With seemingly little fanfare, “The Highwaymen” appeared on Netflix recently. For fans of period drama, the movie is a treat in terms of depicting the late 1920s and early 1930s when Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker went on a crime spree that turned deadly during the Great Depression.
“The Highwaymen” stars Kevin Costner, Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, and Woody Harrelson. The movie focuses on the politicians and lawmen, their lives and the planning that went into taking down the fabled bank-robbing pair.
The movie is a departure from most about Bonnie and Clyde because the pair and their dynamics and obviously their crimes prove to be easy drama. Except for a handful of books, few media examples focus on the labor and thought that went into catching the couple.
“The Highwaymen”: teaching viewers about Bonnie and Clyde
Even if viewers were not well-versed in the legend of Bonnie and Clyde, “The Highwaymen” does a decent job of audiences about the pair.
From watching the movie, viewers learn that Bonnie and Clyde were often hailed as heroes to those who had lost their money in failed banks. Many struggling people in small cities and farming towns supported Bonnie and Clyde who, in their eyes, were scoring points for regular people. They often refused to tell law enforcement officers if they had seen Bonnie and Clyde. Lack of cooperation was a common theme.
The other part of the film that might surprise even those who have read the books and watched other Bonnie and Clyde movies, is the way that at least Clyde’s family had resigned themselves to the pair’s fate. Hearing Clyde Barrow’s onscreen dad double-check that law enforcement will have to kill his son is heart-wrenching. From the first instant, the movie creates its reality from crafting deeply drawn characters who had a connection with the pair. Thus, it prevents audiences from engaging in hero worship of criminals.
However, what also helps maintain the balance of the film, is not that Bonnie and Clyde are only depicted as bad, while law enforcement is shown to be perfect. They are not. Dedicated to their jobs, and dogged in their pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde, Frank Hamer (Costner) and Maney Gault (Harrelson) are rough around the edges and difficult. But, they figured out how to get to Bonnie and Clyde when others could not. In light of their work, Texas reinstituted the Texas Rangers. And, what has been left out of other treatments of this American crime story is that Texas’ woman governor, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (Bates), played a pivotal role in allotting resources for law enforcement to do their jobs. Some of us had no idea that Texas had a woman governor during this period. She actually served two non-consecutive terms.
“The Highwaymen” shows not only who was on the other side of the “capture” of Bonnie and Clyde, but it provides insight to a slice of American history that involves the Texas Rangers, the early years of the FBI and a bit about how regular people weathered the Great Depression. Ultimately, though, “The Highwaymen” is a movie about relatively good guys catching a couple listed as Public Enemy Number One. A story that always appeals to audiences.