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The Highwaymen—Glamorizing police violence?

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A good bit of the commentary about The Highwaymen focuses on the idea that the film sets the story straight, transferring the hero’s mantle to the deserving law enforcement men who brought the bandits to justice.

But what really happened was far from justice. 

We recently watched The Highwaymen, the film that tackles the Bonnie and Clyde myth from the point of view of the lawmen who tracked them down. 

It was enjoyable enough—Costner and Harrelson have good on-screen chemistry—but we have issues with how some facts were manipulated. As co-authors of an alt-history trilogy about Bonnie and Clyde, we’ve done the research.

First off, we’re not apologists for the outlaws. Bonnie and Clyde were thieves and murderers and they were destined for a life behind bars at best; more likely, the electric chair.

Yet despite their crimes, a dazzling myth evolved around the lovers, starting contemporaneously in the 1930s when they were on the run. Unwittingly, they had the right blend of sex, violence and stick-it-to-the-bankers contempt to give a glimmer of hope to the millions struggling during the Great Depression. Their deaths at a young age (Bonnie was 24, Clyde 25) on May 23, 1934, tragically cemented their celebrity status. 

More than three decades passed and they may have faded into history if not for the iconic 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway; the smash-hit reflected the counterculture sentiments of its era, casting the criminals as glamorous Robin Hood-style anti-heroes.

A good bit of the current commentary about The Highwaymen has focused on the idea that this new film sets the story straight, transferring the hero’s mantle to the deserving law enforcement men who brought the bandits to justice. 

But what really happened was far from justice. 

Instead of glorifying two outlaws trying to outrun poverty as the 1967 film did, The Highwaymen glorifies extrajudicial police violence—and, to do that, it alters historical facts. A little literary license to juice up a storyline isn’t particularly egregious but The Highwaymen badly misleads on three points in order to build the case that the lawmen were heroic. They weren’t. 

First, the movie charges Bonnie was a cold-blooded murderer; in one scene, her stylish shoe rolls a wounded policeman over onto his back so he is forced to watch as she kills him. Yet, there is scant evidence this happened. In fact, there is no historical agreement that Bonnie ever directly killed anyone. 

Having casually established Bonnie as a cop-killer (implying she deserved whatever she got), the filmmakers add a second layer—they fabricate empathy in (and for) the two aging Texas Rangers, Hamer and Gault, who come out of retirement to lead the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. 

In a pivotal scene the rangers reveal that, years ago, they opened fire on a group of Spanish-speaking bandits along the Texas border, executing them in their sleep rather than bringing them to justice. Burdened by immense guilt, the film suggests the rangers have learned their lesson about taking the law into their own hands. 

This leads to the penultimate ambush scene in the film when Hamer bravely steps out from behind their hideout of shrubs by the side of the remote dirt road to take the two criminals alive, as the outlaws’ car comes to a stop. Gault joins Hamer and, after a tense stare down in this scene between the law and the lawless, Bonnie goes for her gun, leaving the rangers no choice but to fire in self-defense. The rest of their rag-tag group of police also open fire.

Only it didn’t happen that way. 

In reality, a member of the ambush party, with no warning, began firing while crouching behind the shrubs at Bonnie and Clyde who had stopped to help someone change a flat tire. Hamer, Gault and the others joined in, still from hiding, sending more than 150 rounds into the car. Bonnie and Clyde never got off a single shot or likely even knew what hit them. The dead outlaws were so riddled with bullets, morticians couldn’t keep embalming fluid in the bodies.

If the 1967 film glamorized Bonnie and Clyde courtesy of that anti-authoritarian counterculture era, what does the fabrication about police behavior at the core of The Highwaymen reflect about today? Why recast executioners as heroes? 

Viewers of The Highwaymen would likely have been repelled by the bloody truth about Hamer and Gault’s actions that day, which is exactly why the events should have been depicted honestly. 

If the filmmakers told the truth, rather than glamorizing the police violence that fateful day in 1934 as heroic, the movie could have amplified and expanded ongoing conversations about police overreach in American life, then and now. Instead, it feels sickeningly like just another cover-up.

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