An historian’s review of The Highwaymen: “Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant point blank in the head for four dollars and a tank of gas?”

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The line of dialogue used above in my title is from Netflix’s new original film, The Highwaymen, and says much about the corrective the film gives us about the two infamous outlaws, Bonnie & Clyde.

Disclaimer: I’m certainly not an expert on Bonnie & Clyde. Yet besides baseball history and film history, true crime was one of the first things I dabbled in when I was a kid just falling in love with history, and I remain a frequent reader of those topics today (antebellum and Civil War America are my fields of specialty). So while I have done no original research on Bonnie and Clyde, over the years I’ve taught about them, and especially their era, in my US history courses. As a cinema history buff, I also understand their place in film history.

I first saw the Arthur Penn directed Bonnie and Clyde on VHS as a teenager, and it immediately bothered me, even though I appreciated it as an excellent film. Without knowing anything about the true facts, I recognized who the real bad guys were.

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Dunaway and Beatty as the glamorized Bonnie and Clyde

Sure, it was made during the antihero, counterculture, stick-it-to-the man late 1960s (and spawned a new generation of director-as-auteur films and anti-establishment movies), but I saw it as a young teen in the conservative 80s and was as curious about the cops that hunted down the murderous duo as I was Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty’s sexy and charismatic depictions of the title characters.

When I did a little reading, I was angered by the depiction of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, a  legendary law enforcer well before he tracked down Bonnie & Clyde. Played by Denver Pyle (soon to be Uncle Jesse on TV’s Dukes of Hazzard), the film portrays him (in completely invented scenes) as a petty man who engineers the duo’s deaths mainly out of spiteful vengeance because they publicly made him look like a bumbling idiot and fool.

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Pyle’s Hamer, ridiculed by the duo in a totally fabricated scene

He’s clearly the film’s bad guy, as the free-wheeling, deeply in love couple go on an exciting crime spree, staying one step ahead of the law, entertaining themselves and a country in the throes of the depression, before meeting a tragic Shakespearean-like ending.

This romanticized take on Bonnie & Clyde endures, a product of the film’s cultural power. Even a recent PBS documentary that tried to set the record straight relied on commentators that were clearly admirers of the outlaws and/or related to them. The effort to de-romanticize the couple was mainly an acknowledgement that their life on the run, living out of stolen cars and one step ahead of the law, was exhausting. Awww, poor things!  More recent, NBC’s Timeless did paint them as killers and Hamer as “a good man,” but dwelled mostly on how much in love the couple were, causing the show’s heroes to realize their own affection for each other. Aww, how sweet.

I’m certainly not the only one annoyed by the 1967 film’s impact. Frank Hamer’s family sued the movie’s producers in 1968, winning a hefty settlement, but the damage was done.  Legendary actor Robert Duvall (one of my all-time favs) has always made no secret of his disdain for the film, openly criticizing the acting as being over-the-top, but especially its treatment of Hamer and the Texas Rangers. And John Fusco, one of the producers and writer of this new movie, hated Bonnie and Clyde too.

Approaching Hamer Jr. for help and his blessing in making a corrective film, Fusco found the legendary lawmen’s son understandably leery of Hollywood, expressing outright hatred for Warren Beatty’s role in slandering his father, and he labeled the famous criminals “two pint-sized punks who weren’t worth the caps that were busted on them.”  Fusco was able to win Hamer Jr.’s cooperation, however, when convincing the lawman’s son that he agreed with those sentiments.

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The real Gault (above) and Hamer

The result was a script about Hamer and his ranger partner Maney Gault, garnering interest from Robert Redford and Paul Newman (wow, what a movie that would have made).

Unfortunately the project got tied up in Hollywood limbo, until now, with Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the Texas rangers that hunted and gunned down the pint sized punks. They’re no Redford and Newman, but they’re dang good replacements.

Unlike some historians, I am just fine when a film takes certain liberties with the facts if it serves a greater truth. For a tight two hour movie, events have to be contracted, some people and their actions have to be condensed into composite characters, action scenes have to be heightened. Further, dialogue has to be invented that gives background and fleshes out characters and thus sometimes has them speaking in ways they may not have actually spoken.

These things all-too-often annoy nit-picky historians that do not understand the craft and needs of the filmmaker, especially when it steps into their field of specialty. But if these liberties are done in a way that paints an overall picture and interpretation that is accurate (sadly not the case with the 1967 classic), I’m just fine with it.

This is definitely the case with The Highwaymen, as it sometimes plays fast and loose with the specifics, and yet does so in ways revealing historically accurate generalizations.  A perfect example is a scene in which our heroes (the rangers!) encounter their prey, fail to catch them because a crowd of the killers’ fans and admirers get in the way, resulting in a car chase.  Clyde then does some slick driving in a dusty open field that loses Hamer and Gault. This simply didn’t happen.

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The real Clyde Barrow posing with his car of choice, a Ford V-8

But the invented scene reveals historical truth: Bonnie and Clyde were cultural heroes to many at the time, he was damn good behind the wheel of a V-8 Ford, specialized in alluding the police, and often covered hundreds of miles in doing so.

Other liberties are taken. Maney Gault didn’t join Hamer until the later days of the chase, for example, but his presence throughout the film helps flesh out Hamer’s past and devotion to justice, and essentially becomes his inner conscience. While Hamer was chasing them, the Barrow Gang had two separate events in which they killed law enforcers. The details of the first one, the killing of two motorcycle cops in what are known as the “Grapevine” murders, are taken from eyewitness testimony that has been questioned. The second murder is fudged because the details are quicker to depict than the actual details would have been. Some scenes are complete inventions, but serve the purpose of showing the support the killers had from family, friends, and admirers, and the lengths to which law enforcement was willing to go in order to bag them.

But these liberties create a movie with a steady narrative flow, character development and drama, and yet still gives the audience a needed and accurate historical corrective. Bonnie and Clyde were bad people, committing hundreds of robberies (both large and petty) across many states and murdering 13 people (or possibly more), 9 of which were law enforcers.

In depression-era America they were viewed as modern-day Robin Hoods. But they definitely weren’t, as small-time mom-and-pop stores and isolated gas stations were their favorite targets, not the hated banks of the Great Depression, and they were not handing out to the poor.

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The most famous picture of these two sociopaths

The killers were extremely heavily armed (with military grade weapons like a BAR), making them a serious danger to even an experienced manhunter and killer like Hamer. Yet despite the help they got from family, friends, and admirers, Hamer chased them down using old fashioned methods, cutting deals, and setting up an ambush on an isolated rural backroad near Gibsland, Louisiana that brutally ended their sinful ways.

And he did so because of a devotion to the law and his anger that cop killers were being treated as heroes. These historically accurate broad truths are ably revealed in The Highwaymen.

Look, the film is no masterpiece, but the performances from the two famous leads carry it along nicely and give it punch. It isn’t the sexy and freewheeling 1967 film. Rather, it is appropriately dark and gritty. The Great Depression setting provides accurate and interesting visuals and the story is nicely situated within the era.

Admittedly, there is some weak dialogue (but some that is excellent), and one or two scenes feature moments that way too conveniently serve the narrative. This is not a complex film, although it surprisingly dwells on the psychological consequences of killing (even in the name of justice) in ways that most action films do not, featuring some good contemplative dialogue. In the end, it is an enjoyable, old fashioned movie, where the good and bad guys are clearly distinguished.

****Warning, spoilers ahead as I further address the film’s accuracy. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to jump now to the last two paragraphs****

Bonnie Parker is definitely depicted as one of the bad ones, and I can tell you now that many Bonnie and Clyde buffs/amateur historians are going to be miffed about it.

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She was clowning around in this pic, but make no mistake, this is no heroine

In The Highwaymen, she is just as involved in the shootings as Clyde, providing covering fire in shootouts and brutally offing a motorcycle cop as he lay disabled on the ground.

These facts are disputed, and many of her sympathizers point to the fact that under oath gang members absolved her of killings. Yet eyewitness testimony does exist that she did fire at law enforcement. Further, the “Grapevine killing” scene (the killing of two motorcycle cops that had stumbled upon the gang and thought they were stranded motorists) is based on the testimony of one witness that was the closest to the murders of several other witnesses, a farmer that claimed Bonnie delivered the coup de grace to one of the officers. Gaining his 15 minutes of fame, the farmer told his story over and over, even for newsreels, and some claim his details changed over time. This has led many to discredit his testimony,  embracing instead that of a married couple that were farther away with an obscured view and that said Bonnie didn’t shoot.

We’ll likely never know the truth for sure, but I am fine with the film going with the original witness, because people at the time believed it, Hamer believed it, the ballistics on the scene supports it, and it led to more public support for downing the duo. The scene therefore serves the greater purpose of painting Bonnie as equally guilty. Heck, even she didn’t try to deny it: shortly after the grapevine killings the gang killed another cop (depicted in the film) and shot and kidnapped yet another (left vague in the film) letting him go with Bonnie’s only request being that he tell the press (that had pinned her with one of the Grapevine killings) that she didn’t smoke cigars! Apparently, she felt that was more damaging to her public image than was being a cop killer.

But whether she pulled the trigger or not, make no mistake, Bonnie Parker was going along with hundreds of robberies, and running with and abetting (and bedding) a repeated murderer. She doesn’t deserve our sympathy, and by depicting her popping off the policemen, the movie makes that truth clear and palpable.

The other aspect of the film that requires the most scrutiny regarding accuracy is the set-up and carrying out of the famous last ambush. The six members of the posse (led by Hamer and including Gault, 2 Dallas deputies, and 2 local Louisiana officers) all told different stories.

How was it set up? The movie’s story is that Hamer and Gault predicted (based on the gang’s established pattern of going to a member’s home after each spree) that the killers would show up at the Louisiana home of the father of one of Clyde’s gang members, Henry Methvin.

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Woody and Costner in pursuit

Methvin’s father was then pressured to help set up the ambush if his son was spared the death penalty (and possibly all charges) in Texas (other states’s charges would still be in place). The ambush was then arranged as soon as Henry could slip free from the couple, as the group had an agreement that if they got separated they would meet up at (or possibly nearby) the Methvin place near Gibsland, Louisiana.

Is that actually how the deal went down?  It is possible that Methvin’s father made the initial contact with law enforcement, not the other way around. Further, was he a willing participant, as in the 1967 movie, or a reluctant or even forced one? Or might he not even been involved at all?  We will likely never know the exact details because Hamer was intent on keeping his methods secret, covering up details as much as possible and protecting sources.

Which is also the case with the ambush. In my mind, the big question is how the posse managed to get Barrow to slow down or even stop, as he normally pushed his stolen V-8 Fords on back country roads at top speeds. The generally accepted version is that they used Methvin’s father’s truck to slow Clyde down, placing it in the road as though it were broken down. But was the father also willingly out in the road as a decoy by his truck?

In the 1970s, one posse member claimed Methvin’s father was never a willing participant in the deal and that Hamer handcuffed him to a tree on the side of the road and then used his truck as the decoy. In the 1967 film version, he is a willing participant, but The Highwaymen plausibly splits the difference, having the father agree to the deal, but depicting Hamer as not trusting that he wouldn’t warn the killers, and thus forcing the father to be there with them on the side of the road (but as a decoy, not shackled to a tree).

After the car slowed or stopped, were Bonnie and Clyde offered a chance to put their hands up? All six guys told different stories. Why?  Some argue that the three groups distrusted and disliked each other, so they all told self -serving stories. Perhaps the differences were just a product of the natural phenomenon that different people will often see the same event in different ways, particularly if it was fast and violent. Personally,  I think it is a product of both those things, but also that Hamer swore them all to secrecy about what actually happened, because it is very likely the first shot was fired prematurely, without warning, before the killers even made a move.

Again, we will never know for sure what actually happened that morning, but the film depicts (in a scene filmed on the actual site of the real ambush) that a warning was given.

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The ambush site today. The film was shot here, though it required covering the road with dirt and bringing in foliage so that the woods appear closer to the road, as they were then.

Hamer himself delivers the demand of “hands up,” coming out into the road (VERY unlikely), followed by a few breathless moments of fear on both sides. Bonnie then makes a move for her weapon, leading to the excessively lethal barrage.

Yet once again, I am OK with this depiction, because the brief pause gives us the film’s first close-up of Bonnie and Clyde’s faces. Before that moment, we only see them briefly and usually from a distance (something some commentators have criticized). Yet the beauty of this decision is that once we see Hamer and Gault’s prey for the first time up close, we realize, as the two rangers must have, that these monsters were essentially just kids that went down a very wrong path, paying an appropriately heavy price for it.

(And yes, the scenes involving crazed souvenir hunters is accurate, with the reality being even more insane than is depicted).

Thus the film’s ending is shocking and somber, just as was the ending of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. But where that film wants us to feel sad for the tragic couple and angered by the brutal trap that was set from them, The Highwayman simply wants us to feel the tragedy of violence.

The ending is appropriately not rousing and triumphant, as our heroes literally ride off into the sunset. The jolting and somber finale makes the film’s point, as Bonnie and Clyde clearly understood, that those that live by the sword will die by the sword, and that the wages of sin are death.

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Actual photograph from moments after the slaughter

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