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Movie Review: Hatfields & McCoys

Kevin Costner is Devil Anse

 

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.

Frontier justice

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.

 

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Movie Review

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford… 2007, Produced by Ridley Scott, Brad Pitt/ Directed by Andrew Dominik/ Distributed by Warner Bros. 

 

Sparse, bleak, brilliant….

A rare example of historical fiction… truthful to its source material.  Based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Ron Hansen, this film is sparse, bleak and absolutely riveting.  The story dramatizes the relationship between James and his killer, Ford.  Not a shoot’em up western like most Jesse James films are, this psychological portrait details the final months of the man’s life.  Hansen crafts the best parts of his novel into a script that is remarkably historically accurate.  Andrew Dominik’s patient direction and Roger Deakins’ stunning photography bring the period into stunning view.  The landscapes  of Alberta, Canada which serve as late 19th century midwestern America, are moving in their emptiness.  The scenery all but becomes a cast member it is so prominent.  The longer running time (160 minutes) allows characters to be properly introduced and developed.

   Brad Pitt is menacing in the title role… with minimal screen time.  His James is outwardly cunning and deadly, while warm and protective of his personal life.  Pitt’s presence on the screen elicits fear from the other characters, except for Casey Affleck’s break out performance as Robert Ford.  Ford grew up idolizing James and lived his childhood dreams of riding with the famous outlaw.  Torn between making a name for himself and gaining recognition from his idol, Ford ultimately betrayed James and was forgotten.  Affleck’s performance is skillfully unsettling, capturing the socially awkward Ford and his dangerous brand of hero-worship.  A masterful sequence features Ford confronting a folk singer (Nick Cave) during a rendition of “Jesse James” and correcting the history behind the lyrics.  The onlookers aren’t interested in the story behind the song, just as they care little about the man who killed the legend.  It is difficult to find historical film making at this level.

    A strong supporting cast… including Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, and Garret Dillahunt give strong performances.  The only disappointment is an early departure of Frank James, gruffly portrayed by Sam Shephard.  James Carville makes an enjoyable cameo as Thomas Crittenden, Governor of Missouri.  The film lags in spots, and the images of landscapes can feel repetitive.  The film is meticulous with its recreation of the pre-industrial midwest; as well as the accurate depictions of life in post-bellum America.  Violence is depicted sparingly, but when shown it is fierce, realistic, and unsettling.

Many critics compared this movie… to revisionist westerns like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Dead Man.  In many ways, this is a true western.  Its care for historic realism elevates it above traditional conceptions of the genre.  The strong performances (especially by Affleck) secures it a  place among  the very best westerns ever made.

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Movie Review: Hatfields & McCoys

Kevin Costner is Devil Anse

 

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.

Frontier justice

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.

 

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How Scary were They?

The historical community waits patiently…for “Abraham Lincoln; Vampire Hunter.”   The fictional Lincoln hunts the mythical creatures who killed his mother  while he fights the Civil War.  The historical Lincoln faced scary characters as well….

Sam Houston called him “reptilian”

Jefferson Davis-  Not a vampire.  Davis was often described as cold-blooded by those who knew him.  His poor attempt at growing a Lincoln-beard can only be described as criminal.

Lifeless eyes of a killer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson-  Not a vampire.  Described as a “pious, blue-eyed killer” by those who opposed him, Jackson cared little for the lives of his own men, let alone  those of his enemies.  If vampires did roam the Confederacy, Jackson would have been a likely culprit.

Cadaver in office

 

 

 

 

 

Alexander Stephens-  Ok, probably a vampire……  but he and Lincoln were actually close friends and Stephens survived Abe’s blood-lust.  Nearly every description of the Confederacy’s Vice President included the term ‘cadaver’, so it is clear he was undead.

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Movie Review

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford… 2007, Produced by Ridley Scott, Brad Pitt/ Directed by Andrew Dominik/ Distributed by Warner Bros. 

 

Sparse, bleak, brilliant....

A rare example of historical fiction… truthful to its source material.  Based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Ron Hansen, this film is sparse, bleak and absolutely riveting.  The story dramatizes the relationship between James and his killer, Ford.  Not a shoot’em up western like most Jesse James films are, this psychological portrait details the final months of the man’s life.  Hansen crafts the best parts of his novel into a script that is remarkably historically accurate.  Andrew Dominik’s patient direction and Roger Deakins’ stunning photography bring the period into stunning view.  The landscapes  of Alberta, Canada which serve as late 19th century midwestern America, are moving in their emptiness.  The scenery all but becomes a cast member it is so prominent.  The longer running time (160 minutes) allows characters to be properly introduced and developed.

   Brad Pitt is menacing in the title role… with minimal screen time.  His James is outwardly cunning and deadly, while warm and protective of his personal life.  Pitt’s presence on the screen elicits fear from the other characters, except for Casey Affleck’s break out performance as Robert Ford.  Ford grew up idolizing James and lived his childhood dreams of riding with the famous outlaw.  Torn between making a name for himself and gaining recognition from his idol, Ford ultimately betrayed James and was forgotten.  Affleck’s performance is skillfully unsettling, capturing the socially awkward Ford and his dangerous brand of hero-worship.  A masterful sequence features Ford confronting a folk singer (Nick Cave) during a rendition of “Jesse James” and correcting the history behind the lyrics.  The onlookers aren’t interested in the story behind the song, just as they care little about the man who killed the legend.  It is difficult to find historical film making at this level.

    A strong supporting cast… including Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, and Garret Dillahunt give strong performances.  The only disappointment is an early departure of Frank James, gruffly portrayed by Sam Shephard.  James Carville makes an enjoyable cameo as Thomas Crittenden, Governor of Missouri.  The film lags in spots, and the images of landscapes can feel repetitive.  The film is meticulous with its recreation of the pre-industrial midwest; as well as the accurate depictions of life in post-bellum America.  Violence is depicted sparingly, but when shown it is fierce, realistic, and unsettling.

Many critics compared this movie… to revisionist westerns like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Dead Man.  In many ways, this is a true western.  Its care for historic realism elevates it above traditional conceptions of the genre.  The strong performances (especially by Affleck) secures it a  place among  the very best westerns ever made.

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