The legend of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow — the two young outlaws who carried out a multi-year spree of murder and robbery in the early 1930s, as Biography.com recounts — has inspired numerous Hollywood movies. The most celebrated big-screen version of the legend remains 1968’s Bonnie and Clyde, in which Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, then two of Hollywood’s most successful and glamorous stars, portrayed a highly romanticized version of the outlaw couple.
On March 29, Netflix released the latest big-budget version of the Bonnie and Clyde story, but the Netflix film The Highwaymen includes the two near-mythic outlaws only as minor characters. Instead, the streaming movie focuses on the story of two lawmen — Frank Hamer played by Kevin Costner, and Ben Maney Gault portrayed by Woody Harrelson — who hunted down and ultimately gunned down the criminal couple, who were just 23- and 25-years-old, respectively, at the time of their deaths, per Biography.
But how true is the story told by The Highwaymen? To explore that question, this article will likely contain spoilers for the plot of the film, so readers are advised to watch the Netflix movie before reading further.
Some of the details in the film are hauntingly accurate. For example, according to The Daily Mail, the location where Highwaymen director John Lee Hancock filmed the police ambush in which Parker and Barrow were riddled with bullets and killed instantly was the actual site in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, where the real Bonnie and Clyde were killed on May 23, 1934.
Bonnie and Clyde, 1933. pic.twitter.com/eaFY1ptpgp
— Life in Moments (@historyinmoment) March 29, 2019
Unlike Dunaway and Beatty’s glamorous and romantic portrayal of the couple in the 1968 classic, called the 11th-best crime film of all time by The Guardian, in which Bonnie and Clyde were portrayed as heroic avengers of injustice, robbing the banks which foreclosed on thousands of homes during the Great Depression, The Highwaymen does not glorify Parker and Barrow, showing them as the “small time crooks” described by biographer Jeff Guinn in an interview with Time.
But while Bonnie Parker is shown as a sadistic, machine-gun wielding killer in The Highwaymen, in reality there is little or no evidence that she ever fired a gun, according to a Screenrant report, much less killed anyone.
Similarly, Hamer’s partner Ben Maney Gault is portrayed as Hamer’s close friend and longtime partner in The Highwaymen, but the truth is that the “Gault” played by Harrelson is “a composite character,” according to historian Jody Ginn, speaking to Time. The real Gault, who was not unemployed as in the film but worked for the Texas highway patrol, did not join up with Hamer until after Bonnie and Clyde’s murder of two police officers on Easter Sunday 1934. But in the film Harrelson’s Gault is paired with Hamer from the start of the manhunt.
— Xwhos (@XwhosCom) March 24, 2019
But according to a Washington Post essay by Brown University professor Monica Muñoz Martinez, the film’s greatest distortion of history may be its “whitewash” of Hamer himself, portrayed as a troubled but principled hero in the film. But the reality was more complex, according to Muñoz Martinez.
“Over the years, (Hamer) built a reputation for his harsh treatment of suspects, brutal interrogations and unhesitating use of his gun,” the American Studies scholar wrote. “Frank Hamer started his career in the early 20th century when the Texas Rangers helped enforce new Jim Crow and Juan Crow segregation laws targeting black and Mexican Texans and intimidating labor organizers and anti-lynching activists.”
Hamer played a key role in the Rangers’ system of racial violence and intimidation against African-Americans and Mexican-Americans in Texas, Muñoz Martinez wrote, and that fact goes largely unmentioned in the Netflix film.