The History Channel’s decision to produce a drama about the infamous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys was enough to bring a chill to every West Virginian concerned about the state’s image.
The country’s most recognized neighborhood dispute has devolved into a parody of itself over the years, complete with Appalachian stereotypes of ignorant and violent hillbilly moonshiners.
Additionally, the characterization of public disputes as being “like the Hatfields and McCoys” has so badly distorted the events as to cause most West Virginians to acknowledge the feud, but then relegate it to a dark corner of the state’s history.
Would the mini-series be yet another source of embarrassment for West Virginia and the Appalachian region?
Fortunately, as the third and final installment aired last night, West Virginians could not only relax, but perhaps finally begin to come to terms with this remarkable and tragic story.
“It’s the most accurate portrayal on film that we have seen,” said Mingo County extension agent Bill Richardson, a feud expert, who is grateful the series supplants the myths and helps erode stereotypes. “Learning the truth changes the opinions of 150 years ago and about people today.”
(Bill Richardson on Talkline))
Yes, the feud between the families of Devil Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy was violent and vengeful. They administered their own brutal eye-for-an-eye justice. Yes, they made moonshine and spoke their own Appalachian dialect.
But, as Richardson points out, they were no different from others of the time.
“These are very violent people. These are very hard people,” Richardson told me on Talkline Wednesday, “But the people of that day were very rough and tumble. Things were more rough and rugged.”
The writers and producers of the series resisted portraying the leading figures as caricatures; they are nuanced and layered, thanks to the outstanding performances by the actors, particularly Kevin Costner as Hatfield and Bill Paxton as McCoy.
Watching the series, and the balanced portrayal of both families, it’s impossible to root for either family to prevail, since each, in turn, inflicts pain and suffering on the other with astonishing brutality. At best, you hope for the senseless feud to end.
(The mini-series compresses the events, but in truth the war between the families started during the Civil War and lasted for 30 years.)
In her review in the Los Angeles Times, Mary McNamara wrote, “There is no greatness here, only the tragedy of pride and bitterness made deadly by two stubborn men—each with too many sons, too many guns, too little sense and way too much liquor.”
But those of us who care deeply for our state weren’t looking for greatness or heroes. What mattered more was a truthful and artful portrayal of a piece of our history. That’s what the History Channel has done, and West Virginians can be appreciative.