Being a historian, I love a good period drama. I especially like it when those dramas are reasonably accurate. Throw in some great acting, sweet cars, and even sweeter firearms — that’s an evening of entertainment I can get behind. The Netflix Original, The Highwaymen is all that and more. It takes the “folk hero” story of Bonnie and Clyde and turns it on its head.
Newsflash: Bonnie and Clyde Were Not Heroes
I like a good gangster movie as much as the next guy, but I never liked the supposedly classic 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde. The convoluted love story, the tragic victimhood of the protagonists, the patently false portrayal of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer…I thought it pretty much sucked. The Highwaymen fixed a lot of that for me, particularly the latter.
Yeah, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow lived in a downtrodden part of Dallas called The Devil’s Back Porch and that was made even tougher by the depredations of the Great Depression. But so did lots of other people who chose not to go on an extended crime spree, killing anyone who got in their way.
But, like the James Gang before them, they were seen by many as popular heroes who were, as a character in the movie says, “Only taking from the banks who are taking from the poor folk, like me.” They were indeed perceived as modern-day Robin Hoods. But their violent side was often overlooked in the glare of their celebrity status. As Texas Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, played by Kathy Bates, observes, “Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant in the head for four dollars and a tank of gas?”
I liked that The Highwaymen showed Parker and Barrow for what they were, not shying away from killing people on the road for their car or gunning down policemen and then finishing them off with a shotgun blast to the face. It isn’t gruesome or gory, but it’s as brutal as it needs to be to make the point. They aren’t romanticized and the idol-worshipping public is made to look shallow, fickle, and even ugly. In fact, the two outlaws themselves have something like three lines in the entire film and we don’t see their faces clearly until the very end.
Frank Hamer and Maney Gault Were the Real Deal
In keeping with that approach, the movie focuses on the two lawmen, former Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, who were put on the road to track down and stop Bonnie and Clyde. This makes it a very different film from the 1967 version. Hamer and Gault are veteran lawmen, aptly played by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson. I kind of chuckled when I watched Costner because I sometimes thought of him as “John Dutton — Texas Ranger,” though the real Hamer was clearly a better man than the fictional Dutton.
The movie thoroughly rehabilitates the image of Hamer that was besmirched in Bonnie and Clyde, where his apparent bumbling nature prompted a lawsuit against the filmmaker by his widow. She won, by the way. The real Hamer was tough, and he got results. He is often considered the greatest Ranger of all time. Gault was cut from the same cloth, and in a time when J. Edgar Hoover was specifically targeting college graduates as FBI Special Agents, it took real, experienced lawmen to run down criminals like the Barrow Gang.
Most people probably already know the story of how Hamer, Gault, Dallas County Deputies Ted Hinton and Bob Alcorn, and Bienville Parish, Louisiana Sheriff Henderson Jordan and Deputy Prentiss Oakley ambushed the outlaws on May 23, 1934. But the grit of the movie is how they get to that place. The interaction between Costner and Harrelson not only entertains but pulls back the curtain, just a bit, on what drove such men to do their jobs.
Barrow had run mostly unchecked in a giant circuit covering the middle of the country for four years, surviving multiple shootouts with the police through his belief in superior firepower and mobility. 104 days after Hamer and Gault took to the road in pursuit, Barrow and Parker were riddled with bullets on the side of a country road in Louisiana. Hamer matched Barrow’s firepower and was the one lawman able to get ahead of the outlaw on the road.
Enough about the plot. Even though we all know beforehand how it ends, it’s worth a watch. On to the cars and guns.
Classic Cars and Classic Guns: What’s Not to Like?
The movie opens with a maroon 1934 Ford V8 approaching out of a rippling heat mirage in rural Texas. The Ford V8 was the premier automobile of its day and features prominently in the movie. One scene even references Barrow’s famous letter to Henry Ford extolling the virtues of his “Dandy Car.” Barrow was justly famous for his driving skills and there’s plenty of driving in the movie. We even see Clyde’s sweet shoes in a couple of scenes. He was a murderous dirtbag, but he had good taste in clothes. For 1934 anyway.
As for the guns, well, you see how that’s gonna go early on when Hamer walks into a Lubbock, Texas gun store and embarks on a shopping spree that dreams are made of. In one of the movie’s great scenes, he buys an M1921AC Thompson submachine gun, Colt R80 Monitor machine rifle, scoped Springfield M1903 rifle, Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), Winchester Model 1894 rifle, Remington Model 11 12-gauge riot gun, Smith & Wesson Model 1917 revolver, and an M1911 (or some form of Colt 1911 pistol). All off the shelf. They even helped him carry it to the car along with a crate of ammo, magazines, and half-moon clips.
Now, the real Frank Hamer did not get his guns that way. From what I know, he either owned them himself, or they were provided to him by the State of Texas, including the Colt Monitor. It’s still a great scene, though Hollywood does show its lack of knowledge with the actors constantly flagging each other with the muzzles of several firearms.
A few of the guns from the store are never seen again, but the Colt Monitor, Browning BAR, and Remington Model 11 come back frequently. Hamer carries the Remington shotgun in several scenes and he and Gault both use the Monitor, including in the climactic ambush scene. Gault totes the Monitor there, though, in reality, Hamer loaned the Colt to Dallas County Deputy Ted Hinton for the showdown. Gault likely has the Monitor because, earlier in the film, he asks Hamer about it, saying, “You got one of those for me?” In the movie, Hinton uses the BAR in the ambush.
Both Hamer and Gault carry a Colt Single Action Army revolver in the movie, with Costner using a replica of the real Frank Hamer’s custom engraved weapon. Hamer’s blaster of choice for the ambush was the Remington Model 8 autoloading rifle chambered in .35 Remington. The real Hamer’s Remington is said to have had an extended 15-round magazine, though the movie doesn’t show that. Hamer was presented with a custom engraved Model 8 by Remington after the outlaws were brought down. The real Maney Gault also used a Remington Model 8 in the ambush.
The Winchester Model 1894 is well represented in the movie, outside of the gun store scene, being carried by prison guards at the Eastham Prison Farm and Sheriff Henderson Jordan in the ambush scene. The other guns involved in the movie ambush were the Thompson, wielded by Bienville Parish Deputy Prentiss Oakley, and Deputy Bob Alcorn’s Winchester Model 1907 self-loading rifle.
The real Deputy Oakley also used a Remington Model 8 in the ambush and is generally credited with the initial shot, a head shot on Barrow that killed him instantly. The movie doesn’t show this, since Hamer and Gault are the central characters, thus initiating the firing themselves. The movie shows the ambushers drawing their pistols after emptying their rifles into the car, which apparently did happen. After all, Barrow had quite the reputation as a gunfighter.
A couple of other notable firearms sightings in the movie include Gault’s double-barreled coach gun, a prison guard’s Winchester Model 12 Riot Gun, and Bonnie Parker’s cut-down Remington Model 11 20-gauge shotgun, which she uses to dispatch wounded policemen. Parker also uses a Thompson during the prison break scene at the beginning of the movie. In reality, Barrow is said to have used a BAR in that role, suppressing the response of the prison guards to the jailbreak.
Barrow’s favorite weapon is known to have been a shortened BAR, of which he had several that he stole from National Guard Armories. They make repeated appearances in the movie, including when Gault sees the Barrow car cruise by him while having himself “a pleasant relief” behind a Kansas drugstore. A couple of BARs in the back seat is kind of a hint.
A Good Movie
All in all, The Highwaymen is a good movie. There were a couple of minor things I didn’t like, such as the flagging in the gun store and Hamer yelling “Stick ‘em up!” when confronting Barrow and Parker in the climactic scene. Too stereotypical, but for all I know, the real Hamer may have said that. I suspect, however, that it goes back to Gault’s tale of a Ranger operation against some Mexican bandits. Watch the movie and see what you think. But that’s minor, nitpicky stuff when placed against the movie as a whole.
Like I said before, I like that Bonnie and Clyde are shown to be what they were: cold-blooded killers. Yes, there is some dispute over whether Bonnie ever actually shot anyone, but she sure didn’t seem to mind going along with it even then. The story is good, Harrelson and Costner give compelling performances, and the settings are authentic. They even staged the ambush at the real site, going to the trouble of trucking in the dirt to place on the paved road and planting trees to make it look as it did in 1934.
Finally, perhaps the most remarkable juxtaposition in The Highwaymen was the reaction of Bonnie and Clyde’s adoring fans in life and death. The “fan club” at the Kansas drugstore morphs into a frenzied mob in Arcadia, Louisiana, fighting for souvenirs from the bullet-riddled car and the bloody corpses inside. It was ugly, as it was meant to be. It is also based on fact. The real Hamer and Gault refused to over-publicize the event and turned down lucrative offers to do so. They were obviously men of a different time, which manifests itself throughout the movie. I don’t know if there’s a lesson in that or not.