Who Gets to Be Human? On John Lee Hancock’s Film The Highwaymen

What we learn from a contemporary defense of the Rangers that shot Bonnie and Clyde in the name of the law.

The recent Netflix film The Highwaymen is a corrective to the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde. That film, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, lent Hollywood glamour to the real-life Depression-era outlaws who robbed and murdered their way through the south-central US. Frank Hamer, the former Texas Ranger who tracked them down and arranged for the proverbial hail of bullets that killed them, is portrayed as a ruthless stooge of the Establishment.

In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde gave the duo a certain counter-cultural cachet along the lines of Woody Guthrie’s song “Pretty Boy Floyd” (recorded by Joan Baez in 1962 and by the Byrds in 1968) or Bob Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” (1968). Guthrie wrote that “some rob you with a six-gun / and some with a fountain pen”, and Dylan sang that Hardin (his real name) “was never known / to hurt an honest man”. These songs echo MacHeath’s sentiment the Three Penny Opera: “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” 

One might expect that, given the 2008 financial crisis, the Great Recession, the Occupy movement, and unprecedented wealth inequality, such attitudes might resurface fifty years later, especially if the entertainment industry is as radically leftist as some claim. 

But The Highwaymen is a film for the Trump era. Its heroes are Hamer (Kevin Costner) and his sidekick Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), grizzled former Texas Rangers called back to service by Texas governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates), once soft on crime but now desperate. She had abolished the supposedly obsolete Rangers, but Bonnie and Clyde’s crime spree is tarnishing her political reputation. 

Costner’s Frank Hamer is thick around the middle (he gained weight for the role), but his suit jacket still looks too big for him. This tall, wide, old man has come to drain the swamp.  

Besides the outlaws, Hamer has to deal with a Hillary Clinton figure in Ma Ferguson, a female Democrat worried more about politics than leading. He’s also up against the deep state in the form of younger cops and G-men, whose modern methods and careerism get in the way of gut instincts and willpower. The yellow press spewing fake news puts in several appearances as well. 

Bonnie and Clyde are rarely seen, and then from a distance, or in a close-up as Bonnie, injured in an accident, drags one fancy shoe behind the other. At the end we briefly see their faces just before they are shot and shot and shot to death. Bonnie is portrayed (against historical evidence) as particularly ruthless, delivering a coup de grace by shooting an already downed lawman in the head. 

Observing the results at the crime scene, Hamer tells a young lawman that Bonnie and Clyde “aren’t human anymore”. 

This remark makes the film an artefact of our times. Hamer is giving his young colleague, and himself, a license to break the law in the name of the law. Law enforcement is hampered by rules of procedure and jurisdiction and giving perps their rights. But to deal with cruelty, one must be cruel. And if your opponent is not human, cruelty is justified. 

But Bonnie and Clyde are human. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending them. Their habit of shooting their way out of predicaments of their own making was brutal and stupid. Their role as folk heroes had little to do with their actual venality. If we can empathize with them at all, it’s because they symptomize the desperation of that impoverished era. 

In The Highwaymen, however, they symptomize the Other. They are beyond the pale, reprehensible, intolerable, undeserving of empathy. They are nearly faceless objects onto which viewers can vicariously unload their fear, resentment, and hate. 

Why would anyone make a Bonnie and Clyde movie in 2019? Ostensibly, to restore the reputation of the men who defended law and order by violating law and order, but also – and, I would submit, primarily – to allow the audience to purge their pent-up, generalized loathing. 

This scapegoat function is driven home in an anecdote Maney Gault tells about Hamer on the eve of the showdown. 

The scene: Hamer’s men are playing cards while Hamer sits on the front porch pondering and smoking. He can hear them through the window. Gault tells of when he and Hamer were young Rangers and had 60 Mexican bandits pinned down in an arroyo. They had “killed a dozen and raped just about as many.” The Rangers moved in several times, yelling “manos arribas” (“hands up”) as the law dictated. Alerted, the bandits would shoot a Ranger or two and drive them off. Hamer was brought in, and he ordered his men to go in with no warning. In five minutes they killed 54, most of them asleep. ThenHamer “sat on a rock, holstered his gun, and said, ‘manos arribas, you sons of bitches.” This is Hamer’s Dirty Harry moment. 

Except it isn’t true. Joe Holley writes in the Houston Chronicle, “It wasn’t Mexicans who were killed but bootleggers, and it was six who were gunned down, not 60. Gault himself wasn’t there …”. 

And so the corrective of Bonnie and Clydedoesn’t so much set the record straight as create an alternative myth that equates the pair with a fictional gang of Mexicans and justifies the ambush. “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” When the gang of two die in a paroxysm of overkill, Hamer and his men stare glumly at the bullet-riddled car and its bullet-riddled occupants. Gault has his own Dirty Harry moment: “manos arribas”. 

Our times ask the culture dominated by old white men to accept as human more and more people who have traditionally been free game for cruelty. It’s getting hard to find groups you can be cruel to with impunity. This explains the current obsession with paedophiles as the lowest of the low. Even bleeding hearts can’t advocate for paedophiles, can they? And the question of bathroom access for transsexuals is at heart a question of who gets to be human. 

What’s at stake with “political correctness” is not freedom of expression, but the freedom to decide who is beyond the pale, unworthy of immigrating into humanity. Charleston, Pittsburgh, and San Diego (the list could go on) show that this borderline is still under contention. 

In The Insanity of Normality. Realism as Sickness: Toward Understanding Human Destructiveness (1987), Arno Gruen argues that schizophrenics cut themselves off to maintain inner emotional integrity, but “normal” people must sacrifice that integrity so they can function in society. This “realism” produces an inner rage that is usually channelled in socially acceptable ways but, when given permission, breaks out in violence. 

In Gruen’s example of the Attica prison “riots” of 1971, the police, fired by (false) rumours of atrocities by Black Muslim prisoners, stormed the prison and slaughtered inmates and hostages alike. “The attackers feel justified in killing prisoners considered less than human.” Our own rage and fear make us seek justifications for cruelty, in the symbolic world of film and in the real world.