The Hollywood elites are circling the wagons to keep Netflix out of the Oscar race, and customers chained to their old business model—as though masses of people still plan their night out by wondering who is nominated for what.
But Academy Award-winning Hollywood icon Kevin Costner won’t have to worry about Oscar consideration for his fine Netflix original, The Highwaymen, as it flies in the face of Hollywood liberal convention and restores the reputation of an American hero that Hollywood lore slandered as a vengeful, murdering buffoon way back in 1968.
Screenwriter John Fusco has been shopping his script to set the record straight about famed Texas Ranger Frank Hamer and his hunt for Bonnie and Clyde long enough that Paul Newman and Robert Redford were originally considered for the parts (Newman died in 2008).
But really, how could you possibly do better than Kevin Costner playing a legendary lawman who was a combination of Wyatt Earp and Elliot Ness? Couple that with Texas native Woody Harrelson’s laconic turn as Hamer’s best friend and partner, Maney Gault. It’s hard to think of anyone else in the roles.
Like recently hyped Netflix big-budget originals Bright, Bird Box, and Triple Frontier,The Highwaymen has the feel of a major motion picture, with a big-name director (John Lee Hancock of The Blind Side and The Rookie) and big stars. Unlike those films, The Highwaymen has a terrific adult script—and something to say.
In a nutshell, The Highwaymen tells the story of a retired legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, who is pressed back into duty in 1934 to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde as their crime spree enters its third year. (This is probably where a zillion fiction writers got the idea for what now has become a thriller cliché.)
Before newfangled things like two-way radios for police cars and communication between departments, Clyde Barrow exploited backroads, state lines, and jurisdictional confusion to keep his gang on the road. Frank Hamer, a seasoned manhunter, decided to hit the road just like the Barrow gang and dog them, learning their patterns—and driven by the conviction born of experience that “outlaws always return home.”
He is joined by his ex-partner and best friend, another famed Ranger, Maney Gault. (In one of the film’s few artistic liberties, Gault joins Hamer early in his quest, when in reality Hamer worked with a few other cops and recruited Gault later.)
Sure, the film is deliberately paced in the middle, as it’s basically a road picture of two old men talking in a car—but it’s really good talk, with cogent points about celebrity worship, the changing world, and the meaning of justice.
But the climax, actually filmed on the road where Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed by Hamer’s posse and shot to pieces, and the aftermath as mobs of hero-worshippers mob the shot-up car with the bodies inside scrambling for souvenirs, are chilling moments that will linger in the viewer’s memory.
But reaction to the film is almost as interesting as the film itself.
On both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, the movie clocks in at mid-to-high 50s scores, generally signifying a mediocre effort.
But a closer look reveals something different: Reviewers who actually reviewed the movie are mostly positive. Reviewers who reviewed their perception of the movie's politics account for more than half the negative reviews.
According to this young activist Brown University professor, Frank Hamer was a guardian of Jim Crow and “racial terror,” and the film is a “whitewash.” Mostly, just because he was a Ranger and had words with one of her heroes of the past.
But this would be news to the at least 15 Texas African-Americans that Frank Hamer rescued from lynching in his war against the KKK in West Texas. (This takes about 30 seconds to find on Google.) Or the KKK lynch mob leaders Hamer shot in a confrontation with a 6000-person mob in the only time he lost someone in custody because the courthouse was burned down around him. (And despite the governor’s order not to fire on the crowd.)
It would really be news to legendary bluesman Mance Lipscomb, who was plucked out of the cotton fields by the new 24-year-old Navasota, Texas, marshall, Frank Hamer, and hired to drive his buggy around town for him. Hamer took the job of taming the rough town after a veteran Ranger turned it down. Lipscomb adored Hamer and told his biographer that not only did Hamer stop the lynchings in the area, but that he regularly checked that blacks in the field weren’t being mistreated.
Then there is this dolt, who calls The Highwaymen “revisionist history” because it changes “history” as set down by a movie worshiped by the Left (even though he admits that Frank Hamer’s widow successfully sued Warner Brothers over the depiction of him in Bonnie and Clyde).
This thin premise is based on Hamer’s terse comment over his resignation from the Rangers to protest the election of Ma Ferguson as governor of Texas. “When they elected a woman governor, I quit,” she wrote.
Again, it would take a few minutes to learn that Governor Ferguson campaigned on being the surrogate for her indicted and impeached former governor husband and that between the two of them, Texas law enforcement became a cash-cow and patronage outfit.
But hey, when you make the mistake of being politically incorrect, virtue signaling is the remedy.
But this does lead us to one of the reasons that Frank Hamer’s legacy needs rescuing. The man hated publicity, unlike other prominent lawmen of his era like Earp, Ness, and Melvin Purvis. He turned down huge fees for interviews after putting down Bonnie and Clyde, and earlier in his career, was run out of Houston by the powers that be for pistol-whipping a reporter.
Everyone in this film seems to have cared deeply about restoring Frank Hamer to his proper place in American history. Like Hamer himself, they have accomplished this mission deliberately, efficiently—and when it calls for it, brutally—and to the great benefit of us all.
And when it’s over, you’ll know how to say “hands up” in Spanish—and the limitations of such a command.