Historians are quick to expose movies… which get history wrong; Braveheart being the optimal example of historical accuracy sacrificed for a plot line. Hollywood elites rarely afford much effort in promoting or marketing films striving for authenticity; which is why historical dramas are often relegated to the made-for-television graveyard(see Son of the Morning Star.) The History Channel, in conjuncture with Kevin Costner, has produced an epic historical miniseries that blurs many of the production lines that have long dictated filmmaking expectations. Hatfields & McCoys features A-list talent in a historically accurate portrayal of America’s most infamous blood feud. The film was a ‘passion project’ for co-producer Leslie Greif who struggled 30 years to get it made. The History Channel provides the perfect venue and Bill Paxton and Costner provide the star power to bring the historical epic to life.
“Harden your hearts”… Hatfield patriarch William Anderson ‘Devil Anse'(Costner) tells his kin as they prepare to execute three McCoy brothers. The scene perfectly describes the blood feud that raged from 1865-1889. Costner’s performance is solid and helps drive the film when it is occasionally dragged down by the complexity of post-Civil War Appalachian politics. Paxton’s McCoy is a sympathetic figure opposed to Costner’s stern Hatfield. Much of the controversy surrounding the feud was over states rights and extradition, but human interest is what draws the viewers. The film explores the tragic love affair between Johnson Hatfield and Roseanne McCoy (Matt Barr and Lindsay Pulsipher.) Young love was no match for family honor and frontier economics which drive the feud to unprecedented levels of violence. The film does an admirable job portraying the events of the feud as well as the time period. Director Kevin Reynolds’ photography all but drops viewers into the Tug River valley, one can almost smell the tobacco, moonshine, and sweat.
Historical accuracy is the film’s greatest strength… as well as its obvious weakness. The historic detail is uncanny, but the introduction of the extended families and all the resentments, posturing, and politics are at times overwhelming. The most violent acts of the feud are graphically depicted and the film doesn’t sugar coat life in 19th century Appalachia( like many Disney movies have.) Film production should be an obvious direction for the History Channel following the success of this effort (now their most watched program.) Kevin Costner can consider his career reenergized. It is only a matter of time before historians begin questioning the purpose of Hatfields & McCoys– a topic which is believed to lack academic value. Such criticism fails to consider the primary motive of filmmaking….entertainment.