Netflix, 2019, 132 minutes
Cast: Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, Kim Dickens, William Sadler, Thomas Mann, W. Earl Brown, Emily Brobst and Edward Bossert
Written by John Fusco
Producer: Casey Silver
Director: John Lee Hancock
Bonnie Parker (October 1, 1910-May 23, 1934) and Clyde Barrow (March 24, 1909-May 23, 1934) were poor, young people with little hope for the future when they met in Dallas, Texas in January 1930. Clyde was arrested shortly after, which would have ended most relationships but Bonnie’s love was true. Despite a brutal experience in prison, Clyde hated the drudgery of honest work, so he returned to a life of crime, bringing Bonnie with him. After a drunken encounter with police officers at a dance resulted in a dead deputy on August 5, 1932, surrender was no longer an option for Clyde because he would get the electric chair. Recently released from prison, his elder brother Buck met Clyde, Bonnie and new recruit, 16-year-old W.O. Jones, hoping to persuade Clyde to surrender, but the vacation ended on April 13, 1933 when two police officers died in a shootout, and Buck and his fiance Blanche found themselves part of the gang. The gang became national celebrities after pictures of them posing with guns were found in their abandoned apartment. Several months later, Buck was severely wounded in another shootout with police, and died of his wounds shortly after a posse discovered the gang’s campsite. Hoping to gain more members for the gang, Clyde helped several prisoners break out of Eastham Prison Farm on January 16, 1934. Angered by the attack, the warden persuaded the governor of Texas to hire former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer to hunt down the gang. Betrayed by gang member Henry Methvin in exchange for a pardon, Bonnie and Clyde were lured into an ambush where they were killed on May 23, 1934.
When a guard is killed during an escape from Eastham Prison Farm organized by Bonnie Parker (Emily Brobst) and Clyde Barrow (Edward Bossert), Texas Department of Corrections Chief Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) convinces Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to send former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) to hunt the outlaws even though she had disbanded the Texas Rangers because they were unaccountable. Lucratively employed providing security for oil companies, Hamer rejects the offer because he had promised his wife (Kim Dickens) that he would retire. As Bonnie and Clyde continue to wreak havoc, he finally decides to go back into action but keeps the hunt quiet. Initially reluctant, Hamer allows his former partner Manny Gault (Woody Harrelson) to join him. Hoping to figure out the outlaws’ pattern, he tracks their routes according to their sightings. Tired of condescending treatment by Bureau agents, Hamer meets with Dallas Sheriff Smoot Schmid and Deputy Ted Hinton (Thomas Mann), who grew up with Clyde and Bonnie. The hunt becomes more personal when the outlaws kill two motorcycle police officers on Easter Sunday. At one point, the ex-Rangers come across the outlaw couple, but fail to catch them as Clyde proves that he is the better driver. Hoping to plant an informant in the gang, Hamer arranges for the release of convict Wade McNab (Josh Caras) but he is murdered by a suspicious Clyde. Figuring out that Bonnie and Clyde are hiding out with gang member Henry Methvin’s father in Louisiana, they approach Sheriff Henderson Jordan, who arranges for them to meet Ivy Methvin (W. Earl Brown) and make a deal. Assembling a posse composed of himself, Gault, Sheriff Jordan, Deputy Prentiss Oakley, Hinton and Dallas Deputy Bob Alcorn, Hamer makes Ivy pretend to have a flat tire to lure the outlaws into an ambush.
The script works hard to show that Bonnie Parker was a trigger-happy, murderous psychotic in order to justify her death during the ambush at the end of the movie, which requires stretching and mutilating the facts.
The movie begins with the breakout from Eastham, as do the inaccuracies. While they did smuggle guns into the prison farm, Bonnie and Clyde simply waited for the escapees, they did not fire a Thompson submachine gun on full automatic to signal the escapees, not even they were not that incompetent. The sound of the screen Bonnie firing the machine gun startles prisoner Joe Palmer, who accidentally shoots and kills a guard, even though the real convict had hated the guard and had simply seized the opportunity to kill him. Originally, only Clyde’s former partner Raymond Hamilton and his accomplice Palmer were supposed to be freed, but two more prisoners, Henry Methvin and Hilton Baybee, came along.
When the fictional Ma Ferguson was re-elected as governor in 1932, Frank Hamer was fired, so he was conveniently unemployed when Lee Simmons asked him to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde. While the screen Hamer initially refuses because he had promised his wife that he would retire, the real man had refused to work for Ferguson and had simply placed himself on inactive status to ensure that he could return to the Rangers if voters failed to re-elect Ma Ferguson. It was a wise move since she promptly fired all of the Rangers and replaced them with men who were more obedient. Unlike the movie’s version, the real Hamer’s main concern was that the governor would change her mind, and he accepted the offer only after Simmons agreed that the hunt would continue until the outlaws were captured or dead.
Why Frank Hamer and not some other Texas Ranger you ask? Frank Hamer had joined the Rangers in 1906, but the low salary drove him to work for periods of time as a city marshal, a special police officer for the mayor of Houston, and an inspector for the Cattle Raisers Association of Texas. Viewed as the best Ranger, Hamer was appointed senior captain of the Rangers, and worked with Prohibition agents to get the oil boomtowns under control in 1922. In addition, Hamer had battled the KKK, broke a ring of criminals and corrupt lawmen who lured unsuspecting men to commit bank robberies to kill them for the reward, risked his life to protect black prisoners from lynch mobs, and served as special investigator for the adjutant general, where he focused on cold cases, displaying determined investigative skills. He was the right man for the job.
The movie’s greatest weakness is that it does not show the real Hamer’s efforts to coordinate with many small-town sheriffs who fed him information and the hard work of following leads. After accepting Simmons’ offer, Hamer mined Dallas Sheriff Smoot Schmid for information about the gang, and met the sheriffs of other towns that had had run-ins with the outlaws. Schmid agreed to keep Hamer’s involvement secret, and assigned Deputy Bob Alcorn to work with Hamer, since he was familiar with the outlaws. They started their hunt in Louisiana because of the Methvin connection, and soon found the outlaws’ trail. Simmons arranged for Hamer to interview Hilton Bybee in prison, and Hamer convinced him to detail his experience with the gang, giving him a better idea of Clyde’s circuit, and confirmed that Methvin was part of the gang. Hamer followed the same routes used by the gang, driving long stretches and sleeping rough in order to better understand them.
Realizing that he needs better weapons to cope with the outlaws’ firepower, the movie’s Hamer buys out half of a gun shop, including a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) and a Thompson submachine gun, to the amazement of the stunned owner. It is a great scene but civilian use of BARs had been restricted by 1934. The outlaws had obtained their machine guns by robbing a National Guard armory, but Hamer acquired his through Simmons’ connections with law enforcement.
Determined to rehabilitate Hamer’s reputation, the screenwriter makes Hamer a genius investigator who perseveres despite interference from incompetent Bureau agents who are clearly more comfortable in a laboratory or behind a desk than in the field. Ineffective investigators, the film’s Bureau agents consistently miss obvious clues that are noticed by the ex-Rangers. While the screen Bureau agents are arrogant and contemptuous about the aging Texas Rangers, repeatedly warning them to stay away from the investigation, Hamer actually cooperated with Bureau agent Kindall. I want to be clear, Hamer deserves credit for tracking down the outlaws, but the script’s treatment of the Bureau agents is repulsive.
A key scene occurs when the screen outlaws kill two motorcycle policemen while waiting to meet their families for Easter, and Bonnie executes a wounded policeman. The scene portrays the genuine murder of two motorcycle policemen who had attempted to perform a routine search, although Clyde later said that he had only meant to capture them, but Methvin had panicked, misinterpreting his words “Let’s take them” to mean kill them. An eyewitness claimed to have seen Bonnie execute one of the wounded cops, even though his version was contradicted by other testimony, but any chance of Bonnie simply receiving a prison sentence had evaporated. Hamer figures out things the Feds could not, including that Bonnie had executed the cop, which seems unnecessary to show since there had been a witness.
Apparently, John Fusco, the screenwriter, could not accept that Hamer never came close to Bonnie and Clyde until the fateful ambush, so he added a car chase. Gault stumbles on them when they drive by in Coffeyville, Kansas, and fans literally swarm around the car, which is honestly ridiculous since the real outlaws were forced to sleep rough and bathe in streams to avoid attention. Gault’s discovery leads to a car chase, where Barrow outdrives them. To be fair, the script does use the aftermath of the car chase to show Hamer expressing amazement that Clyde had driven several hundred miles overnight, which is true. The real outlaw was an incompetent with a twitchy trigger finger, but he possessed an astonishing mental map of the road networks in several states and the ability to drive hundreds of miles without rest.
Furthermore, the entire sequence of events with Wade McNab is altered. Hoping to plant a man inside the gang, the screen Hamer arranges the release of McNab, who had failed to reach the outlaws’ car in time during the escape attempt. After Hamer and Gault make contact with him, McNab is promptly murdered. While it is true that the real McNab was released on furlough, the furlough had been arranged by escaped convict Joe Palmer, who wanted revenge on the trustee for the numerous beatings he had received at Eastham, and enlisted Clyde to assist with McNab’s murder. The idea that Hamer and Gault arrange for the release of a convict and then approach him in a crowded bar is beyond silly, since it would be the informant’s death sentence.
Continuing the effort to demonize Bonnie Parker, there is a repeat performance of the Easter Sunday shooting, where another two cops are killed and one is again executed by Bonnie. Admittedly, the testimony from witnesses on the Easter Sunday shooting is conflicting, but there is no debate about whether Bonnie killed a second police officer because he was not killed. On April 6, the outlaws waved guns to force a truck driver to pull their car out of the mud. A passing motorist saw the scene, and called the police, but when two policemen showed up, 63-year-old Cal Campbell was killed and Percy Boyd was taken hostage. They kept Boyd with them for a day, and even took him on a picnic. When he was released, Bonnie told him to tell the press that she does not smoke cigars.
The screen Manny Gault is unemployed, living with his daughter in a house about to be repossessed by the bank until Hamer gives him one more chance to go on a hunt. Actually, the head of the Texas Highway Patrol was understandably furious that two of his men had been murdered by the Barrow Gang, and offered Hamer one of his men, so he chose Manny Gault, since they had worked together as Rangers. However, Harrelson’s cheerful Gault is a necessary counterbalance to Costner’s relentlessly grim Hamer, making the pursuit of the outlaws much easier to watch.
While the fictional Hamer finds Methvin’s house and asks the local sheriff to set up a meeting with Ivy Methvin, the real man’s role was more passive. In fact, Methvin’s father was located after a long search by a local sheriff. Methvin had been hard to find since he moved frequently. Learning that the police suspected that he was helping Bonnie and Clyde, Methvin’s father Ivy arranged a meeting with Sheriff Jordan to exchange information about the outlaws in exchange for avoiding arrest for harboring outlaws. Jordan then met with Hamer and Agent Kindell, and Hamer agreed that if Ivy set up the outlaws, his son would not go back to prison. Ivy was taking a risk since he knew that Bonnie and Clyde would kill him if they became suspicious. Hamer talked to Simmons, who persuaded the governor to offer a full pardon to Henry Methvin.
The screen Ivy suggests that they kill Bonnie and Clyde on the road, rather than shoot up the nice house Clyde bought him. Actually, Ivy Methvin opposed a raid on the house because he understandably worried that his family would be hurt unless the outlaws were taken completely by surprise, so Hamer and Jordan planned to ambush Bonnie and Clyde on the twisting road that led to the house.
On the evening of May 22, 1934, Hamer received a call from Jordan, telling to come with his men, so he called Dallas and asked Hinton and Alcorn to meet up with him and Gault. They could not reach agent Kindell since he was investigating a kidnapping, but they were joined by Jordan and Deputy Oakley, forming a posse of six men. Jordan convinced Ivy to park his truck at the ambush site to force the outlaws to slow down, and get out to help him fix a tire. Hamer then spaced the men out at ten feet intervals. Hamer and Jordan respected each other but they argued over whether to demand the outalws surrender. Hamer thought Jordan would be a dead man if he did that, but he finally agreed to try to take them alive. The debate over surrender became pointless when Oakley, the least experienced member of the posse thought that the outlaws were about to try to escape and opened fire, causing the rest of the posse to start firing as well. When they finally stopped shooting, the lawmen approached the car carefully, but the outlaws were dead. The car had been hit by a total of 167 bullets and buckshot.
Gault has been struggling with nightmares throughout the movie because he and Hamer had killed fifty men one evening as rangers in south Texas. When Captain Hamer took over the raid on a band of Mexican bandits, he learned that previous raids had always lost a man every time they shouted hands up, so Hamer said just shoot, and they wiped out a camp of outlaws.
I think the story is based on a shootout that occurred when the real Hamer was a member of a Prohibition unit after smuggling had exploded across the border. Many of the smugglers were former villistas, who had been disbanded after Pancho Villa was defeated in the Third Battle of Juarez in June 1919. Hamer was assigned to El Paso, the smuggling center, which was filled with violence. The city had always attracted gunfighters and had been dangerous for lawmen, but the massive profits of smuggling caused the violence to explode. After Prohibition agents caught small groups of smugglers, the smugglers simply traveled in large, armed bands and fought agents rather than surrender. Most of the agents were inexperienced men from the East and Midwest, and a number died during shootouts with smugglers because they would stand up and say “Hands Up”, so Hamer led a posse where he and another ex-Ranger simply waited until the smugglers had crossed the border and then shot them without warning.
As the fictional Hamer and Gault watch a truck bring in the outlaws’ car, a reporter offers a huge sum for a quote, and Hamer simply turns away in disgust. Actually, the real man understood the value of publicity. Responding to a reporter, Hamer stated “Sure, I can tell you what happened this morning. We just shot the devil out of them, that’s all. That’s all there was to it. We just laid a trap for them. A steel trap. You know, Bessemer steel, like the gun barrels are made of.” Later, he added “I hate to bust a cap on a woman, especially when she was sitting down. However, if it wouldn’t have been her, it would have been us.” While the disdain for reporters is fanciful, the scene of the huge crowd swarming past the police guards to snatch souvenirs from the dead bodies is accurate and suitably macabre.
Aside from the unnecessary demonization of Bonnie Parker and the transformation of Frank Hamer from an experienced former Texas Ranger and determined detective into a super-sleuth, the film is enjoyable. In particular, the script captures the mood of the time, when the outlaws seemed unstoppable. Moreover, the scenes of the soul-destroying poverty in the migrant camp and in Dallas during the Depression are stellar, painful but stellar. The scenes were relatively brief and not integral elements of the plot, but the director and the production designer deserve praise for the superb period detail.
Speaking of the director, John Lee Hancock directed The Alamo (2004), which was excellent with impressive historical accuracy, but he was more involved in the script. However, The Highwaymen was a personal project for John Fusco, known for Young Guns (1988), who had spent decades researching the true story of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer and trying to make a film. Hamer had received a horrible portrayal in the film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), as a Texas Ranger who hunted down and ambushed Bonnie and Clyde in revenge for a public humiliation. Hoping to obtain the support of the Hamer family, Fusco met with Frank Hamer’s son, making a personal pledge to rehabilitate Hamer’s reputation. Fusco originally wanted Paul Newman and Robert Redford to play Hamer and Gault but Newman developed cancer and could not make the movie. The project ended up on Netflix because the streaming service had hosted Fusco’s Marco Polo and producer Casey Silver’s Godless.
Credit goes to Costner and Harrelson for playing their age. At one point, Hamer and Gault nearly have heart attacks during a failed chase of a teenaged suspect.
Hoping to better understand Clyde Barrow, Hamer has a surprisingly honest conversation with Clyde’s father, and reveals that he had wanted to be a preacher, but his life was saved by a black field hand who took him to get medical treatment after he was ambushed by his boss. Which sounds like an attempt to make Hamer appear more human but is completely true.
In the end, the movie is not bad, but not great. Much of the credit given to Hamer in the film should have gone to the numerous local sheriffs and FBI agents who helped end the outlaws’ killing spree. The debate over whether the lawmen should shoot first or try to capture the outlaws occupies far too much of the script. Personally, I don’t care, Bonnie and Clyde had already ended the lives of numerous poorly paid law officers and store owners, and would likely have taken more lives in the future, so they needed killing.