the film—the same young people who had recently mourned the assassination of John F. Kennedy and other political heroes—were in many cases facing the military draft. Penn felt that they, and the American public as a whole, needed to see violence for what it was, up close and personal.

The notoriety of Bonnie and Clyde has faded, as other films have far surpassed it in terms of on-screen carnage. Only two years later came Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, which seemed to revel in its blood-spewing finale. Down the road there were George Romero’s zombie fantasies, the brilliantly lurid films of Quentin Tarantino, and gross-out horror flicks like the Saw franchise. This trend was anticipated back in 1980 by film scholar Robert Phillip Kolker who insisted in The Cinema of Loneliness that “Penn showed the way. Bonnie and Clyde opened the bloodgates, and our cinema has barely stopped bleeding since.”

He’s right, of course. Today even the posters for the last Harry Potter film seem to foretell graphic violence. In widely-seen images, Harry, Ron, and Hermione look battered, bruised, and not in the least kid-friendly, letting potential viewers know that there will be blood.


  1. Beverly,

    I didn't know Penn was at the Bulge. Very revealing, particularly how you make the connection between his war-time experiences and his directorial decisions. And I was just thinking about the Sixties yesterday. After the most violent war in human history, isn't it only natural that the post-war generation would be refuseniks: culturally, socially, politically?



  2. Interesting! I would like to see how you relate this to the uberviolent films being made recently like Kill Bill.

  3. Well, of course Kill Bill comes from the fertile brain of Quentin Tarantino, for whom violence is essentially an aesthetic.

    Charles, thanks for your comment -- as well as for your "On Hitting the Wall" post that started me thinking about this topic. I like your thought that the aftermath of World War II essentially created the "refusenik" generation of the Sixties, but there were other key elements that should be factored in. For me the assassination of John F. Kennedy will always be part of the reason that the Baby Boomers grew up cynical, and even traumatized. By the way, Slaughter-House Five is my favorite Vonnegut. What did you think of the film version?

  4. Granted, I wasn't around then, but after studying each decade for an ongoing article of my own, I'd say the sexual revolution, the rise in the use of recreational drugs and the tumultuous struggle of the Civil Rights Movement were key, too, in leading people to be more free with their tongues and willing to stand up and speak out. And I would agree this seed was likely planted with the offspring of post war parents during the 50s. Curious and rebellious teens were cropping up everywhere it seemed in movies and especially TV shows.

    It's fascinating how the country came together during the 40s rising out of a Depression and into a thriving, post war economy only to become a divided society by the early 60s with yet another plummeting economy into the 70s; much like what we are facing today.

    It's interesting, too, that there was an apparent ripple effect in the latter part of the decade and into the 1970s in Hong Kong and Japan at least with respect to societal change affecting the cinematic climate. In Japan's case at least, I think it had more to do with audiences turning to television resulting in movie studios having to up the ante by resorting to insane levels of sexuality and graphic violence going into the 70s to get that audience back.

    For me, the films of today are a mirror image of what was coming out during the 1970s. Movies then had a downbeat, undeniable nihilism about them that is prevalent in movies today. Since 9/11 certain genres have evoked much of that decades angry big screen visions born out of the minds of those who lived through not only the Vietnam Era, but all the related and unrelated violence at home it brought along with it i.e. assassinations, violent protests, mass murderers as celebrity, etc...

    Speaking of WW2, I've become increasingly more interested in it over the last few years especially in regards to Japan's involvement. If you've not read it, I highly recommend the late Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of WW2. I rarely read many non reference/film related books these days, but that was one I couldn't put down. An incredible account.

    Sorry about the long rant, just my opinion. Great piece as always, Beverly!

  5. Thanks as always for your thoughtful input, Brian. I agree with you completely about the forces contributing to the parent/child divide in the Sixties, and I am particularly intrigued by your comments about Japan and Hong Kong. I hardly pretend to be an expert, but as a student in Tokyo in the late Sixties I saw first-hand some of the youthful nihilism you talk about in the aftermath of World War II. (At the same time, although I was encountering some very angry student radicals who succeeded in shutting down my college, I found many young men from good families remarkably relaxed in their college years. Unlike American males, they had no military draft to worry about, and they could focus on having a good time -- until they graduated and were sucked into the all-encompassing Japanese labor force.)

  6. The notoriety of Bonnie and Clyde may have faded - but the movie has lost none of its power - even in the more recent shadows of all those other violent movies mentioned. It holds up throughout - and the finale is still brutal.

    1. Absolutely right! This is a movie with no fat on it. Every element works beautifully, and at the end we're left with a lot to ponder.