“Revenge is all I got inside of me,” confides a character in Hatfields & McCoys. It doesn’t matter which one: Everyone involved in this tale of America’s most famous and deadly family feud was eventually shorn of every human thought or emotion and reduced to a walking lust for vengeance.
A miniseries airing at the same time for three consecutive nights, Hatfields & McCoys is the History Channel’s first foray into drama. (At least, the first that made it onto the channel’s screen; more on that in a minute.) It is a powerful and often heartbreaking piece of filmmaking that ponders just how thin our veneer of civilization really can be.
“Feud” seems much too mild a word for the frenzied slaughter that raged in the back country along the border between West Virginia and Kentucky during the last half of the 19th Century. Their bloody vendetta over the course of more than two decades claimed at least a dozen lives and nearly dragged their states into a war before it collapsed out of sheer exhaustion.
Fraught with generational rage and sexual treachery, shaped alternately by scalded family pride and icy mercenary calculation, the tale of the Hatfields and the McCoys was an obvious candidate when the History Channel decided to go into the dramatic miniseries business. Far less obvious was why the project would be turned over to executive producer Leslie Greif, whose previous work has been mostly confined to reality shows ranging from the trashy ( Gene Simmons: Family Jewels) to the insane ( Battleground Earth: Ludacris vs. Tommy Lee).
Yet, however improbably, Greif proved himself more than equal to the task. He got intelligent screenplays from veteran TV writers Ted Mann (who worked on HBO’s revisionist Western Deadwood as well as NYPD Blue) and Ronald Parker, then populated them with a muscular cast including Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton, Tom Berenger and Powers Boothe.
The result is a towering morality tale of family values run amok, of the thin lines between pride and arrogance, loyalty and fanaticism. When one member of the Hatfield clan warns patriarch Devil Anse (Costner) that he’s about to take up arms in defense of family jackasses who were undoubtedly guilty of whatever they were accused of, Costner tonelessly agrees: “Yeah. But they’re our jackasses.”
There is no shortage of jackassery in Hatfields & McCoys. But not the least of the show’s strengths is its refusal to turn the story — as so many writers have — into a collection of hillbilly clichés knit together with Snuffy Smith buffoonery. The characters include moonshiners and pig thieves, to be sure, but also lawyers and prosperous businessmen. And there is nothing comic about their terrible rages or their even more terrible losses.
The biggest cliché of all — that the feud was triggered by a yokel argument about a pig — is dispensed with at the very beginning of Hatfields & McCoys, when the show traces the hard feelings between family patriarchs Randall McCoy (Paxton) and Devil Anse Hatfield to the cauldron of divided loyalties set boiling by the Civil War. It was fueled further by a high-stakes dispute over timber rights that was settled in court but left a bumper crop of hard feelings all around. The wounds festered for 13 years before erupting in a series of murders that occurred over more than a decade.