I tend to get to the theater early when I am going to see a movie. I don’t like to feel rushed, I like to get a good seat, and I certainly don’t want to miss the previews. So, more often than not, I wind up sitting through the 20 minute “First Look” program that runs before the previews start and the theater darkens, which highlights upcoming TV shows or movies and the behind the scenes production in an attempt to garner some interest in these projects. I’m not usually very interested in the programs that they highlight, but for some reason the segment on The History Channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys caught my eye.
Now admittedly I don’t know much about the Hatfields and the McCoys. Of course I was aware of the general premise – two southern families that had a long and protracted feud – but I had no idea as to its origins or the specifics of the feud. What made these families hate each other so much? How long did the active feud last? How many people were killed? I figured the feud must have not been too terrible as I had memories from my childhood of the descendants of the two families competing against each other on the game show Family Feud.
The Feud can get competitive, but it certainly isn’t a blood sport. How bad could this feud actually have been?
The fact that Kevin Costner was involved with the miniseries peaked my interest. I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that Costner is a great actor, but I do think he does two types of roles particularly well: westerns and baseball players. And though Hatfields & McCoys isn’t necessarily a western, it was close enough for me to think he would excel at the portrayal of the Hatfield patriarch ‘Devil’ Anse Hatfield. I was more leery of the casting of Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy; Paxton isn’t a terrible actor, but his years playing Bill Henrickson on HBO’s polygamy drama Big Love had kind of ruined him for me. That character was so sanctimonious and one-dimensional that I bailed out of the series in the final season, a big deal for a completest like myself. But the Costner factor outweighed my Paxton concerns, so I decided to give part one of the miniseries a try. I didn’t even set my DVR to record parts two and three; I didn’t want to waste valuable digital space if I just wasn’t that into the miniseries or if the commitment of six hours (with commercials) was just too daunting. Were they really going to have enough material to fill all that time without having a lot of filler or getting too repetitive?
The Hatfields & McCoys miniseries wound up being both compelling and entertaining. It turned out to be a pretty epic saga of how familial loyalty can become both toxic and deadly and how the desire for revenge often results in the worst possible outcome. I really enjoyed it. During the first commercial break of part one, I made sure I was ready to record the remaining chapters on the following nights. I was 100% invested.
The story moved along fairly quickly and managed to follow all the developments of the feud without feeling like it was dragging too much. Honestly, the time flew by. There are a lot of relations involved in the feud – cousins, aunts and uncles – but they developed even the supporting characters enough that it was fairly easy to keep everyone straight and to understand their motivations. It would have been easy for them to just have stock Hatfields and McCoys, but over the course of the six hours you got to know these people and care what happened to them. It also conveyed the complexity of the feud; though it began from pretty modest origins (a pig is involved), as the dispute intensified and deepened not all family members intensified their resentment. Some people on both sides tried to squash the feud or at least tried to contain it. Not all Hatfields hated all McCoys; central to the miniseries is the Romeo and Juliet type affair between two members of the battling clans and the impact their relationship has on both sides.
The miniseries makes clear that there was plenty of blame to go around in this feud and that there was wrongdoing on both sides. There were no angels in the dispute. Since I am so conditioned at this point to take a side in most cinematic disputes (e.g. “Team Edward” vs. “Team Jacob” in Twilight, “Team Eric” vs. “Team Bill” on True Blood), I was solidly “Team McCoy” for the first ¾ of part one. But as the events continued to unfold, it became obvious that you couldn’t root for either family. The longer the feud lasted, the more gruesome and ugly it became.
The acting throughout the miniseries is generally very good; Costner did his expected solid job and while I do find the sound of Paxton’s voice occasionally reminds me of the role of his that I dislike, it was infrequent enough that it wasn’t a major distraction. There were plenty of familiar faces in the supporting roles as the Hatfield and McCoy family members were filled with actors that had appeared on Deadwood, True Blood, Major League, St. Elmo’s Fire and Rome. I thought Matt Barr as Johnse Hatfield was a pleasant surprise as I recognized him from commercials from the now defunct CW cheerleading show Hellcats. Based on that resume I didn’t expect much from him, but he was very good as one of the more conflicted Hatfields.
Even though the series is on The History Channel, I do take their portrayal with a grain of salt. I’m not sure a network that now specializes in shows like Swamp People, UFO Hunters and Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy can really be trusted to be bastions of historical accuracy. There must have been some changes or modifications for dramatic effect, which is fine. This isn’t a documentary. But after watching the miniseries I am now more interested in doing some research into the feud and learning more about it, which is probably the best result that they could hope for. I believe only a dozen people were killed as a direct result of the feud, but it felt like that many were killed in the first two hours of the program. There certainly was a lot of blood spilled over the course of the six hours. This bitter rivalry took a real toll on both sides.
When the miniseries finally came to an end, I definitely had a better understanding of the Hatfields and the McCoys and the severity of their war. It all seemed so pointless, though as someone who doesn’t have a particularly close relationship with my extended family I did respect their devotion to each other, as misguided as it might have been. It’s amazing how quickly the whole thing spiraled out of control and how the bitterness consumed generation after generation.
If you missed Hatfields & McCoys during its original airing and want to check it out (which I recommend), The History Channel will be running a marathon of all three episodes on Saturday June 2nd starting at 6 pm. It is well worth the time investment.