- Douglas Zwick
- June 22, 2012
- Prof. Marc Freeman
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bonnie and Clyde Analysis
So Bonnie, Clyde, Butch, and Sundance are what we call anti-heroes which matches the anti-establishment movement of that era. What is an anti-hero? They are protagonists who are criminals but who we end up liking. I want you to write about both films, incorporating research from the Internet, about why we like these characters and how the structure of the film contributes to that.
Butch Cassidy is friendly, handsome, charismatic and even kind. The Sundance Kid is quieter, a bit more pensive, but also with a bit of a tender side. Both certainly have their rough qualities, to put it lightly: Sundance is a killer, which Cassidy also becomes by the end of the film, and both are reluctant to giving up their lawless ways. But they're so lovable! Butch rides a bike like a goofy kid! Sundance has that charming smile. And their friendship is lasting and admirable. So they rob banks. Big deal, they go out of their way to avoid hurting anyone. Butch and the Kid are anti-heroes. They charm their way into the audience's hearts despite their willful disregard for certain things we consider "right."
People prioritize their morals. It's worse to kill than to steal, it's better to be friendly than to be indifferent, that sort of thing. We judge a character based on the sum of his moral qualities, and as long as he exhibits enough of the good while avoiding enough of the worst, he comes out with our seal of approval. Butch and Sundance are compassionate and careful to a high enough degree that we can look past their faults. We know that Sundance's record includes homicide, but we spend most of the film without seeing him kill anyone, so its impact is lessened, though personally I still hold Cassidy in higher esteem. By the time the duo does finally cross the line and take the lives of a group of bandits who have robbed them, we've been won over enough that we are willing to justify their crime:
- - Murder is bad, but there are worse atrocities.
- - They acted at least partly in self-defense.
- - They were, after all, hired to use their guns to protect what was stolen.
- - Their victims were criminals themselves.
...And so on. If this scene had occurred earlier in the story, the above excuses would still be true, but their actions would have tainted their characters for the rest of the film.
Immediately in the film, a title card informs us that our soon-to-be friends will die, preparing us for the blow we'll feel when it happens. The beginning shows the life they have, committing robbery and going on with their day, but before long they're running from the law. The middle shows their life on the lam, and suggests that reform is a possibility, and a wise choice. They decline the chance to do so, and the end shows the inevitable consequences. The structure of the film aids their appeal by minimizing our exposure to their seedy activities. We are introduced to the pair years into their criminal careers, and we spend much of our time with them either at leisure or suffering from the fallout of the parts of their lives we mostly missed.
To at least some extent, anti-heroes remind us of ourselves. A traditional hero is virtuous in every possible way, while an anti-hero is flawed. We relate to a traditional hero because he's who we would like to be; we relate to an anti-hero because he's who we suspect we really are. Salon, examining the anti-heroic narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, suggests that "men love suffering as much or more than their well-being" (Begley, 2000); perhaps it is through this guilty, buried truth that an anti-hero strikes our fancy.
Butch and Sundance's aversion to giving up the "easy way" and reëntering society, to say nothing of whether it would actually be harder to lead an honest life of hard work than to be a career criminal, resonates strongly with me and, I feel safe to presume, much of the rest of the audience. It's hard to break habits. This is a universal truth of human psychology. When we watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, we can answer the question of what it would be like to abandon our lives of difficult virtue and just take what we want. It all ends as we knew it would, and the extent to which viewer finds this tragic is an indicator of the success of the film.
This brings me to Bonnie and Clyde. Before watching the film, I knew as much about its titular characters as I knew about those of Butch Cassidy. By the end, though, I was somewhat glad to see them gunned down. If referring to someone as an anti-hero means that I like him, then I have a pretty hard time calling Bonnie Harper and Clyde Barrow anti-heroes. Of course, that isn't a necessary part of the definition: OxfordDictionaries.com simply requires an anti-hero to be a protagonist who "lacks conventional heroic attributes." (OxfordDictionaries.com, 2012) Bonnie and Clyde fit this description, but their unlikability separates them from other great anti-heroes in my mind.
The film's structure doesn't help them too much. The pair meet by chance, and an armed robbery later, they're a team. Right off the bat, they've committed a crime before we've had much of a chance to get to like them. Such an introduction by itself doesn't do much to hurt our reception of other anti-heroes, but early in the picture, Clyde shoots someone in the face. Right in the face, point blank. Bonnie lacked much of a reaction, and the film didn't seem to make much of a big deal about it, either. I didn't care much for either of them after that; why should I bother liking a couple of psychopaths? They spend the rest of the film getting themselves into progressively deeper shit until they're finally killed by the law.
Any attachment we have toward them comes from the personal, positive light in which they're portrayed much of the time: at one point they refuse to steal a bank customer's own cash along with the rest of their lucre, and at another, they drop in on a Harper family reunion to pay a visit to Bonnie's dear old mother. The film also sows sympathy in the form of additional character complexity. It suggests that Clyde suffers from sexual dysfunction. Is this somehow a motive for his behavior, or perhaps a comorbidity with the true cause? Bonnie fears her impending death, writing about it in her poetry. Can we glean from her self-expression insight into her true character? In neither case does it really matter, as they've already dug themselves in too deep for redemption.
Things do get more interesting when the duo expands to include Clyde's brother and sister-in-law. Gene Hackman's portrayal of Buck Barrow is nuanced and convincing, and Buck really came across as a nice guy. I was wounded along with him, and sad when he was killed. He accomplishes what Warren Beatty attempted and failed to do: he is an anti-hero by any metric.
- 1. Begley, Louis. "Anti-heroes." 15 May 2000. http://www.salon.com/2000/05/15/begley/
- 2. Oxford Dictionaries. "Definition of antihero." http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/american_english/antihero?region=us&q=antihero