Netflix's new movie The Highwaymen tells the story of Bonnie and Clyde's final days from the perspective of the men who killed them - but how does it compare to the true story? Directed by John Lee Hancock, The Highwaymen stars Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as former Texas Rangers Frank "Pancho" Hamer and Ben Maney Gault, respectively, who are brought out of retirement and commissioned to hunt down and kill the celebrity sweethearts terrorizing the central United States.
The Highwaymen's cast also includes Kathy Bates as Governor Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, the first female Governor of Texas, who was first elected to the position after her husband, James E. Ferguson, was impeached. Following Ma Ferguson's re-election in 1932, 40 Texas Rangers quit in protest of political corruption and the rest were fired; the Rangers would remain disbanded until 1935, when they were incorporated into the Texas Department of Public Safety, and it was during this period of dormancy that The Highwaymen takes place.
Hancock's movie is a blend of truth and fiction, with color and embellishment added to build a narrative of two old-school lawmen butting up against modern times. For example, the movie plays up the incompetence and hostility of Hoover's FBI and even has them botching Hamer and Gault's planned ambush of Bonnie and Clyde at their family homes, which didn't actually happen. Similarly, there was no dramatic car chase through a dusty field that allowed Bonnie and Clyde to escape Hamer and Gault's clutches. Let's separate the fact from the fiction in The Highwaymen, and take a look at what we know about the real story of Bonnie and Clyde.
- This Page: The Prison Break, Hamer and Gault, and The Real Bonnie and Clyde
- Page 2: The Shootout and the Aftermath
The Prison Break and Wade McNabb's Death
The Highwaymen opens with a major event from towards the end of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker's crime spree: a planned jailbreak of several criminal associates from Eastham prisoner farm, where Clyde himself had once been an inmate. Though many of the details in this sequence are taken from the true story (Barrow's associates left weapons to aid in the escape, and one prison guard was killed while another was wounded), there are also some creative liberties taken that set the tone for how The Highwaymen blends fact with embellishment.
According to My Life With Bonnie & Clyde - a memoir written by Clyde's sister, Blanche Barrow - it was actually Clyde, not Bonnie, who fired a machine gun into the treeline while the men made their escape. While he did that, Bonnie stayed in the car and leaned on the horn to signal the men which way they should run. Moreover, Wade Hampton McNabb was not one of the attempted escapees, so the scene where he is dramatically left behind is fictionalized. Wade McNabb was eventually kidnapped and murdered while on furlough, but he was killed by Barrow gang member Joe Palmer as revenge for McNabb's behavior in prison, not for ratting the gang out to Hamer and Gault. It was Palmer, not Hamer and Gault, who arranged for McNabb's furlough.
The Real Hamer and Gault
The Highwaymen offers some stories about Hamer's heyday as a Texas Ranger that are in fact lifted from real life, if embellished in places. The story that Hamer tells Clyde's father - about being shot as a teenager by a rancher who tried to pay him to ambush his business partner - is true, and Hamer really did return to kill the rancher after he healed. The "manos arriba" story that Gault tells is also based on truth, though in reality it was bootleggers smuggling alcohol during the Prohibition that he killed, and there were only six of them, not sixty. Moreover, Gault himself was not actually present during this incident.
Hamer and Gault were indeed old acquaintances before they were commissioned to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde together. Before joining the Texas Rangers, Gault had worked undercover for Hamer, as he had a talent for insinuating himself into criminal rings - a talent that's showcased in The Highwaymen, when Hamer sends Gault out to sweet-talk residents of the migrant camp. The two families became close, and Hamer did indeed specifically choose Gault to be his partner after being approached for the Bonnie and Clyde job.
Though Hamer and Gault experience several frustrating near-misses of Bonnie and Clyde in The Highwaymen, in real life they didn't actually catch up to the couple until the ambush on the morning of May 23, 1934. As depicted in the movie, Hamer refused lucrative offers from the media to spill the gory details of the Bonnie and Clyde shootout, and both he and Gault were said to have disliked the attention that the case brought upon them. Hamer said that he was "sickened by the sight" of the shootout's aftermath.
The Real Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde themselves are not the central focus of The Highwaymen, and actually appear very little - glimpsed mainly from far away, with their faces only clearly shown in the moment before their death.
Perhaps the biggest change that The Highwaymen makes to the real story of Bonnie and Clyde is playing up Bonnie Parker's role as a femme fatale - not only firing a machine gun into the trees to cover the prison break, but also stalking over to downed patrolmen and turning them over so that they could see their deaths coming as she shot them in the face. This is based on the account of William Schieffer, the farmer shown witnessing the Easter Sunday killings of patrolmen Wheeler and Murphy in The Highwaymen. However, other witnesses contradicted this claim and it was ultimately discredited - though not before inflaming public outrage against Bonnie.
Aside from Schieffer's claim, there's no evidence that Bonnie actually killed anyone, or even that she ever fired a gun, though she was obviously complicit in the Barrow gang's crimes. At the time of her death, she had never actually been charged with a capital crime. The detail that she dragged her left heel after badly burning her leg in a car accident is based on real life, as is the bunny rabbit (called Sonny Boy) that Bonnie managed to successfully gift to her mother, despite being intensely pursued by the law in the final months of her life.