The Hatfields and the McCoys turned the most famous family feud in American history into a personal war right out of a Shakespeare tragedy. The names themselves have become an instant cliché understood by everyone, even while the actual history behind it was forgotten in all the satirical appropriations of the story for movies and TV comedies.
Hatfields & McCoys (Sony), the most watched program ever on The History Channel, is a fine attempt to create engaging drama while remaining true to the history. Handsome and well-produced (with Romania quite effectively standing in for the wilds of Kentucky and West Virginia), and anchored by a superb cast led by Kevin Costner as “Devil Anse” Hatfield and Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy, it steers clear of the clichés and the distortions to dig into the complicated history of the infamous blood feud.
The roots go back to the Civil War — Anse and Randall fought side by side for the Confederacy but other members of the McCoy clan fought for the North — and the grievances in the post-war years that escalated into violent clashes and legal confrontations. These aren’t the backwards hillbillies of so many comic incarnations but rural folk with strong clan allegiances who tangle the law and the state governments into their fight, each maneuvering to get the stamp of legal approval on their campaign. And yes, there is a “Romeo and Juliet”-styled romance between a Hatfield son and a McCoy daughter, another real-life strand in the story, but even that is just another complication that stirs up indignation.