In an era when every third film out of Hollywood is a remake, seeing a new take on an old story is refreshing. The Highwaymen, by Netflix, approaches a tale we have probably seen before, the story of Bonnie and Clyde, from a new angle — the perspective of the lawmen who brought them to justice. The film had its world premiere at the SXSW Conference, which took place in Austin, TX, from March 8-17.
The story of criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow has been told in two theatrical movies, a musical, a TV-Movie, a direct-to-video movie and two TV series episodes. (Did I mention remakes?) The new version, which stars Kevin Costner as legendary lawman Frank Hamer and Woody Harrelson as his sidekick Manny Gault, will be satisfying for those who don’t think murderous criminals should be idolized.
The Highwaymen delivers on excitement, good acting, and more historical accuracy than its predecessors. It also contains an Austin angle and lessons for filmmakers, thanks to the excellent job by director John Lee Hancock.
A Little History
During the American economic depression which began with the 1929 stock market crash, popular discontent was directed against “the rich” and “the bankers”. Gangsters such as John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd became popular culture icons for robbing from the rich. Newspapers used the sensationalism generated by criminals to sell papers. Bonnie and Clyde proved an excellent way to boost sales. Not only did they rob banks, but their story involved illicit sex.
Although idolized for their bank robberies, Bonnie and Clyde preferred to rob small stores or rural gas stations. Along the way they murdered at least nine police officers and several civilians during a spree involving over 100 felonies.
Enter the Texas Rangers. Well, not exactly. The Rangers go far back in Texas history to its pre-statehood days. Famous for tough treatment of outlaws and administering frontier justice, they were disbanded and reconstituted several times. They were downsized because of the depression, then supported Governor Ross Sterling in his re-election race. Sterling lost to Miriam Amanda “Ma” Ferguson, played in the film by Kathy Bates, who retaliated by firing all the Rangers in 1933.
The film begins with Costner’s character, Frank Hamer, happily retired and living the good life with his wife Gladys, played by Kim Dickens. The inciting incident is a jail break coordinated by the Barrow Gang of some of their associates imprisoned at the Eastham Prison Farm in Houston County. The breakout is politically embarrassing, and a guard was killed during the breakout.
Pressure is put upon Governor Ferguson to bring back the Texas Rangers to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde. She refuses but agrees to put Hamer and Gault on the payroll in the highway department. The two former Rangers are now the highwaymen.
Hamer is reluctant to leave his retirement, but the seriousness of the situation impels him forward. From this point the film evolves into a cops-and-robbers chase story, and the relationship between Hamer and Gault make it a charming buddy movie as well. Harrelson’s portrayal of Gault evokes classic sidekicks like Pat Buttram and adds comic relief to the blood and violence.
The film premiered in Austin’s historic Paramount Theatre which was built in 1915. In 1967, the theatre was the site of the Austin premiere of Bonnie and Clyde. In the audience that night, sat Mrs. Hamer who had heard that the film mocked her husband and made him look foolish. In the 1967 film, Hamer was played by Denver Pyle, an established character actor known, according to his IMDB bio, for “playing drawling, somewhat slow Southern types”.
Mrs. Hamer concluded that the film made her late husband Frank, who died in 1955, look like a buffoon. The next day, she, and her son Frank Hamer, Jr., began legal action against Warner Bros.-Seven Arts for defamation of character. In 1971 they received an undisclosed out-of-court settlement.
Now, in Austin, Frank Hamer has also received cinematic justice.
No Close Ups
Director John Lee Hancock had at least two challenges in creating the film. Hancock, whose other projects have included The Blind Side, Snow White and the Huntsman, Saving Mr. Banks, and The Founder, faced two challenges with this film. The one involved the nature of the story itself, and the other a decision he apparently made.
How do you keep the interest up in a story to which all but the most cinematically innocent will know the ending? The story becomes about process. The conflict Hamer faces. Shall he leave his young, rich wife and risk being killed for a governor who abolished the agency he spent his life serving? When he goes to reconnect with Gault, he is again conflicted. Gault is kind of crazy. Will he be a help or hindrance? The backroom politics and political hypocrisy by Governor Ferguson also come into play.
Spoiler: Bonnie and Clyde get killed at the end.
The second challenge, which I am assuming was Hancock’s decision, was to avoid glamorizing Bonnie and Clyde. Although the crime couple appear off and on throughout the film as they are pursued by Hamer and Gault, we rarely see a close-up of them. The one exception: when Bonnie kills a wounded police officer in cold blood.
Attention Hollywood: No more remakes of this story. Mr. Hancock has nailed it.
The Highwaymen begins streaming on Netflix on March 29.
(Photos by author)