'Hatfields & McCoys' vs. 'Hemingway & Gellhorn'

Kevin Costner portrays Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield in the History Channel miniseries.
Kevin Costner portrays Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield in the History Channel miniseries.
Posted: May 25, 2012

HATFIELDS & McCOYS. 9 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, History Channel.

HEMINGWAY & GELLHORN. 9 p.m. Monday, HBO.

"THERE ARE wars and there are wars," muses reporter Martha Gellhorn as she looks back at her long and turbulent life in HBO’s "Hemingway & Gellhorn."

No kidding.

On Memorial Day, set aside to honor Americans who’ve lost their lives in their country’s service, HBO and the History Channel go head-to-head with less-patriotic war stories featuring combatants who could have saved themselves and everyone around them a load of trouble if they’d only had the sense to get away from each other while the getting was good.

In one corner, we have "Hatfields & McCoys." History’s three-night, six-hour miniseries about the 19th century backwoods conflict that came to epitomize the phrase "family feud" stars Kevin Costner as Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield and Bill Paxton as Randolph "Randall" McCoy.

In the other, we have "Hemingway & Gellhorn," starring Clive Owen as novelist and occasional war correspondent Ernest Hemingway and Nicole Kidman as Gellhorn, a war correspondent and occasional novelist who’d hoped (and deserves) to be remembered for something beyond being the third of Hemingway’s four wives.

If only she hadn’t walked into a Key West, Fla., bar called Sloppy Joe’s and found one of America’s most celebrated writers kissing a dead fish.

If only someone named Hatfield hadn’t stolen Randall McCoy’s pig.

If only Hemingway didn’t talk like a character in one of his books.

If only the McCoys hadn’t had a lawyer in the family who thought a pig was worth suing over.

If only Gellhorn, who described herself as "probably the worst bed partner on five continents," hadn’t been quite so willing to accommodate the men to whom sex, she felt, meant more than it did to her.

If only that Hatfield boy had been able to stay away from those McCoy girls.

The if-onlys pile up pretty fast on both sides, but unless you’re a Hemingway completist — and it turns out I’m not — your regrets will likely be fewer if you skip the two hours and 40 minutes-long "Hemingway & Gellhorn."

One of those packaged-for-the-Emmys projects with a great cast — including David Strathairn as John Dos Passos and Molly Parker as Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline — and a script that doesn’t do those actors justice, it offers tantalizing glimpses of other movies it might have been. A cosmetically altered Kidman portrays Gellhorn in her later years, long after Hemingway had ceased to be her problem, and that’s the woman I found myself wanting to know better. I’d also like to have seen more of Parker’s Pauline, here reduced to an angry cliché as the wronged wife, though her history with Hemingway was probably as complicated as Gellhorn’s.

Owen brings all of his considerable magnetism to Hemingway, but the character sucks all the air out of rooms and then out of the Spanish Civil War and eventually out of his third marriage, by which point lack of oxygen may just have lulled viewers to sleep.

No one’s going to get much sleep once the shooting starts in "Hatfields & McCoys," though the feud itself takes some setting up. (For those who’d like to know what’s going on before the characters do, History’s presenting a two-hour documentary, "America’s Feud: Hatfields & McCoys," at 9 p.m. Friday.)

Once I’d accepted that "Justified’s" Raylan Givens would not be showing up to make anyone’s day, figured out which sides the various guys in hats and scraggly beards belonged to and began to identify with the women — let’s just say Mare Winningham was born to play parts like Sally McCoy — "Hatfields & McCoys" began to get interesting.

Interesting enough to justify six hours? Probably not.

But for those who watch "Game of Thrones" and "Spartacus" for the high body counts, it offers plenty of action, plus one of history’s more important lessons:

You can always get another pig.

Contact Ellen Gray at 215-854-5950 or graye@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @elgray. Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.

|
|
|
|
|