I didn’t watch
The History Channel‘s Hatfields & McCoys miniseries when it premiered a few months ago, mostly because the notion of a fictionalized account of the Hatfield-McCoy feud from The History Channel filled me with the same foreboding I had when I found out that the Rock was going to star in a remake of Walking Tall. But when an encore presentation aired last week, I ended up watching the whole thing, and it’s actually not half bad.
In terms of pure entertainment, Part Two is by far the best segment, and the scene in which the Hatfields execute three of Randolph McCoy’s sons packs quite a wallop. (IRL this incident took place on August 9. 1882.) To me, the standout performances are Kevin Costner’s “Devil” Anse Hatfield, Tom Berenger’s Jim Vance (Tom Berenger’s good in everything), Powers Boothe’s Wall Hatfield (ditto), Jena Malone’s Nancy McCoy, Lindsay Pulsipher’s Roseanna McCoy, and Noel Fisher’s Ellison Mounts.
Modern scholarship indicates that the changes taking place in postwar Appalachia led to the resentments that erupted in the feud. The problem wasn’t so much the existence a traditional and primitive society untouched by modernization, but rather the reverse. My biggest fear—and the main reason I steered clear of the miniseries when it premiered—was that we’d get six hours of the same old superficial, simplistic, and stereotypical depictions of nineteenth-century mountaineers as backward, violent, lawless, clannish, and ignorant. Indeed, the feud itself helped generate and perpetuate these very notions. For the most part, though, I was pretty pleasantly surprised. The third part actually touches on the media’s role in popularizing the stereotype of a violent mountain culture in a scene featuring Bill Paxton’s Randolph McCoy. While the embittered patriarch holds a sort of press conference at a relative’s home, a New York reporter and a photographer urge him to hold a bystander’s firearm while posing for the camera.
A few minor criticisms: I know it’s cheaper to film in Romania, but Eastern European mountains aren’t quite the same as Eastern Kentucky ones, so the scenic shots undermined the illusion a little. Seeing men’s ponytails in a late nineteenth-century setting was also a little odd. Finally, Appalachian accents continue to be hit-or-miss when it comes to Hollywood; some actors just can’t swing it.
Despite all the snark I’ve directed against
The History Channel in the past, I’ll give them props for Hatfields & McCoys. Ultimately, what impressed me the most about the miniseries was its success in depicting the feud as a wrenching ordeal in which flesh-and-blood human beings got caught up in extraordinary, terrible circumstances. There’s something to be said for that. Over the years, cartoons, TV shows, and other media have used the feud scenario as a comic, almost buffoonish affair, but whatever else it was, the Hatfield-McCoy conflict was a tragedy involving real people, and the filmmakers didn’t lose sight of that. One could certainly do worse.