Can the legend be turned back into fact?
The Highwaymen’s story goes far beyond the events depicted on the screen. It crosses over into other classic movies, movie making history, the nature of celebrity in America, and the question of how movies get made and what can take them so long to finally appear.
The making of The Highwaymen is a story of persistence, and belief in the mission statement.
John Lee Hancock stood and introduced his film, The Highwaymen along with his intentions to finally set the record straight.
Director John Lee Hancock and writer John Fusco have been trying to get The Highwaymen made for 15 years, their main goal was always to finally set the record straight on what happened in Texas and Louisianna between 1934-1936 when a legendary Texas Lawman hunted down two of history’s most beloved bandits.
This movie has been in development long enough that at one time the stars attached for the leading roles were Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
At some point, the script came to Kevin Costner who passed initially. “It wasn’t the right time.” he told a packed crowd at the SXSW premiere. His co-star Woody Harrelson countered “I’ve been attached since I first read it. He’s picky.”
Coster would eventually agree to play famed Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer.
Frank Hamer might be one of the most impressive historical figures you’ve never heard of. As a Ranger Hamer led the fight against the Ku Klux Klan in Texas. He protected 15 African Americans from lynch mobs including one person against a mob of 6,000. He had between 53-70 confirmed kills as a lawman. He was wounded at least 17 times and left for dead 4.
All this before his true date with history, when he put a very bloody end to Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker’s bloody bender.
Even before they’d died Bonnie and Clyde had reached celebrity status. In death that fame would far overshadow the notoriety of the lawman who ended their crime spree.
The landmark culture-shifting 1967 Arthur Penn movie Bonnie and Clyde only did more to cement their status. The movie also played fast and loose with the facts, along the way painting a portrait of Hamer that was inaccurate and fairly buffoonish.
In a fascinating twist of fate, Frank Hamer’s widow saw Bonnie and Clyde in the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas in 1967 when it came out. The next day she sued Warner Brothers for defamation and won.
In that very same Paramount Theater 50+ years later, John Lee Hancock stood and introduced his film, The Highwaymen along with his intentions to finally set the record straight.
Hancock made it clear to the audience at SXSW that he loved the Penn film, and sees it as being a “thematic movie”, not after recreating the truth. It’s an important distinction to make.
Bonnie and Clyde was about the changing of the guard in American culture, and it changed the guard of the movie industry as well. The floodgates would open after Warren Beatty’s passion project and would make way for the Easy Riders and Raging Bulls that defined the coming era. The 1970s would be a sort of second golden age of cinema.
Technically the first golden age is the 1930s. I know it seems weirdly archaic, but that’s when the studio system found its groove and truly built the model of the narrative feature film. You could argue the studio system truly ended around when Bonnie and Clyde came out.
You could argue that Frank Hamer in Bonnie and Clyde represents that old guard…
The Highwaymen isn’t about all of that. It’s just about what happened that fateful day on a country road in Louisiana.
Less about how two petit kids captured the hearts and minds of depression era American, and more about how two tired old texas rangers had one last ride in them.
As Hamer and his right hand many Manny Gault, Costner and Harrelson play it a bit like grumpy old men. Lots of trips to the bathroom, complaints about aches and pains, and a general wonder if they’re getting ‘too old for this.’
In many ways, The Highwaymen is “chasing” the 1967 Arthur Penn classic. The carefully effective choice to show only glimpses of Bonnie and Clyde keeps the characters of the original fresh in our minds. The stars of this film pursue them, arriving at scenes only just after the 1967 movie left.
While there is great nobility in presenting this untold and fair version of the story to set the record straight, the movie is haunted by its predecessor.
Bonnie and Clyde is a movie that pops and sizzles. There is constant visual metaphor and motif, not so subtle subtext, and sexual energy propelling the movie forward.
The Highwaymen is intentionally drawn in great contrast. John Lee Hancock made mention of his goal to show the glimpses of Bonnie and Clyde in the same popping colors that the 1967 movie did, with that level of visual appeal.
For the rest of the film, focused on Hamer and Gault’s pursuit, the movie is drab. Gray, and desaturated. Cold, tired, and faced with harsher realities.
In one scene Hamer goes out to try and see if he still has his dead-eye marksmanship. He does not. Nor does he magically regain it later through a training montage.
He says he feels like an old man. That’s the reality he must contend with while chasing the youthful criminals.
All of Hancock’s visual choices support this, and it’s a brilliant way to approach this flip side of the classic tale.
The problem? Well…the movie just feels a lot less dynamic than the movie it's constantly referencing.
It’s hard not to leave The Highwaymen, with it’s at times heavy-handed plea that audiences see Bonnie and Clyde as killers and not romantic figures, just wanting to watch the 1967 movie.
Maybe it could have worked better if it focused on Hamer’s life in general, with the Bonnie and Clyde incident as a sort of ironic third act.
There are a few scenes early in the film that attempt to define Hamer as a man on a mission, with a firm relationship to justice. He has a prolonged conversation with Clyde Barrow’s father, where the older Barrow attempts to convince him that Clyde was once a good boy, not born evil. It's a very talky scene, without much compelling tension at the heart of it.
If a good scene must have one character trying to get something from another or surmount some obstacle, this scene of some importance in the course of the story lacks that badly.
Hamer’s idea of justice is complicated, but we only know this through bits of exposition and back story. We don’t see it. A film that showed more of his life, rather than told us about it, might have proven more emotionally engaging.
All told the record may finally have been set straight, but the bottom line is facts have nothing on Bonnie and Clyde. They are the stuff of legend.
As for Frank Hamer, there is a legend there more than worth committing to the screen, and one gets the impression we still have yet to see it.