Friday nights have been a television wasteland ever since The Wild, Wild West went off the air in 1969. This past Friday night naturally found me clicking through Martha’s Netflix channel (is that the right word for Netflix?) desperately trying to find something to watch; something that would actually hold my attention, and not just kill some time. Fortunately, I found a movie that held my attention and then some in a 2019 film, The Highwaymen, starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson.
Costner plays former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, while Harrelson plays Maney Gault, also a former Ranger. These two are brought back to active duty by the state of Texas to track down the infamous outlaws, Bonnie and Clyde. The Texas Rangers, however, had been disbanded by Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (played by Kathy Bates) because of their questionable law enforcement tactics; therefore, Hamer and Gault are credentialed as Texas Highway Patrolmen, which explains the title.
Both Costner and Harrelson give outstanding performances, the cinematography is excellent, and the producers pay careful attention to details. The plot is historically accurate for the most part (or at least to the extent of my limited research), but The Highwaymen is far more than a cops and robbers flick or a buddy movie. It is a film with nuanced themes which are wonderfully developed by both the script and the actors.
It’s one thing for Bonnie and Clyde to kill a few police officers (9 is the best estimate) and rob rural gas stations, but when they orchestrate an escape for several friends from the Texas Eastham Prison Farm, well, that was going too far because it made the state of Texas look ridiculous. Meaning the politicians running the state of Texas in 1934 looked ridiculous, and that could not be tolerated. Ma Ferguson does not want to call in these former Rangers, but doing right is often a dirty job, one which few people are equipped to pursue to the lengths necessary to succeed. Frank Hamer was such a man and so, the Governor reluctantly relents.
Hamer has no illusions about this particular job: You cannot compromise with evil, you cannot negotiate with evil—evil must be put down like a mad dog, and that’s what Hamer sets out to do. In one telling scene early in the movie, Hamer visits a gun store and purchases enough arms and ammunition, including a Browning Automatic Rifle and a couple of Thompson machine guns, to arm a platoon, rightfully believing that if you’re going to exterminate evil, you have to match evil’s firepower. Hamer’s attitude is reinforced by the filmmakers who write no dialogue for the actors portraying Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, the outlaws are not even seen in close up until the final scene in which they are killed.
Nor does Hamer have any illusions that what is “right” is ensconced in the law, and that what is “wrong” is illegal. Hamer is comfortable with the idea that you sometimes have to shade wrong in order to do right. Hamer does not hesitate to cross state lines in his pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde, for example, and as more of his character is revealed, the more we learn that he has been willing to do more than just pursue criminals who have left his jurisdiction.
Maney Gault is portrayed as being much more like the rest of us. He’s somewhat hesitant to cross certain boundaries, both literally and figuratively. Gault is uneasy, for example, about the prospect of shooting a woman, even if it is Bonnie Parker.
Ultimately, the two men track the outlaws to Louisiana and, along with the local sheriff of Bienville Parish, arrange an ambush which was successfully carried out on May 23, 1934. A crowd gathered when the bullet-riddled car was towed into Arcadia, Louisiana, the bodies still inside. There was an immediate rush for souvenirs, and according to Wikipedia, one man was trying to cut off Clyde’s trigger finger before order was restored. The film depicts this scene, which also includes several wailing young women, wearing Bonnie’s trademark beret—the outlaws had become celebrities.
The job completed, Hamer and Gault drive back to Texas.
Upon its conclusion, the film notes that 20,000 people attended Bonnie Parker’s funeral in Dallas. Some 15,000 attended Clyde’s.
The heroes of the story were forgotten. The evil was then, and continues to be, glamorized.
I’m not sure why that is often the case. Maybe, it’s because it is easier to forgive evil than to remain vigilant in its face. In any case, we’re not comfortable with the people who remain vigilant; the ones willing to perform our dirty work. We curse the cops and shun our veterans. Maybe, we know we lack the courage to do what they do. Maybe, we’re jealous of Frank Hamer’s sense of right and wrong. Moral relativism, and all that.
I believe in moral relativism, but then there are situations in which moral relativism is itself relative. There are situations in our lives and events in our world that must be confronted without hesitation; situations and events that must be declared evil, and our response must be unhesitating and without compromise.
The Highwaymen is a movie for all times, particularly the one in which we live.