The bloody, exhilarating Bonnie and Clyde broke taboos when it hit screens 50 years ago

Half a century later, the iconic pair is still a rallying cry for the counterculture.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for August 13 through 19 is Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, and Google Play.

When Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway starred in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde — which turns 50 on August 13 — the response from many corners was swift and fierce. After all, it was released in the fading years of the Hays Code, which had governed the moral content of Hollywood films for decades. Bonnie and Clyde was bloody, graphic, and sexually frank, and it drew on the experimentation of the French New Wave. It blew away taboos left and right.

“This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth,” Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times upon the film’s release. From the distance of a half-century, though, it’s considered a classic, numbered among the first 100 films included in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry and cited as an influence on everything from The Godfather to The Departed.

The film wasn’t the first treatment of the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who died on May 23, 1934, at the ages of 23 and 25, respectively. At that point, the pair had been on the lam for four years on a robbery-and-murder spree, and were finally cornered by law enforcement and ambushed. The story captured public imagination and made the pair into folk heroes, alongside other criminals like John Dillinger and “Pretty Boy” Floyd.

In 1937, three years after the pair died, Edward Anderson novelized Bonnie and Clyde’s story in Thieves Like Us, then sold the movie rights for $500. The film, titled They Live By Night and directed by Nicholas Ray, finally came out in 1950 and became an instant classic — as well as a forerunner to Arthur Penn’s film.

And Bonnie and Clyde wouldn’t be the last movie about the pair, either, or in some cases about the archetypal star-crossed criminal lovers they represented. Penn’s protégé, Terence Malick, retold the story through another historic pair in his 1973 debut film, the stark Badlands. A year later, Robert Altman drew on the tale once again in Thieves Like Us, adapting Anderson’s novel. Ridley Scott’s 1991 Thelma & Louise is a version of the Bonnie and Clyde myth, and three years later Quentin Tarantino revisited that myth again in Natural Born Killers. That same year, Kelly Reichardt put her own spin on the story with her debut feature River of Grass — in which the criminal couple never manage to get out of the town where they conduct their first murder. And in 2013, Bruce Beresford made a TV miniseries about the pair, while David Lowery reimagined the tale once again in 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

But here’s what’s surprising: Though these are all vastly different films, told in different styles and with different aims, nearly all of them are considered classic, iconic works of American cinema. Something about the Bonnie and Clyde myth seems to resonate with both filmmakers and audiences, producing memorable movies with something to say.

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde
Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde.

Maybe the reason for this is most evident in Bonnie and Clyde, which is still shocking and exhilarating half a century after its release. Because despite some critical horror at the film’s graphic violence — or perhaps because of it — the film was a wild success, particularly with young people.

The kids loved Bonnie and Clyde, which became a rallying cry for the burgeoning counterculture. That might seem counterintuitive, since the characters at its center are based on some gangsters idolized in their parents’ and grandparents’ youth. But 1967 was a time for young people disillusioned with traditionalist culture to run hard in the opposite direction, gleefully flouting laws and norms about everything from drugs and sex to the “right” path in life. Bonnie and Clyde are an emblem of that attitude, and if they flame out in the end, boy, it’s sure romantic.

The romance of Bonnie and Clyde’s rebellion resonated in 1967 with young people who saw themselves — and their uncertain future in an age haunted by the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation — reflected onscreen. And every adaptation since then, whether it looked at the story through the lens of feminism, suburban critique, media criticism, or existential despair, has done the same. It’s deeply reflective of America in the past half-century — and we’ll almost certainly see the pair pop up onscreen again.

Watch the trailer for Bonnie and Clyde: