Shakespeare gave us the Montagues and Capulets, sworn enemies whose blood feud spelled the end for Romeo and Juliet. Two centuries later, real life one-upped the Bard — giving us the Hatfields and McCoys, whose legendary 19th century family feud piled up generations of cold, dead bodies along the backcountry banks of the Tug River that divides West Virginia and Kentucky.
Now Kevin Costner, a two-time Oscar-winner who knows his way around a Western (Dances With Wolves), and Bill Paxton (Big Love) headline an all-star cast in Hatfields & McCoys, a six-hour mini-series from the History channel that chronicles how living hell came to the Appalachians.
“Everyone knows the legend of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, but few know the true story of what occurred to make the two families become mortal enemies,” says Costner, who also served as a producer. “As an avid history fan, I am thrilled with this dramatic retelling of a classic and timeless tale that is forever immersed in the folklore of our country.”
This critically acclaimed production notched 16 nominations and five wins (including Outstanding Actor for Costner and Outstanding Supporting Actor for Tom Berenger) at the 2012 Primetime Emmy Awards. As the first broadcast scripted drama from the network, it drew the largest-ever ratings for a History programme, with 13.9 million viewers, making it the most-watched non-sports single broadcast in the history of ad-supported cable TV. Other stars on board include Powers Boothe, Mare Winningham and Jena Malone.
The feud (1863-1891) nearly ignited a war between Kentucky and West Virginia. The Hatfield-McCoy saga was sparked by Devil Anse Hatfield (Costner) and Randall McCoy (Paxton). Close friends and Confederate comrades until near the end of the American Civil War, upon their return to their neighbouring homes – Hatfield in West Virginia, McCoy just across the Tug River border in Kentucky – growing tensions, misunderstandings and resentments soon exploded into all-out warfare between their kin. “At one point their friendship is shattered … and it spirals into a cycle of violence that was kind of unheard of,” says Costner.
And that’s putting it mildly. The mini-series also dredges up a turbulent love affair between Hatfield’s son and McCoy’s daughter, with ruinous consequences; the execution of McCoy’s three young sons to avenge the Rasputin-like murder of Hatfield’s beloved brother; a New Year’s Massacre of the McCoy clan and torching of their home (which sparked international headlines); a public clash between state governors; and, ultimately, the involvement of the United States Supreme Court.
So what’s in this for a present-day audience? In her review, Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times draws a parallel between then and now: “Although deftly nailed into its time and place with sets and costumes so vivid you can smell the blue woodsmoke and the stink of moonshine sweat, Hatfields & McCoys transcends the confines of its age by revealing the feud’s posturing, resentments and callous violence that mirror the dynamics of modern urban gangs.”
Surprisingly, making the quint-essential American movie isn’t always accomplished in America. Costner and team had to work their magic in Transylvania, Romania, with the Carpathians, just outside of Brasov, standing in for the Appalachians.
Today, in the real Appalachians, feud tourism has never been stronger; bullets are still being found in the dirt. But at least one descendant of the internecine conflict, Paul Phillips, with ties to both families, voices disappointment with how their story was told.
“On the show [my great grandfather] Frank Phillips was shot dead on his wedding day after marrying my great-grandmother Nancy McCoy,” Phillips told local media. “If they did not have any kids – how am I here?”
• Hatfields & McCoys premieres at midnight on Friday on OSN First HD
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