Hatfields and McCoys was a series which had been on my radar from way back in 2012, when it was up for quite a few gongs (and won a fair few too) at the awards shows then. My reasons for wanting to watch this History Channel produced three-part miniseries was mostly to do with a latent fondness for gritty Westerns and with always having liked the laconic charisma exuded by Kevin Costner whenever he is in a role like this. Something similar to my huge liking of Denzel Washington, though Denzel is probably the much better actor among the two. When I finally did come around to getting it off my watchlist, it was without knowing much about the history behind the iconic feud that laid the foundation for the series.
The series is based on the true-life battle between the Hatfield family, led by ‘Devil’ Anse Hatfield (Kevin Costner) and the McCoys, led by Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton). Their feud, most of which happened in the aftermath of the Civil War, was a wide-ranging affair covering the counties of West Virginia and Kentucky, and almost brought these states to another Civil War in itself. Over time, the two names have become cultural signposts in American history and popular culture, but the series does a good job of providing the detailed backstory for anyone not familiar with it.
There is no sign of the ensuing bad blood between the clans in the first scene though. Both Devil Anse and Randall are fighting on the same side during the Civil War, for the ultimately vanquished Confederates, and appear to have forged the kind of brotherly bond which develops when two people fight side by side on the battlefield. However, after a particularly brutal skirmish, Devil Anse decides he has had enough and sets to leave the war in the middle of the night while the rest of the camp sleeps. Randall accuses him of deserting, but Anse returns to his wife and makes himself a relatively well to do living with in the timber business. Randall, meanwhile, returns home an embittered man, having spent time as a POW after his side was defeated in the war. In the interim period, one of the McCoy clan, who fought for the Union, got into a tiff at a local drinking hole and quite unwisely suggested that Jim Vance, fiery and temperamental uncle of Anse, had unnatural relations with his dog. The resulting death sparks off the grudges between the families, further embittered by Randall’s return home and his memory of what he considers as Anse’s desertion. A stolen pig is also thrown into the mix, and both families take to court to resolve the matter. One of the Hatfields is a judge and does try to bring a bit of sanity to proceedings. However, matters get into a further tangle with the Romeo-Juliet-esque love story over the metaphorically forbidden divide, when Devil ANse’s son, Johnse, and McCoy’s daughter, Roseanna, fall in love and she gets virtually excommunicated from the family. The path of love in such twisted circumstance is strewn more with the thorns than the roses, and Johnse, of more tender disposition than the rest of the clan, finds himself struggling to do right by both his family and his love. Roseanna is an unfortunate victim of the whole affair, but she does manage to save Johnse from the hands of her brothers. A further scuffle and unfortunate death of one of the Hatfields at the hands of the McCoy boys results in a more vicious upturn of events and both clans seem resigned to the fact that there seems to be no going back from this. The bodies from both sides of the divide start piling up as the futile, and perhaps inevitable, battle rages on.
It’s brilliantly produced. I’ve read that the series was shot on location in Romania and not at the original sites where the action took place, which I’m assuming has something to do with the difficulty in recreating the time and place in the places of today. However, this doesn’t detract from the proceedings, as the beautiful natural surroundings provide a brutal counterpoint for man’s inherent tendency to violence. The actors are all in top form, headlined by Costner and Paxton. We see more into Devil Anse’s mental space and Costner does a great job of portraying the family patriarch who initially wanted none of this, but in the face of increasing hostilities is torn between understanding the futility of it all and yet being unable to break free of the cycle of violence. Paxton is excellent as well, as the bitter ex-Confederate soldier who comes back to a world which seems forever altered in his mind. The parts of their spouses are also well played, though Mare Winningham as Sally McCoy is especially haunting as the woman driven ultimately to madness on seeing her kids start to fall dead one after the other. Tom Berenger plays a fine hand as the always potentially explosive Uncle Jim, who seems like a powder keg waiting to go off. There are also some impactful performances from Jena Malone as Nancy McCoy, Roseanna’s cousin, who is driven by an inherent desire for vengeance for which she is not shy to using anyone or breaking anyone, as well as Ronan Vobert playing the slimy McCoy attorney, Perry Cline. Also, Noel Fisher as the simple-minded ‘Cotton Top’ provides a heart rending portrait of how even the innocent are not spared by the battles made and fought by others.
In subsequent years, the families have made symbolic peace treaties and descendants of both families have even appeared on TV shows together. However, as a reminder of the brutal realities of history, as well as a treatise on misguided notions of family honor that destroys individuals and lives, this is a series which finds relevance in most parts of the world.