Costner’s role in the drama (opening in limited theaters Friday, streaming March 29 on Netflix), gives Hamer’s point of view hunting down criminal couple Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, dramatically killing the duo in a hail of bullets in 1934.
The legendary lawman was unfairly ridiculed in 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the infamous outlaws.
“The portrayal of Frank Hamer in the 1967 film was beyond inaccurate. It was unjust,” says “Highwaymen” screenwriter John Fusco, who has worked on the project for more 15 years. “Frank Hamer was not the mustache-twirling evil buffoon portrayed in ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ He was arguably the greatest law officer of the 20th century.”
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“Frank Hamer was a very taciturn guy, who was built for the job. He was a hunter and he had a bloody job,” says Costner, who stars alongside Woody Harrelson as another Texas Ranger, Maney Gault, who joined Hamer on the search.
Sunday’s premiere was held in the same theater where Hamer’s widow, Gladys, was granted a private screening of “Bonnie and Clyde” more than three decades ago (Hamer died in 1955).
She was devastated to see Hamer depicted by Denver Pyle (later Jesse Duke on TV’s “The Dukes of Hazzard”) as a oafish man bent on revenge after being kidnapped and humiliated by the Barrow Gang. Gladys sued Warner Bros. for defamation and received an out-of-court settlement in 1971.
“The portrayal devastated the family; ‘humiliated’ is the word she uses often in court documents,” says Jody Edward Ginn, official historian for the Former Texas Rangers Association. “The most respected lawman in Texan was made out to be a buffoonish villain.”
Part of the settlement was put toward making a documentary, “Bonnie and Clyde: Myth or Madness,” to correct the history. But no effort could overcome the portrayal from director Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking film.
Fusco sought out a reluctant and still bitter Frank Hamer Jr. to flesh out his father’s side of the story for the screenplay, assuring him he wanted to set the record straight. “The Highwaymen” has been in the works with director John Lee Hancock since Paul Newman and Robert Redford (as Gault) were set to star. Newman’s declining health stopped the project before his death in 2008.
The movie was reborn with Costner starring as Hamer along with Harrelson’s Gault. “The Highwaymen” shows how the stoic Hamer and Gault methodically tracked down Bonnie and Clyde over 102 days and 15 states.
“It was the life he lived, and Frank Hamer saw it as his duty. And guys like that want one last ride,” Costner says. “And he’s looking at these kids on a killing spree with no one bringing them down. He’s tired of reading about it. When he’s asked to go, he goes.”
Costner says he wasn’t setting out to correct the record in taking the part, even if that’s how it turns out.
“Enough of the history books say Frank Hamer wasn’t a fool, he wasn’t a braggart. He was a man-hunter,” Costner says. “Whenever you are playing someone from history, you want to get it as close as you can.”
Even the violent end to Bonnie and Clyde, who drive into a trap that leads to their deaths, is fully justified and based on the only interview Hamer gave. He boldly stepped in front of their car, said “Stick ’em up,” but the lethal duo reached for their stockpile of weapons.
“That car was loaded with guns,” Costner says. “And they were not going to go down without a fight.”
Hancock and Fusco set up a screening of “The Highwaymen” for family members, including great-grandson Travis Hamer, who broke down in tears praising the movie afterward.
“He choked up and said, ‘My family has been waiting on this day since before I was born,’ ” Ginn says. “Costner nailed the part. That’s who Frank Hamer was. This is the one film to do him justice.”
Fusco says “The Highwaymen” story is fascinating because it shows retired Texas Rangers returning to a then-modern world to stop lethal gangsters.
“They did it old school, and they pulled it off,” Fusco says. “And to me, it’s important that the name Frank Hamer will have been redeemed in a way.”
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