The Highwaymen’s portrayal of outlaw Bonnie Parker is more dime novel fantasy than reality.
In Netflix’s new historical film The Highwaymen (2019), Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson play ex-Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, the two men responsible for taking down outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in May 1934. The famous outlaw couple don’t get a lot of screen time, but when they do, expect blood and bullets to fly.
In The Highwaymen, 24-year-old Bonnie Parker is portrayed as every bit as dangerous as her male companions, firing a Thompson submachine gun to cover a prison farm escape and coldly finishing off a wounded patrolman. But this portrayal is more in line with the sensational dime novels and films of yesteryear than reality.
Bonnie was born in Rowena, Texas in 1910 and grew up west of Dallas. She dropped out of high school and married a man named Roy Thornton just shy of her 16th birthday. Her husband was frequently in trouble with the law, and she moved back in with her mother and worked as a waitress. That’s when she met Clyde Barrow.
Clyde was a petty criminal who killed his first man in prison. After release in 1932, his gang committed a string of armed robberies. Bonnie and Clyde met two years earlier, and she joined him as they robbed, kidnapped, and murdered their way across several states. By 1934, the gang was allegedly responsible for 13 murders, including nine police officers.
On April 1, 1934, Easter Sunday, the Barrow Gang killed two highway patrolmen, H. D. Murphy and Edward Bryant Wheeler, near Grapevine, Texas. The Highwaymen shows Bonnie coolly walking up to the wounded man and inflicting the coup de grace. An eyewitness (shown in the film) told police that’s what happened, but a gang member disputed the story. The farmer’s exaggerated and ever-changing account has since been discredited.
According to Henry Methvin, who fired the first shot, he misunderstood Clyde’s injunction “Let’s take them.” Clyde, Henry, and Bonnie had been asleep in their car when the patrolmen approached, and Bonnie was probably asleep in the backseat when the first shots were fired.
She could also barely walk. Battery acid severely burnt her right leg during a car accident in June 1933, melting flesh to the bone in some places. Her injuries were so bad, Clyde often carried her or she was forced to hop on one leg. The Highwaymen portrays Bonnie dragging her foot, but her actual impairment was much more severe. They couldn’t visit a hospital to treat her injuries while they were on the run.
As a result of sensational accounts in the press, and a widely-circulated photo of her holding guns and smoking a cigar (taken for laughs), Bonnie Parker became the stuff of legends. A poster for The Bonnie Parker Story (1958) shows Bonnie chomping on a cigar and blasting away with a Tommy Gun.
When the gang kidnapped Police Chief Percy Boyd in 1934, however, upon his release Bonnie requested he tell the world she didn’t smoke cigars. “Nice girls don’t smoke cigars,” she reportedly said.
There’s also no evidence Bonnie Parker ever fired a shot.
The Highwaymen perpetuates these misconceptions, choosing sensationalism at the expense of history. Despite the film’s muted tones and bleak realism, the filmmakers couldn’t help themselves when it came to turning Bonnie Parker into some kind of femme fatale. Whether this was the result of pop culture myths or an attempt to show Bonnie as “one of the boys” and an equal member of the gang, we’ll probably never know, but it is certainly more fantasy than reality.