Movie Misfires: The Highwaymen

This is a new kind of movie review where we give you our take on a film and then give you our take on the depiction of the use and/or sale of firearms in said movie. We’ll be covering classics and newer films, but we will not be getting political—just applying the filter of reality, within reason.

The Highwaymen is a cool movie, plain and simple. Is it completely historically accurate? No, not even close. You can read all about the factual differences here, along with a much deeper dive into the guns used in the movie. But without comparing it to the history books or the real life of Frank Hamer—the movie isn’t overly complicated and the plot is something we’ve seen before, but it’s done very well and certainly different enough to warrant its inclusion into a few Best Of lists.

Retired, old school lawman comes out of seclusion to nab the high profile criminals that nobody can seem to catch, using his wiles and lawman abilities. And he picks up his old partner along the way, just to round out the clichés. The fact that its couched in reality does help mitigate its ham-fistedness here—Hamer really did come out of retirement to participate in the manhunt, it just wasn’t as straightforward and dramatic as it is in the movie, of course. And like I said, the production quality and the acting from Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson is so top-notch that I really didn’t care on the first viewing—it actually felt more comfortable than clichéd.

(If you want to know a lot more about the manhunt and about Fran Hamer’s incredibly interesting and colorful career give this a read: Texas Ranger: The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde a read.)

Of course, we know how the movie will end as soon as it begins—this isn’t a Tarantino historical fiction movie here, Bonnie and Clyde are meeting their end wrapped in a 1934 Ford 730 Deluxe Sedan and torn up in a hail of bullets. So the only mystery in the film is the “how” of getting there, which is a story that hasn’t really been told.

Most movie and TV depictions of the criminal couple are told from the perspective of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, or members of their gang, with the law enforcement in pursuit as background or secondary characters. Hell, its tough to find an outlaw couple that isn’t at least partially based on Bonnie and Clyde or Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.

The Highwaymen stands in sharp contrast to those depictions. It only shows the infamous murderers and robbers for a few scenes, including their death scene at the end. Sometimes we only see their feet or a silhouette, and maybe a word or two. This is interesting, because you only see glimpses and then the horror they leave in their wake, which allows a mounting sense of dread to build, even though you know the lawmen come out on top in the end.

For me, I enjoy the look back in time. The movie feels like a snapshot of a long bygone age, where middle-aged lawmen had begun their careers in the fading light of the Old West, and a country in the grips of The Great Depression and just coming out of Prohibition and dealing with the surge in organized crime that resulted. An age when old timers still carried single-action revolvers alongside full auto Thompson submachine guns and the idea of federal agents wiretapping a phone line is a novel concept. It’s all dusty roads and jalopies and news via radio. It’s just charming. It’s a good chase story, a great lawman story, kind of a western with early Fords instead of horses, and it has a solid core of heart when you get down to it.

Kevin Costner as Frank Hamer getting ready to fire a Colt Monitor, a lighter weight, chopped down version of the BAR chambered in .30/06 with a pistol grip.

Kevin Costner as Frank Hamer getting ready to fire a Colt Monitor, a lighter weight, chopped down version of the BAR chambered in .30/06 with a pistol grip.

THE GUN STUFF

All in all, this film is pretty accurate when it comes to firearm use.

When Frank first actually considers coming out of retirement, one of the first things he does is see if he still has his aim with his trusty Colt SAA revolver by paying some kids to throw bottles in the air. He tries to shoot the first one on the draw, beginning with his gun in his waistband. He misses by a mile and decides to try with the gun already in hand. By the last bottle, he manages to clip one before it falls to the ground, and knows here he is in terms of ability. I dug this for two reasons: it reminded me a bit of the shooting at the cans scene from Unforgiven, minus the comical shotgun blast, and it doesn’t have the main character come off as some kind of superhero gunslinger who only needs the feel of a revolver in his hand to cause all his pistolero skills to come rushing back. He didn’t use it, so he lost it a bit.

It also explains his weapon purchasing zeal when he arms up at a gun shop, but we’ll get there in a sec.

This drives home the point that Hamer understands what he’s being asked to do—that he’s being asked to go after a gang of criminals that had not only killed numerous innocent people they came along on the roads they travel, but also don’t hesitate to shoot police dead in the street as well. Plus, they had support in some local communities where they were seen as antiheroes. In some ways, the Bonnie and Clyde gang were old fashioned outlaws from a more lawless time—and, as the movie posits, the only way to catch him is to sic two Texas Rangers on them who knew the score.

Hell, when the suits are discussing the idea at the opening of the movie, Hamer is mentioned in the same breath as Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok.

THE GUN SHOP SCENE

I was extremely skeptical of the movie’s gun shop scene when I first saw it, but somehow managed to keep my phone dark until it was over.

Frank Hamer, preparing to hunt down the outlaws, stops at a small town gun shop on a dusty street to arm up—and he buys a veritable arsenal.

All in all, he packs up:

  • 1 Thompson submachine gun
  • 1 Colt Monitor
  • 1 Colt Automatic Pistol
  • 1 S&W Model 1917
  • 1 BAR
  • 1 1903 Springfield with Scope
  • 1 Remington Model 11 Shotgun w/ 20-inch barrel
  • 1 Winchester 1894 in .30-30

Most of these firearms are fairly pedestrian for the time, but some should make you sit up and listen, like the Tommy gun, the Colt Monitor, and the BAR. These are machine guns, yet Hamer purchases the over the counter with the same ease that he buys the bolt-action ’03 Springfield.

Is this accurate? In a word, yes. Is it accurate that a small gun shop would have something as rare and exotic as a Colt Monitor up on the wall? That is extremely unlikely.

Only 125 Monitors were ever produced by Colt—11 went to the U.S. Treasury Department, 90 were purchased by the FBI, and the remaining 24 went to state prisons, police departments, banks, and security companies. It was introduced in 1931, so by 1934, it was conceivable that one of those guns that went to a security company, bank, or prison—or even one issued to a less-than-honest FBI agent—ended up being sold by its eventual owner to the little gun shop Hamer finds at random. But I’d say it’s highly unlikely.

As for the BAR and the Tommy Gun, maybe? Like, this may have been a super cool gun shop circa 1934, but it stands to reason that during the Depression, a store that’s still in business wouldn’t stock guns that locals aren’t likely to buy.

But we can totally look past that as some serious inside baseball firearms knowledge.

The other thing that made me take notice, obviously, was the purchase of machine guns, but this holds water just fine.

The piece of legislation that made machine guns highly controlled firearms was the National Firearms Act of 1934. While I can’t remember when or if the movie says when the events at the opening are set, Bonnie and Clyde were killed in May 1934, so the gun shop scene is set well before that. The NFA didn’t go into effect until June of that year, so at the time, Hamer could have bought all the guns he buys at any gun shop.

It was kind of shocking to me that the gun shop would have a dozen Tommy Gun mags, plus two drum magazines in stock. But what do I know—maybe they came in crates of 2 dozen back then. I know they didn’t sell particularly well on the civilian market, because few people had a practical use for a submachine gun, and they were really expensive. So maybe they were overstocked.

GOOD IMPACTS:

Gun use is accurate, firearm models are appropriate for the time period, gun purchases are depicted correctly for pre-June 1934.

MISFIRES:

A Colt Monitor likely wouldn’t have been on the wall in a small town gun shop. The guns used in the final shootout aren’t quite accurate to history as far as who was armed with what, but they’re plenty close for Hollywood.

FINAL GRADE: A

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