Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas, with Willie and Waylon and the boys;
This successful life we’re living’s got us feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys.
Waylon Jennings, Luckenbach, Texas (1977)
The above line from Waylon and Willie’s smash #1 hit in the summer of 1977 alludes to a part of American classic folklore that’s become part of our basic vocabulary … the 19th Century Hatfield/McCoy feud. This “war” between these Civil War era families from West Virginia and Kentucky respectively lasted from 1863-1891 (officially) and unofficially survived into the 21st Century.
Last week, The History Channel ran a three-night drama (5-hours) bringing this epic tale of hatred, misunderstanding and revenge to life. The drama starred Academy Award winner Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves; Field of Dreams) as “Devil” Anse Hatfield and Bill Paxton (Titanic; Tombstone) as Randle McCoy. The series drew more than 13-million viewers each night and became the highest rated show in the history of an ad-driven cable television series.
The success of this drama came as no surprise to me. I recorded it so I could watch it at my first opportunity and I was immediately captured by its intensity and “weighty” feel. It is rare that a TV series “speaks” to me like this one … Holocaust (1978); John Adams (2008); Winds of War (1983); Broken Trail (2006); Lonesome Dove (1989); Centennial (1978); North and South (1985) … and now, The Hatfields and McCoys.
Most of us know the basics of the story … two families who grew to hate each other in the late stages of the Civil War eventually begin a blood feud/war that claims many lives on each side. In watching the series, both Costner and Paxton were riveting in their portrayal of how this awful violence took root and kept spreading. I’d never really considered Paxton to be a serious, dramatic actor but he was excellent as Randle McCoy.
Costner turned in possibly the best performance of his career. When you play a real-life person nicknamed ‘Devil,’ you get a good idea of his personality. Stories differ on how Anse got that moniker, but all of them agree that he was as mean as a snake and the toughest SOB in the hills of West Virginia.
Despite that star power, it’s Paxton who really shines as McCoy. While ‘Devil’ seems occupied with defending family and territory with little regard for eternity, Paxton’s McCoy is an old-fashioned, Old Testament prophet of doom. By invoking God’s blessing before each action, he perfectly created an image of the most dangerous man in the world … the man who believes he’s right and God is on his side.
“Blood touches blood,” he hisses to Anse. “God judges deserters as surely as He will judge YOU!” Spooky!
My wife watched the entire series with me. Each time Paxton would appear on screen, she’d say, “It’s all HIS fault!” By night #3, she was saying, “I hate him! He’s evil!” Her reaction confirms my assessment that Bill Paxton did an excellent acting job. No argument there!
Equally compelling in their respective roles were Tom Berenger (Last of the Dogmen; Platoon) and Powers Boothe (Tombstone; Red Dawn) as powerful members of the Hatfield clan. Especially noteworthy was the performance of Berenger as Anse’s Uncle Jim Vance. Berenger’s depiction of this brutal, amoral man was chilling and a screen villain I will never forget.
This real-life event stands as a permanent reminder of the age old lesson that hate never wins; it only kills. And it kills indiscriminately … women, children, the mentally and physically challenged, babies … no one is safe or immune. The plight of poor Roseanna McCoy, once considered “Daddy’s Favorite” until she dared love a Hatfield, was heart-wrenching! As Elton John once sang, “In the end, nobody wins, and it’s the innocent who pay when broken dreams get in the way!”
The show concludes with Powers Boothe narrating, explaining how ironic it is that as hard as these families fought to be separate, the feud made them eternally united in the minds of most Americans. Ironic indeed!
On June 14, 2003, the McCoy and Hatfield families brokered an official truce to end the feud for all time. The idea was symbolic, an effort to show that Americans could bury their differences and unite in times of crisis, most notably following 9/11.
Don’t get me wrong … The Hatfields and McCoys series is not suitable for family viewing. It’s violent, coarse, vulgar and at times difficult to watch. But it brought a significant part of our American history to life for me … a story I thought I knew but really did not. I’ve always believed that living in the South following the Civil War must have been very dangerous and difficult. Never was that made more plain to me than this series. I tip my hat to those involved in bringing it to life.
Hatred running so deep and so powerful is hard to comprehend. That’s a good thing! No matter if your name is Hatfield or McCoy, may we always strive to put such stringent animosity aside. It’s a lesson we could all learn … and relearn … from time to time.