The mini starts off strongly with Capt. William Anderson Hatfield (Costner) and Randall McCoy (Paxton) fighting side by side for the Confederacy. Before the War Between the States began, the two men and their large clans had lived peaceably in the same region -- Devil Anse Hatfield, as he was known, on the east side of Tug Fork ( a tributary of the Big Sandy River), in territory that would become part of West Virginia during the Civil War, and Ole Ran’l McCoy on the Kentucky side.
Devil Anse sees the writing on the wall and deserts (in real life, he lead a band of marauding rebel guerillas in the Tug Valley); Ole Ran’l is taken prisoner and suffers greatly in a Union stockade. The Civil War may end, but a personal grudge continues to percolate between these men for decades. (Ironically, given how many Hatfield and McCoy relatives and children were killed in these vendettas, Devil Anse and Ole Ran’l both lived into their 80s).
There are some great set pieces here -- for instance, a trial in which the charge is pig thievery. The justice of the peace (Powers Boothe) is a Hatfield. The lawyer bringing the case (Ronan Vibert) is a McCoy and the jury is evenly divided, six and six, between the two clans. You don’t have to adjourn to take a satisfying pull off one of the the jugs.
Not surprisingly, the miniseries has to feature a great romance, and with few options in the historical annals, chooses to elevate the somewhat tawdry liaison between Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy to Romeo and Juliet status. The actors (Matt Barr and Lucy Pulsipher) are blonde and beautiful, two things that as far as I know, no one ever accused the Hatfields or McCoys of being.
The docudrama’s leads, Costner and Paxton, are compelling. Two of the more arresting performances among the supporting cast belong to Tom Berenger as Devil Anse’s brutal, bearish Uncle Jim, and Andrew Howard as Bad Frank Phillips a former Pinkerton and revenuer who makes a pretty good living collecting the bounties the McCoys have put on the Hatfields’ heads after the New Year’s Night Massacre of 1888.
The mood, costumes, props and locations are all convincing. The entire film seems to be shot in a sad, late autumnal sepia tone. All it really needs is a better (and shorter) script. But be warned, although Hatfields & McCoys is slow moving, it’s also oddly gripping. If you start watching, there’s a good chance you’ll keep watching, not as a witness to history, more as one of the clans.
You’ll certainly learn a thing or two along the way. For instance, did you know about the worst insult you can pay a man is "You’re just a huckleberry persimmon, ain’t ye?"
Them’s fightin’ words.
Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv. Read his blog, "Dave on Demand," at www.philly.com/dod.
Television Hatfields & McCoys 9 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on History