Despite its unusually-large budget for a Netflix original movie and big names like Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, and Kathy Bates, “The Highwaymen” hasn’t gotten much attention since its release in March. But the story of the retired Texas Rangers’ manhunt for Bonnie and Clyde deserves more accolades than it has been given.
Today’s entertainment industry is inundated with huge action films. Everything from “John Wick,” to the “Fast and Furious,” and the Marvel universe films, our culture has become obsessed with the big, the grandiose, the shoot-‘em-up-and-save-the-universe flicks with heroes like Jason Bourne and Captain America. So films like “The Highwaymen,” which follows the true story of Frank Hamer and Maney Gault’s manhunt for 1930s murderous gangsters, Bonnie and Clyde, get lost in the mix. This real-life story is not flashy enough for a modern audience. But the historical accuracy, nuance, and portrayal of two legendary Texas Rangers is excellent.
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were a legendary criminal couple that traveled around the middle U.S. leading their murderous “Barrow gang” of outlaws during the Great Depression. They were known for bank robberies and small-store and gas station hold-ups. They were responsible for the deaths of at least 13 people, probably nine of which were law enforcement officers.
In 1934, after Bonnie and Clyde orchestrated the prison break in Texas known as the “Eastham Breakout,” the state of Texas and the entire federal government was determined to end Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow gang. So the Texas Department of Corrections contacted one of the most legendary Texas Rangers, Captain Frank Hamer, played by Kevin Costner in the movie.
Hamer, teaming up with Maney Gault, was asked to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde in 1934. Though no longer active Rangers, Hamer and Gault finished the job.
Hamer was one of the most feared and respected people in Texas. Credited with 53 to 70 kills, wounded 17 times, left for dead at least four times, and with a reputation for inflexible adherence to what he thought was right, he became Bonnie and Clyde’s shadow as he chased them to their violent end.
Costner’s portrayal of Hamer was stunning. From all known accounts, Hamer was quiet with an unimposing presence but extremely tenacious and experienced. He had seen the brutality and the last of the old, wild West. Costner encapsulates the character so well that even as the star of the movie, he is not imposing. He is simply a man, resolutely and wisely doing his job. He does not ask for dramatic attention, but is tense and deadly, drawing the viewer into his phlegmatic character to the point of fascination.
Gault, Hamer’s partner in the manhunt, was also a retired Texas Ranger, known for being quiet, but honest and reliable. Though he became a legend, Gault originally worked at a furniture manufacturing plant, and only became a Texas Ranger after getting involved in undercover moonshine investigations.
From all accounts, Gault was fairly similar to Hamer. But Harrelson did an excellent job showing the similarities while also bringing a lighter side to his character so that he and Costner were distinct characters. Hamer and Gault were long-time friends and Harrelson and Costner played their relationship perfectly.
The film accurately shows that the duo spent a lot of time on the road. A lot. They drove from town to town, always one step behind the criminal couple who were sprinting from state to state and hiding out.
From Feb. 12 to May 23, 1934, Hamer hunted Bonnie and Clyde and studied the gang’s movements. Both in the movie and real-life Gault and Hamer were not Jason Bournes, sprinting through cities and killing people with their bare hands. Gault was 48 and Hamer was 50 at the time, they couldn’t run very fast, and neither of them had been active Rangers for some time. But they were tenacious and experienced, methodically hunting down the criminals.
Bonnie and Clyde’s death was violent. Known for driving up and shooting lawmen point-blank and carrying a small arsenal in their car, Hamer and Gault and other lawmen prepared a road ambush for Bonnie and Clyde. In the film, up to the point of the ambush, Bonnie and Clyde’s faces are not shown. But finally, when Bonnie and Clyde drove up, Hamer stepped out and both Bonnie and Clyde’s faces are shown fully as guns are pointed at them. The lawmen then fired 130 rounds of ammunition at the couple as they sat in their car, with Bonnie’s bologna sandwich on her lap. Both Bonnie and Clyde were shot well over 50 times, as the movie well displayed with the filming of two bodies being shot to pieces and falling dead in the front seat.
The Ranger program was reinstated in Texas and Gault was reinstated and served with distinction until his death in 1947. Hamer also served more time as a Ranger and in private security and retired in 1949. Though both died in relative anonymity, Gault and especially Hamer were considered the quintessential Texas Rangers. And “The Highwaymen” does a fantastic job of showing Hamer and Gault’s characters and their great manhunt.
If nothing else, “The Highwaymen” should at least get recognition for telling the historically overshadowed manhunt led by Hamer for Bonnie and Clyde. Staying historically accurate, the movie does a stellar job of providing insight into the nuance of a manhunt in middle America during the Great Depression. The climax scene of Bonnie and Clyde’s death was shot on the same road and at the exact spot as the real ambush and death.
But the most outstanding part of the film was the portrayal of Hamer and Gault. Millennials can rave about John Wick all they want, but the history of Hamer and Gault is even better.