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What The Highwaymen Gets Right and Wrong About the Murder of Bonnie and Clyde

9 minute read

In 21st-century pop culture, Bonnie and Clyde are folk heroes. The gunslinging pair memorably portrayed by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Arthur Penn’s now-classic 1967 film were re-immortalized in a 2013 miniseries and in recent songs by Taylor Swift, Quavo, Gucci Mane and Ariana Grande. They inspired a viral rap battle and hovered over the 2017 Oscars debacle. They have come to represent the platonic “ride or die” couple: alluring anti-establishment heroes who built their own outsize personas long before Instagram and stuck it to the banks long before Occupy Wall Street.

But The Highwayman, a new Netflix film, paints them in a very different light. The movie, which debuted at South by Southwest, plays in select theaters starting March 15 and begins streaming on March 29, tells the story through the eyes of the two officers, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault (played by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson), who hunt them down as they leave a trail of death and wreckage across the South. In this version, Bonnie and Clyde aren’t populist legends but remorseless killers who discard innocent lives for their own gain.

In attempting to recast a story that has become ingrained in pop culture, however, The Highwaymen takes its own liberties with history. Here’s what the film gets right and wrong about Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and the men who killed them.

Did Bonnie and Clyde stage a breakout at the Eastham jail?

The Highwaymen opens with a dramatic breakout at Eastham Prison Farm, an infamously brutal jail in Texas where Barrow himself served time. In the scene, inmates retrieve hidden guns, shoot guards and then run for the trees—where Parker, wearing a pink dress and wielding a machine gun, is waiting to give them cover with a thunderous stream of fire. Three inmates make it to Clyde’s car, and they easily escape.

The broad strokes of the portrayal are accurate. In 1934, Barrow and Parker whisked off several inmates from a jail that was previously considered impenetrable. The inmates would become part of the Barrow Gang, a rotating cast of accomplices alongside the infamous duo. Newspapers were quick to give them all the credit, and the breach of security led directly to the hiring of Frank Hamer to track them down.

But the plan was devised not by the Barrows. It was arranged by Raymond Hamilton, one of the escapees and an associate of the Barrow Gang. Clyde Barrow simply served as the driver of the getaway car.

How murderous were Bonnie and Clyde?

Bonnie Parker is portrayed as particularly violent in The Highwaymen, from her use of an automatic rifle in that opening sequence to a murder in cold blood on the side of a highway. Jeff Guinn, who wrote the biography Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, refutes this depiction of her, saying that there are only two or so records of her firing a gun, and no evidence that she killed anyone.

“Bonnie did not grab guns and lay down covering fire ever. She simply did not,” Guinn said in an interview with TIME.

While the popular conception of Bonnie and Clyde depicts them as grandiose bank robbers, the truth was more mundane. “They were small-time crooks,” Guinn said. The Barrow Gang mostly robbed gas stations and convenience stores; they would even break into gumball machines to collect the change.

Their criminal lifestyle resulted in them killing around a dozen people in all, most of them law enforcement officers. Guinn and other historians contend that Barrow preferred to run from most confrontations but was willing to shoot his way out when necessary. “In all but two instances when people died at the hands of the Barrow Gang, it’s because they found themselves in messes that got out of control,” Guinn said.

Who was Frank Hamer, the Texas Ranger co-credited with killing Bonnie & Clyde?

Frank Hamer was legendary long before he gunned down Bonnie and Clyde. Hamer was an integral member of the Texas Rangers, a law enforcement agency which fought Mexicans, Native Americans, bank robbers and bootleggers in Texas and along the border in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The group was extremely violent and ruthless; their tactics led Mexicans to dub them “Los Diablos Tejanos” (the Texas Devils).

Hamer became a senior captain of the Rangers in 1922 and played a large role combating the Ku Klux Klan in Texas. He became known for his ability to control riots and his patient, skilled investigative work. He resigned in 1932 when Miriam “Ma” Ferguson—who detested the Rangers—recaptured the Governor’s Office. He turned to mostly private investigation work before being hired to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde following the Eastham breakout.

In the 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde, Hamer (played by Denver Pyle) is given a villainous mustache and humiliatingly captured by the Barrow Gang; he then hunts them down for revenge. In reality, he was never actually captured by them, and when his family saw this simplistic portrayal, they sued the film’s producers for defamation of character and settled out of court.

In The Highwaymen, Costner plays Hamer with a growl, a sluggish gait and a steadfast sense of right and wrong. His version of Hamer had been out of the force for a long time and is brought back for the proverbial “one last job.” He struggles to even shoot a bottle out of the air. But Hamer had only been off the force for two years before being hired to hunt Bonnie and Clyde; he was not as domesticated as the film suggests. Bob Alcorn, a member of the Barrow hunt, called him “one of the bravest men and the deadliest shots in the state” in a 1934 interview.

Who was Maney Gault, portrayed in the film as Hamer’s right-hand man?

In True Detective, Woody Harrelson plays a charming, hard-drinking, down-on-his-luck detective who forms one half of an odd couple (with Matthew McConaughey) that hunts down murderers. He steps into a very similar role in The Highwaymen as Maney Gault, an unemployed former Texas Ranger who is plucked off his couch by Hamer. The pair shakes off rust and creaking joints in their quest to rekindle their old glory from fighting wars together against Mexican forces.

While Gault was indeed part of the posse that shot Bonnie and Clyde, his role in the film is inflated for dramatic effect. “The Maney Gault character is a composite character,” Jody Ginn, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of history who consulted on the film, said in an interview. The real-life Gault joined the Texas Rangers in 1929 and stayed for only three years; he was working for the highway patrol when Hamer selected him to bolster the team after the Barrow Gang killed two patrolmen on Easter Sunday in 1934. (The film’s version of Gault helps to investigate that murder scene, but he had yet to join the team at that point.)

What was Hamer and Gault’s journey like?

The film accurately depicts Hamer’s chase in his painstaking attention to detail and the long stretches of monotony. In an effort to emulate the Barrow Gang and learn their habits, Hamer drove hundreds of miles a day in Barrow’s preferred car model, the Ford V-8 Sedan, ate hot dogs and slept out of his car. In later interviews he remembered coming across their abandoned campgrounds, finding “stubs of Bonnie’s Camels—Clyde smoked Bull Durham—lettuce leaves for the white rabbit, pieces of sandwiches, a button off Clyde’s coat.”

He soon discovered a pattern in which Bonnie and Clyde would make loops rampaging around the South, only to return home to their families. This pattern allowed Hamer to make frequent trips home to his wife Gladys, a reality that stands in contrast to The Highwaymen’s portrayal, in which she forlornly says goodbye to him at the beginning of the film, never to appear again.

Did Hamer and Gault set up Bonnie and Clyde?

In The Highwaymen, Hamer and Gault follow an instinct to go to Bienville Parish, Louisiana, where they find Ivy Methvin, the father of Barrow Gang member Henry Methvin. Alongside the local sheriff, they cut a deal with Ivy Methvin to set up Bonnie and Clyde in exchange for his son’s legal protection.

But Hamer and Gault didn’t actually find Ivy Methvin—it was the other way around. According to Texas Ranger: The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, The Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde by John Boessenecker, Methvin sought out the local sheriff, Henderson Jordan, through an intermediary with the hopes of cutting a deal for his son. Sheriff Jordan then contacted Hamer, who arrived in Louisiana with Gault and other officials shortly thereafter. Within a month, Hamer, Gault and Jordan would all be part of the team that ambushed Bonnie and Clyde in May 1934 with a hail of gunfire.

But while the film inflates Hamer’s role in tracking down an inside man, Guinn says Hamer led the actual ambush—and that his involvement made the Barrow’s capture inevitable. “Once a professional like Hamer was on the hunt, there was no way they were escaping,” he said. Bonnie and Clyde were dead a little more than three months after Hamer took on the job.

What was the scene following Bonnie and Clyde’s death?

At the end of the film, a horde of people surrounds the bullet hole-ridden Ford carrying the pair’s bodies, with officials pushing back those trying to grab at the corpses. This grotesque scene did happen in real life: “One man tried to cut off Clyde’s ear. Somebody with scissors managed to snip off locks of Bonnie’s hair and bits of her gory dress before being pulled away,” Guinn wrote in Go Down Together.

Do historians approve of the film?

While Guinn and Ginn, the two historians interviewed for this article, said that the film took several liberties with the facts, both said they mostly didn’t mind those deviations in service of the larger story. “They don’t romanticize Bonnie and Clyde. That’s been the biggest problem in popular media,” Ginn said.

“If seeing the Netflix film not only entertains people but makes them actively seek out more information,” said Guinn, “then I think it’s probably a good thing.

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