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Filming a Revolution: The Birth of Graphic Violence in Bonnie and Clyde

By Thomas Mazzucco, with comment by James (Alec) Murphy

[1] Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn's 1967 blockbuster, launched America into a new age of film. The film introduced extreme and graphic violence into the culture of film, one thing that still prevails in American cinema today. The movie initially elicited extreme outrage over the gratuitous violence but now is commonly shown unedited on American television. Bonnie and Clyde was a groundbreaking film, and one of the most important films in American history.

[2] Graphic violence, one the biggest characteristics of modern American cinema, was introduced in 1967 in Bonnie and Clyde. Previous to Penn's 1967 film, violence involved little graphic evidence, and the severity of injury was usually just implied through moans or other acting techniques. However, Penn took a radical step when he decided to depict the actions of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the criminal couple who killed many people as they bungled robberies and hold-ups for two years, by using the camera and "special effects" to show the severity of the injuries. Bonnie and Clyde were notorious for being better armed than the American military, let alone any local police force, and used machine guns to impact their destruction on those who stood in their way. The Tommy gun machine gun was the pen with which gangsters of the Great Depression era, like Bonnie and Clyde, wrote American history. It was the way they left their names in the history books, and it was their way to get a little bit of wealth and what these criminals saw as freedom. The machine gun, too, was the way with which Arthur Penn was able to have his film make its mark on American and international film.

[3] The violence in Bonnie and Clyde begins with a man being shot in the face by Clyde as he clings to the getaway car of Barrow, Parker, and their partner, C.W. Moss. The man's face spews blood, and pieces of brain splatter onto the car window after the bullet pierces the man's skull. The man had just chased the criminals out of his store, which they had just robbed. After shooting the man, Clyde is greatly shaken and blames Moss, who had parked the getaway car instead of idling outside of the store, for the man's death. Clyde says he didn't want to do it, but had to -- which is one of the initial insights into how reluctant Clyde and Bonnie are initially to killing. However, in the movie, much like in Hollywood, as the time passed, both the characters and the viewers became more accustomed to the gratuitous violence.

[4] One of the scenes that is most notable in cinematographic history for graphic violence occurs when Bonnie and Clyde are gunned down in dramatic fashion at the end of the movie. The couple is ambushed and riddled with bullets as they drive down a road to their safe house. Both characters are shot many times and Bonnie shrieks as the bullets rip into her, and when the firing is over, the couple lie bloodied and obviously dead. This scene is one in which Hollywood and its new use of violence was defined. Arthur Penn set the stage for the new genre of action and violent films as this scene and the movie in general stepped into an area of filmmaking that had long been taboo. However, this scene became appropriate as it strongly symbolized American youth being cut down by gunfire in their prime in the 1960's.

[5] Penn uses the devastation wrought by Bonnie and Clyde and their Tommy Guns and BAR's to convey the senseless violence that American youth was walking into with the Vietnam War. This is one of the many times that Penn is able to carry over messages from the story set in the 1930's and Great Depression, to the 1960's. He is quite skillful at making this allusion of Bonnie and Clyde being gunned down in their primes and youth to the young American soldiers going over to Vietnam to fight a war that many American's were not sold on, and one in which many young American men, of similar age to Parker and Barrow, were gunned down. This connection was easily made by those Americans who viewed the film, and it struck a responsive chord with these people. In "The Hemorrhaging of American Cinema: Bonnie and Clyde's Legacy of Cinematic Violence", Stephen Prince states, "The Vietnam War and disintegration of civil society that accompanied it helped put the subject of violence on the national agenda in an urgent and ominous way." Penn was able to artistically take what he saw happening in America and make a story that was set in a different time and weave his theme in seamlessly.

[6] Arthur Penn also uses the violence in the movie to touch on and try to bring about a catharsis from the viewers. America in the 1960's was ravished by one of the biggest increases of violence and crime since the 1930's (extremely fitting considering the setting of the movie) and many people were intrigued and sucked in by the violent acts and their coverage in the national media. Famous figures of the 1960's and the changing societal and cultural feelings they brought about were surrounded in violence. One such figure was Malcolm X, who was initially part of the Nation of Islam, a group that resorted to militancy and violence, and later founded an Islamic group for African Americans. This group pushed for the advancement of blacks through the religion of Islam. This act helped spur the Civil Rights Movement which the 1960's is known for. Unfortunately, Malcolm X was assassinated by the Nation of Islam in 1965 for leaving it and for disavowing his earlier racist feelings. Another figure who pushed for change in the 1960's and then was assassinated was President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy scared many people with his different background and views for the future America. He was assassinated in 1963 in Texas. These two figures along with the increase in crimes across America had caused the nation to be engulfed in the violence. Penn is able to take the issues of violence of the 1960's and weave them seamlessly into a story about crime in the 1930's. He makes a movie that could have been solely historical and turns it into a piece that relates the current time and the issues America was facing then.

[7] Penn used graphic violence in his movie Bonnie and Clyde to show the true devastation violence brought in reality. Newman and Benton mixed humor and comedy with romance to offset the great violence. They had hoped that in seeing the violence committed by somewhat likeable and bumbling characters that it would be cathartic to a nation that needed the tension released. The film did what New Age movies sought to do, solve a problem rather than just take people's mind off the problem. By showing excessive amounts of violence, Penn almost is able to dull the shock of it to the viewers. However, maybe it goes the other way too. Maybe Americans had become so used to violence that they saw everyday in news media, that it would be acceptable to finally include graphic violence in movies. Had this graphic violence occurred in a movie ten years earlier, it would have been banned since it clearly would not have been acceptable in 1950's uptight America. Rather, the 1960's were the perfect time for the appearance of violence, as attitudes towards different things and ideas relaxed, and as America grew accustomed to acts of great violence. Stephen Prince also says in his essay, "it was no coincidence that American films became bloodier than ever at the same time as the nation was waging an unpopular war in Southeast Asia and confronting a domestic scene marked by urban riots, campus protests against the war, and recurrent political assassinations." In the last scene, when Bonnie and Clyde are gunned down by the sheriffs, part of Clyde's skull is blown apart as homage by Penn to President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 which was captured in the famous Zapruder film.

[8] The 1960's were a changing time in American culture and society. These changes were not just regarding the Vietnam War or civil rights, but they also included what could be viewed in movies and television. According to Stephen Prince's article, "Two crucial changes in particular gave filmmakers the freedom they needed to make pictures like Bonnie and Clyde: (1) the revision in September 1966 of Hollywood's thirty-six-year-old Production Code and (2) the creation two years later of the Code and Rating Administration (CARA) with its G-M-R-X film classification system" (132). The first of these regarding the Production Code meant that the MPAA scrapped the code and made ten broad guiding principles. Prince also wrote that "the revised code was designed to move cinema closer to the mores characteristic of modern society and to expand creative freedom of filmmakers" (132). This change allowed filmmakers like Arthur Penn to take the risk and make a movie in a way that had never been used. The inclusion of graphic violence would have been against the previous rules and very taboo a year before. This change was argued against by social watchdog groups that were concerned with the rising amounts of profanity, violence, and sex in American cinema. These groups were worried about too much change too quickly negatively impacting those in the younger generations who were already changing rapidly. The new rules were broad and thus allowed Penn to make his impact on cinematographic history though the induction of graphic violence through his story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Along with this change in MPAA codes that helped allow Penn to make this movie as violent as it is was the fact that 48% of box office sales were from the age group of 16-24 year olds, which meant that the viewers were more open to different things like graphic violence as an aid in telling a famous American tale.

[9] Arthur Penn set the stage for American cinema to become what it is today through his use of violence and sex. The inclusion of these two helped pushed the limits of what was acceptable for people to view as America changed socially and culturally. This was the perfect time for American cinema to shed the restrictive system of values that typified America through the 1950's. The graphic violence that Penn depicted in Bonnie and Clyde shocked many people, yet was fitting for the time in American history. As young Americans died at a rapid rate, in both America and abroad in the Vietnam War, the movie struck a chord with the general population as Penn depicted the senselessness of these deaths through the senseless and gory deaths of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, infamous Depression Era bandits. (see comment by James (Alec) Murphy)


James (Alec) Murphy 8/10/12

While the use of violence certainly upped the ante and set the stage (and readied the viewers) for future, more dramatic violence, Penn was still artful when depicting the carnage. It was not as if he decided that violence no longer need be censored or that unbridled violence was the answer to making his movie a success; instead, Penn let the violence of the movie be slightly more progressive than what was typical in American cinema. As such, he was able to show more of the devastation that came from the massacres of Bonnie and Clyde -- an important part of their tale. Instead of omitting violence, Penn was able to incorporate it creatively because of his cinematic expertise. He was able to show it but still not let it be overly gratuitous. For example, when the convenience store owner chases after the car in which Bonnie and Clyde are escaping, Clyde shoots the store owner through the windshield. This is obviously an intentional choice made by Penn, and this choice allowed the violence to occur, but in a way that still left much of the gore to the imagination. Penn places the camera inside the car, so as the gun fires, the glass cracks, and what was originally a clear picture of the store owner becomes a broken image of him with a bullet in his head. This method of shooting is not only to avoid gratuitous violence but also to create a visual subtext: the broken glass representing the store owner's death as opposed to a visual of his head exploding. Thus, while the film did indeed break the mold of violence in films, it did so in artful ways, ways (like the scene with the store owner) that we see emulated in today's cinema. Violence was a necessary part of this film, but Penn had the know-how and equipment to portray it powerfully, yet not in an overly overt manner. In this way, he was able to set the trend for future films, dictating that violence could be shown in cinema, as long as it was done with a creative sensibility, infusing censorship when necessary.