In light of the recent UK DVD release of this award-winning series, our resident American historian was sent out to learn more. Note: contains spoilers.
“You simply must watch it,” I was told, “you’ll not see anything better this decade.”
Feeling obliged, I went on-line, got an advanced American copy of the DVD and waited to see what all the fuss was about. Then, as is characteristic in such scenarios, I threw the unopened parcel into my wardrobe where it festered for almost a year. Call me stubborn, call me aloof, but I am simply not impressed by zealous recommendations, especially when the subject matter is American history.
I was put off from the start by the dual billing of Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton, the very same Bill Paxton who was cast as a puppet in Thunderbirds. On the other hand there is Kevin Costner, the star of many’s a flop including the atrocious Waterworld. The prospect of sitting through 286 minutes of them both sounded like a living hell.
But in Hatfields & McCoys, this Masters graduate and lifelong aficionado of said topic discovered a much-needed lesson in humility.
Firstly, Costner has a strong track record in the history of his country. This is, after all, the man behind the compassionate and well-researched treatment of Native Americans achieved in Dances With Wolves. Secondly Costner, like Paxton, has aged well in talent as well as appearance. Last, but by no means least, both men have discovered a knack for believable character-acting that was lacking before, never mind having shaken the ham-infused attempts at sex-appeal so woefully showcased in Robin Hood and Titanic. Here are two mature and talented actors in their prime.
And just as well, as the mini-series revolves around their respective characters as heads of warring hillbilly clans, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and the psychological turmoil suffered by all involved. Anything other than Thespian mastery and the whole thing would have failed.
The action begins during the turning point of the American Civil War, when Confederate recruits Costner (William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield) and Paxton (Randolph “Randall” McCoy) are fleeing from the pursuing troops of the Union army. Facing a massacre, Hatfield holds off the advancing forces while the rest of his unit escape. Job done he returns to camp before deserting, reasoning that the cause is lost and that he has done his bit. By contrast, McCoy decides to stay and is captured only to spend the rest of the war rotting in a hellish prisoner of war camp. Backstory set, the tale begins in earnest with the Hatfield clan making a fortune from logging back in Virginia, taking advantage of the lack of men tied up by the war. When McCoy eventually returns, he is damaged, confused and bitter, the situation exacerbated over land disputes with the Hatfields, the murder of a relative by a Hatfield and the galling issue of Devil Anse having abandoned his unit. All friendships severed, McCoy slinks across the nearby Kentucky border to return to a family left destitute by the ravages of war.
The Main Plot
A decade has passed and the two families find themselves in court over a stray pig in the possession of a Hatfield. The pig has McCoy markings, finally giving Randall a legitimate vehicle to find justice for the unsolved murder. But the case proves inconclusive and the matter is taken into family hands, quickly erupting into a violent war of tit-for-tat.
What follows is two decades of bloodthirsty violence where both families are decimated by bitter feuding and territorial designs. Confusing issues is the unlikely love affair between Jonsie Hatfield, son of Devil Anse, and Roseanna, the daughter of Randall McCoy. The girl’s brothers torture Jonesie, only to be thwarted as Jonesie rescued by an army of Hatfields, further escalating the feud. When the McCoy boys murder Devil Anse’s brother, the Hatfields conduct a series of executions on Randall’s sons. And so it goes on, with daylight raids and night time terror rides culminating in all out war, swinging unresolved until all but a handful of both families are dead. Other casualties are Mother McCoy, driven to insanity by the deaths of all her children, and a handful of hapless outsiders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Hatfields & McCoys manages to achieve an attention to detail and conveyance of psychological horror that can only be dubbed as a triumph of cinematography. The series is designed to be a study of gut-wrenching inhumanity, and the distressingly human nature of the acting meets the mark by provoking a profoundly conflicting sense of attachment and resentment. Sympathies swing to and fro, but ultimately Paxton triumphs in his role as the disjointed anti-hero who has seen his entire world obliterated. When he dies in a horrifying house fire as an old man, there is a sense of completion for a wretched life torn apart by tragedy.
Randall’s appeal to the viewer is not alone, and shares the grief with the death of Roseanna who is left sickly after a difficult childbirth, the yearning for the romance she and Jonesie so rightly deserved, and the complete disintegration of a normal family life. Nobody is innocent, yet no one party is really guilty either. The only true bad guy is Devil Anse’s psychotic uncle who killed the McCoy cousin in the first place. It was he alone who provoked something that was entirely unnecessary.
But none of the emotional horror could have been achieved without the dark, raw and disturbing camera work of Kevin Reynolds. In the hands of this Texas-born director, the series manages to portray the sheer horror of the history in question without apology or compromise.
Yes, at times it is a little historically off, but then again which film isn’t? The true saga of the Hatfields and McCoys is an entangled nightmare of reactionary violence shrouded by the mists of time and miles of backwoods lore, so it is understandable that even Costner of the Plains would make the odd error here and there.
The appeal is wide-reaching, and not just for history buffs and lovers of wanton violence. Rather, Hatfields & McCoys is an intelligent study of the human psyche and the real cost of misunderstandings, depression and the calamity of war.
You really must watch it… you just might not see a better thing this decade.