The 19th-century conflict between the Hatfield and McCoy families became the definitive feud of American history. To this day it provides a shorthand way of describing a hate-laced, unbending, seemingly endless battle between two groups. But what in fact happened between the Hatfields and McCoys?
The History channel offers a very long answer with the three-part miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, starring Kevin Costner as “Devil Anse” Hatfield and Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy, the patriarchs of the feuding clans. It premieres from 9 to 11:06 p.m. Monday, 9 to 11:05 p.m. Tuesday and 9 to 11 p.m. Wednesday. History has also tied other programs to the Hatfields/McCoys theme, including back-to-back episodes of Pawn Stars airing at 8 p.m. Monday.
Costner, who is also a producer of the series, has demonstrated a need to take lots of time to tell a story, and Hatfields & McCoys follows that pattern. At times, it seems as if the program is going to last as long as the decades consumed by the real-life feud.
But that time demonstrates how pervasive, and complicated, were the events in the feud. Not only did they involve two large families, but also lawyers, judges, at least one minister, the governors of two states and the U.S. Supreme Court. Periods of seeming peace would end suddenly in capricious bloodletting. (CBS News reported a few years ago on a rare disease afflicting the McCoys, which may have caused some “hair-trigger rage and violent outbursts.”) And when one side was attacked, the other had to respond in kind.
The drama, which draws heavily on historical accounts of the feud, traces it to hard feelings between Anse and Randall during the Civil War, feelings that carried into the postwar years. Although they lived on opposite sides of a river — McCoy in Kentucky, Hatfield in West Virginia — their paths repeatedly crossed and their interests conflicted, usually with lethal results.
While the patriarchs loom over the action, the story spins far beyond them. Key players include Anse’s son Johnse (Matt Barr), who falls in love with Randall’s daughter Roseanna (Lindsay Pulsipher), to the dismay of both families. Perry Cline (Ronan Vibert), a McCoy family lawyer, takes advantage of the feud for his own gain, as does “Bad Frank” Phillips (a quite scary Andrew Howard), a gun for hire with an old grudge against the Hatfields. While Anse seems to drive the feud, his brother Wall (Powers Boothe) keeps getting dragged into it because of his position as a local judge. And there’s Jim Vance (Tom Berenger), Anse’s violent uncle, who repeatedly plays a pivotal role in the feud. So does Nancy McCoy (Jena Malone), unscrupulous and driven.
The cast is good, with many effective scenes. But I still felt too often that the tale could have been more tightly told — and more dramatic as a result.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal, Ohio.com and the HeldenFiles Online blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can reach him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.