Tuesday, December 3, 2013

New Bonnie and Clyde Mini-Series and the Highway 83 Connection (UPDATED)

Holliday Grainger and Emile Hirsch as Bonnie and Clyde
(For my thoughts on the miniseries, read the addendum at the end of the column.)

Sunday, Dec. 8, three cable channels will simultaneously broadcast a two-night miniseries on the lives of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, better known as Bonnie and Clyde.
Back in the 1930s, the Barrow Gang, as they were called back then, terrorized small towns throughout the middle part of the nation, by robbing banks, or whatever they could find — sometimes killing lawmen in the process.
An incident on Highway 83 figures prominently into the gang’s history. The so-called Red River Plunge happened on June 10, 1933, about 11 months before the duo’s demise in Louisiana.
The 1967 movie starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty did a lot to popularize the doomed pair, and even portrayed them as likable, sympathetic characters — victims of the hard times Americans faced in the 1930s. I haven’t seen the made for cable movie yet, and with withhold judgment until I do so. Barrow and Parker were fascinating, complex characters. But make no mistake, Bonnie and Clyde and their cohorts were criminals, and not terribly sympathetic.
A case in point is the incident on Highway 83.
It began as Clyde, Bonnie and a teenage member of the gang W.D. Jones came racing up the road in a V-8 Ford in the middle of the night. Clyde knew only one way to drive—fast— and when you’re one of the most wanted men in America—who could blame him?
U.S. Route 83 was not the nice, paved road one sees today. In fact, it would be more than two decades before it was sealed from end to end. It was a dusty, dirt and gravel road, and driving at breakneck speeds could truly result in a broken neck.
Barrow didn’t see the detour sign that would have warned him that a new bridge was being built over the Salt Fork of the Red River.
The car went flying into the ravine, which was dried out from the relentless drought.
Witnessing the crash was a family living in a home less than 100 yards from the road, the Pritchards, who came rushing to their aid. Bonnie was the most severely injured. Battery acid was leaking onto her leg when family patriarch Sam Pritchard reached the scene, along with his two adult-aged daughters. One of them poured baking powder on Bonnie’s leg to stop the acid from spreading.  
Clyde insisted that no one go to town to get a doctor to help Bonnie. He seemed to be more concerned with retrieving several guns from the wreck. That alerted the family that something wasn’t right, and Sam’s son-in-law slipped away to go to nearby Wellington to find help. (They had no idea that this was the infamous Barrow Gang.)
When two local lawmen arrived, Clyde and W.D. were waiting for them in the house with guns drawn. A jumpy W.D. thought one of Pritchard’s daughters Gladys was reaching for a gun, when she was only trying to protect her toddler girl. He fired his shotgun at her but missed wide. Some of the pellets struck one of her hands, though. Clyde and W.D. took the two lawmen hostage, and left for Oklahoma to rendez-vous with Clyde’s brother Buck. They eventually released the two men, but Clyde never did stop to get Bonnie help. She wouldn’t walk normally again for the remainder of her short life.
These were not the deeds of folk heroes.
In 2010, I had the opportunity to see the beautiful old truss bridge  that was being built when the incident happened. I had arrived in the early evening light. I was luck to see it for it was being prepared for demolition. Not long after, it was reportedly torn down. On its south side, a historical marker gives a brief history of the Red River Plunge. (The description on the marker of how Gladys
was shot is not accurate, according to at least one reputable history book I derived much of this information from, Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn.)
Movies are not documentaries. But I will be interested to see if this event makes it into the mini-series and how the writers chose to portray Bonnie and Clyde.

Dec. 19, 2013

Since the miniseries aired, there has been some robust criticism of Bonnie and Clyde, and not all of it was unwarranted. However, I was not upset about all the historical inaccuracies, as many were. My belief is that ALL movies are works of fiction. In the "Based on a True Story" claim one sees on movie posters, the most important word to remember is "based," not "true story." Books are books, movies are movies and documentaries are documentaries. Filmmakers work in a different world than journalists and historians. If this were indeed a documentary, then it would have been an outrage.
The Red River Plunge that really happened on U.S. Route 83 was indeed portrayed (sort of). In this case, it was in a (heavily forested?) Iowa. A crash into a ravine happened while they were being chased, and they were alone instead of with their teenage gang member W.D. Jones, whose character was prominent in the 1967 movie, but written completely out here.
This was actually one of the sloppiest scenes put forth by the filmmakers. Here, we have Bonnie and Clyde being chased, their car crashes, and Bonnie is severely injured and unable to walk. How do they get out of this predicament? 
Well, the next thing we see is Bonnie convalescing from her injuries in Louisiana? 
How did they escape? I guess in this fictional portrayal, we will never know.
I can say a lot more, but I will leave it at what pertains to the Red River Plunge.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.

Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) yahoo.com) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83.


CLICK HERE; The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas. 


  1. Well, Steve, here is how I see it. If it was fiction, they should have called it something other than Bonnie & Clyde. And seeing as how they ran it on the History Channel, they owed to the viewers something far better than the sloppy piece of work they threw together. If you want an example of how to mix fiction and history the right way, you need look no further than Boardwalk Empire. I thought the 1967 B&C movie was bad. The 2013 thing should be destroyed and forgotten.


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