We all remember the slow-motion ballet of bullets that closed Arthur Penn’s 1967 “Bonnie and Clyde,” with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s gangster-lovers meeting their violent demise on a rural Louisiana highway. It remains one of the most grippingly awful endings to a film, and as you watch it, it feels like it goes on forever.
In reality it was just sixteen seconds.
More than a half-century after Penn’s film, “The Highwaymen,” opening on Netflix and in theaters Friday, also ends with the same bloody shootout, but now told from the point of view of Texas lawmen Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), who through persistence and professional detective work, managed to corner the on-the-run couple on an unassuming Louisiana highway.
“I was fascinated by Bonnie and Clyde, and when I researched their actual history and story, found they were not the glamorous Robin Hoods they had become in legend,” said screenwriter John Fusco (“Young Guns,” “Crossroads,” “Hidalgo”). “The lawmen who hunted them down had a story that was incredibly fascinating and unknown.”
“The Highwaymen” opens in 1934, with authorities unable to trap Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow and stop their reign of terror. Texas governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates), though hesitant to reinstitute the Texas Rangers, nonetheless knows she must enable law enforcement to help hunt down the fugitives. She goes to retired Ranger Hamer, who is reluctant but agrees to take on the case with his former fellow Ranger, Gault.
“Hamer had a career that began with the end of the Texas frontier on horseback through 1915 and border [issues] and Prohibition and corrupt oil towns,” Fusco said. “He had this stellar career and was known as one of the greatest law officers of the 20th century.”
Director John Lee Hancock is a Texan known for films set in the Lone Star State, including “The Blind Side” and “The Alamo.” He said he doesn’t specifically look for films set in his home state, however, when an intriguing one like “The Highwaymen” comes along, he was quick to take on the project.
But to ensure his film wasn’t a carbon copy of “Bonnie and Clyde,” the script for “The Highwaymen” gave Parker and Barrow no lines and almost never shows their faces. This purposely puts the focus on Hamer and Gault’s manhunt.
“John wrote in the script that we never quite get a good look at them,” Hancock said of Fusco’s screenplay, adding that the less-is-more approach gave the outlaws a romantic sheen. “Let’s build them up to be the sexiest, most vigorous outlaws in the sexiest, shiniest cars and [ensure] you want to be them.”
For all their horrible acts, Parker and Barrow developed a massive following among the American public, who saw them as folk heroes and modern-day Robin Hoods taking from the banks that had caused the greatest fiscal crisis in history. A key to their appeal, Fusco believes, was that Americans sought distraction during the Great Depression. He related that his grandfather, a Scottish immigrant, would read “True Detective” and follow Parker and Barrow’s exploits “like watching a soap opera.”
“Newspaper circulation was plummeting, and publishers realized that people didn’t want depression economic news,” Fusco said. “They were interested in sports heroes, movie stars and flashy gangsters, bank robbers sticking it to the man.”
“They had fans on their mind. They were the first ones to understand branding,” added Hancock. “Because of the photos they took in Joplin, Missouri, they were above the fold in every paper domestically and internationally. Their story became even bigger, and they realized, ‘We’re idolized. We can feed this machine.’”
Bonnie Parker’s initial ambition was to be a Broadway star, and Clyde Barrow was at one point keen to be a professional saxophone player. This hunger for fame no doubt informed their love affair with the public even as criminals.
“Today they would have more Instagram followers than the Kardashians and tweet more than Trump,” Hancock said. “They had an understanding that we have to feed our public.”
Indeed, after the couple was gunned down May 23, 1934, thousands turned out for their funerals, and “The Highwaymen” shows celebrity-hungry mourners trying to take bits of clothing from the deceased outlaws.
“And that death car [toured] around and became this tourist attraction with Emma Parker, Bonnie’s mother, traveling with it for a while,” Fusco said. “And Hamer, it just disgusted him.”
Hamer was notoriously press-shy in the years after he and Gault successfully caught Parker and Barrow, granting only two interviews thereafter. He was reported to say only that his plan, when they encountered the outlaws in rural Bienville Parish, Louisiana, was that Hamer would step in front of the car and order them to surrender with the order to “stick ‘em up!”
“Hamer was going to try to get them to surrender,” Fusco said, but Parker and Barrow “went for their guns.”
When staging the gruesome deaths of Parker and Barrow, the production filmed at the precise spot where it actually happened 85 years ago, casting a bit of an eerie pall over the proceedings.
“I remember Kevin [Costner] standing on that road just looking at that bend from which they actually had come, [saying], ‘They really came around that bend,’” said Fusco.
Director Hancock said he revered Penn’s ending to “Bonnie and Clyde” so much that he wanted to make his cinematic interpretation of the shootout different from Penn’s slow-motion dance of death.
“[Penn’s] is very much the long looks between Bonnie and Clyde and a ballet of bullets. It’s beautiful and has a real place in American cinema history,” Hancock said, adding he wanted the climax of “The Highwaymen” to be an “antidote” to the end of “Bonnie and Clyde,” as well as a “companion piece.”
“I wanted it to be in real time; everything at 24 frames per second,” Hancock said, eschewing slow motion. “I want you to feel what it was like to actually be there and see how fast, how violent, how bloody, how grotesque 16 seconds can be. I wanted to make sure to pay it off with ‘Ooh, that’s worse than I thought.’”
“It’s such a controversial ambush, and it’s been framed as an unfair shooting gallery,” added Fusco. “But Hamer never had his side of the story [told]. He turned down interviews, book deals, and Tom Mix wanted to make a movie about him.”
Part of that controversy no doubt stemmed from the fact that Hamer and Gault were Texas lawmen, but they crossed into Louisiana for that final confrontation. However, Hancock said Texas had a jurisdictional agreement with their neighbor to the east, which negated that.
More than anything, Fusco hopes what audiences will take away from “The Highwaymen” is there was a flipside to the celebrity love for Parker and Barrow, and that at last the story of the law officers who finally corralled them can be told as well.
“There was a guy named Frank Hamer and a guy named Maney Gault who didn’t talk about their heroism,” Fusco said. “I just hope that flipping the perspective gives a whole different view to the story.”
“Frank Hamer was a tough guy to figure out, and he didn’t want you to figure him out either,” added Hancock. “So, I think sometimes complicated people can be really interesting [if you] dig a little deeper.”
“The Highwaymen” came out in theaters and debuted on Netflix this past Friday.