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by William H. Benson

August 23, 2007

     In August of 1967, forty years ago, the movie Bonnie and Clyde opened in the nation’s theatres. It featured two young actors—Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow, and Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker. The movie, according to the New York Times, “was a scandal and a sensation largely because it seemed to introduce a new kind of violence into movies. Its brutality was raw and immediate.”

     Audiences gasped in shock at the final scene: Beatty’s and Dunaway’s bodies twitching and writhing inside their parked car, a Ford V-8, as the lawmen fired a fusillade of bullets at them. That scene seemed to open the Hollywood gate for more and more violence, and no one seems to know how to shut it.

     Of course, the real life Bonnie and Clyde got what they deserved. Across the states of Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana for four years during the early days of the Great Depression, this husband and wife team had cut a swath of destruction that included robbery at gunpoint, cold-blooded murder, and high-speed chases and shootouts to elude officers of the law.

     Their story has since become a legend, and what added to the story was the way they promoted themselves. They would have photographs taken, showing them in various poses in front of their car smiling, smoking cigars, and holding their machine guns. Also, Bonnie Parker wrote poetry and sent her work to newspapers. “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde” has 13 stanzas with five lines in each. Here is the final stanza:  

     “Some day they will go down together;

      And they will bury them side by side.

       To a few it means grief,

      To the law it’s relief,

      But it’s death to Bonnie and Clyde.”

     Their story is like those of Frank and Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and John Dillinger—bandits who for a time eluded the strong arm of the law, but who in the end were trapped and each went out in a blaze. They are the anti-heroes, people whose deeds are wicked, and yet the public flatters them with fawning attention and notoriety for their daring.

     Robin Hood was an anti-hero. He claimed to rob from the rich in order to give to the poor. He and his band of Merry Men, which included Friar Tuck and Little John, slunk around Sherwood Forest, while the Sheriff of Nottingham failed to capture them.

     Both Richard III and Macbeth were anti-heroes. Audiences watch and cheer them on as they ruthlessly pursue the thrones of England and Scotland, but then at a certain point audiences turn on them and are repelled in disgust at their lawless ways.

     During the CB radio craze thirty years ago, the movie “Smokey and the Bandit,” came out. It featured Jackie Gleason who played the part of Smokey, a state trooper who was ignorant, obnoxious, and easily outwitted by the sophisticated, handsome, and sharp-minded Bandit, the anti-hero, played by Burt Reynolds. Watching such a movie, audiences find themselves twisted into cheering the criminal and booing the lawman.

     Much of Mark Twain’s humor was iconoclastic—irreverent attacks on pretense, sham, and hypocrisy. He noticed that the Sunday School books he had read had stories of naughty boys who were invariably punished and of nice boys who were eventually rewarded. In opposition to those, he wrote two short stories; the first was “The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Did Not Come to Grief,” in which little James commits all kinds of mean acts, never has anything bad happen to him, grows up, “and is universally respected, and belongs to the legislature.” “The Story of the Good Little Boy” is about Jacob who does only good deeds, and yet he receives only grief and punishment.

     Twain wanted to poke gentle fun at the common knowledge believed by most that bad deeds are at some point punished and that good deeds are justly rewarded. Not always—at least not in this world, he suggested. Innocent good people are destroyed everyday by disease or accident or the evil intentions of others.

     The anti-hero has his or her place in our American popular culture, for when we tire of our saints, we still have Macbeth, Richard III, Robin Hood, Billy the Kid, and Bonnie and Clyde.