The Greatest Outlaws Who Ever Lived

screens_feature6I had lunch with Richard Linklater just before his career took off. He’d come to New York to promote the upcoming release of Dazed and Confused, his masterpiece about growing up in the early 1970s in Texas. I’d only been editor-in-chief of High Times for a few years, and had just written my second film script, The Runaways, a garage rock musical set in central Illinois in 1966. (My first, Looking for the Perfect Beat, had been sold to Orion and became Beat Street but nothing except the characters’ names survived that process…although you can read the original script on my smashwords site and it’s by far my best selling ebook for some weird reason.)

After lunch in a fancy restaurant in Union Square, I took Richard down to my hangout at Avenue A and 6th Street so we could enjoy a few beers with Allegra at the bar. The last thing I did was slip him a copy of my garage band script as he got into a cab to return to his hotel. I don’t know if he ever read it, but after I saw Dazed and Confused, I knew he’d hate it because the protagonist in his film was a long-haired jock, while in my story, the jocks were the bad guys. See, the original longhairs were in conflict with jocks for the first year or so, but by 1968, the smarter jocks had already crossed over and become longhairs themselves. Since Linklater was almost ten years younger than me, he’d had a much different experience in high school, and by the time he got there, the counterculture was in full swing and most teens were already smoking pot and rebelling against the establishment.

Linklater is a real artist who made uncompromising independent films for years before he decided to make a Hollywood film and his first attempt was a real doozy as he took on the little-known story of the Newton brothers, the most successful outlaws in history. This was going to be his “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and Linklater had two of his favorite actors in the leads, Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke.

newtonsThe Newton Brothers were dirt poor Texas cotton pickers. The leader, Willis (second from left), had only one pair of jeans as a kid and after the seat wore out and needed a patch job, he quit elementary school rather than show up in patched pants. He got unfairly charged with stealing cotton one day, and that convinced him to seek a life of crime. Inspired mostly by Harry Tracy, the last of the Wild Bunch (who’d committed suicide after being surrounded in a field by dozens of police and militia), Willis decided to start robbing banks. Tracy had been the subject of one of the biggest manhunts in history, although he had a Pretty Boy Floyd-like reputation for treating poor people with respect, a reputation Willis wanted to emulate.

For years, the four Newton brothers robbed banks and trains all across North American and never came close to getting caught. They rode horses for their first robbery, but after one of the gang ended up shot dead by a posse traveling in cars, Willis decided to switch to autos himself and began pulling off jobs in the middle of the night. Willis’ standard technique was to break into the local bank after midnight and blow the door off the safe with nitroglycerin. The outlaws were never suspected or identified for years and lived the high life, staying in the best hotels, eating in the best restaurants and driving the best cars. Their favorite vehicle was the Studebaker “Big Six.” The brothers may have stolen more money than all the other bank robbers in American history combined, and also pulled off the biggest train robbery in history, a $3 million score. You have to wonder why these dudes remain so obscure, say in comparison to Jesse James or Billy the Kid because they should be widely celebrated as the most successful outlaws in American history.

You think with such a great director and talented cast this would have been an epic film, but it was savaged by the critics and disappeared shortly after opening. I just viewed it for the first time on HBO and you’ll find it on rotation on pay channels for the next couple weeks. I encourage you to seek it out because this is actually a great film.

The reason it tanked at the box office is obvious. You see, there’s almost zero violence in this film because the Newton’s never killed anyone. In fact, they typically put bird shot in their shotguns because they didn’t want anyone getting too seriously hurt. After narrowly escaping a daylight bank robbery in Toronto, they parked their getaway car in a garage a few blocks from the heist (with the stolen money still inside) and calmly went to watch a movie together. These brothers certainly had true grit.

By the way, Linklater will be in New York City in December for the Gotham Independent Film Awards, where he will be presented the Director’s Tribute Award.

I need to get my garage band script up on my smashwords site one of these days. It’s really the last major piece of my archives that hasn’t been posted there. You can find my site by clicking the links at the top right of this page. Meanwhile, I encourage you to seek out The Newton Boys, a little-known film by one of America’s greatest directors.


Author: Steven Hager

I'm a writer, journalist, filmmaker and event producer.

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