WYTHE COUNTY, Va., May 31, 2012 — True to history, the final night of the History Channel’s groundbreaking mini-series “Hatfields and McCoys” shows one bloody battle after the next that continues to escalate the blood feud and the body count along with it. The death of Ellison Hatfield at the hands of three of Roseanna McCoy’s younger brothers did occur, just as the eventual execution of these three did at the hands of Devil Anse Hatfield played by Kevin Costner.
The bloody midnight raid that resulted in the death of two of Randall’s children, and the near death beating of his wife is also an accurate depiction. The trial of the men that participated in the midnight raid is accurate as well as their eventual sentences.
The raid quickly became national news, prompting Kentucky lawman Frank Phillips to increase his raids into Kentucky to apprehend the raiders. On one of these raids he finally managed to kill Bad Jim Vance, arguably the most disconcerting and unsavory character of the entire series.
This prompted Devil Anse Hatfield to retreat further into the West Virginia mountains to establish a safer family stronghold. The only difference between this story and “The Godfather,” was the Hatfields took to the hills, while the Corleones took to the mattresses. At their core, both are simple vendettas based on greed.
What Saved Johnse Hatfield’s Life?
When Devil Anse took his son Johnse Hatfield fishing with the intent of shooting him as a traitor is remission of the scene in “The Godfather,” where Michael Corleone sends Fredo “fishing,” but is instead orders him executed, immediately came to mind. Fortunately Anse changed his mind, because Johnse Hatfield was a free spirited thing of beauty whose depiction added an unexpected and delightful nuance to the entire series.
I won’t dwell on the inaccuracies of how the people, the era, and the region were misrepresented since I’ve already reported that in my review of the first night of the series, but a few can not be ignored.
There was very little music throughout the mini-series, despite the fact that music has, and will always be, a huge part of mountain culture. It’s the birthplace of country music so how could this heritage be so easily discarded? Also there were very few church scenes, another important and integral part of Appalachian life, especially during this era.
And finally, I did not see a single garden during the entire six-hour series. Living in Appalachia has always been about being clever, resourceful, and hardworking. Other than a 30 second scene in a cornfield and a few tended stills, there was no portrayal of work or any of the every day activities necessary to survive and thrive in the unforgiving terrain. To be accurate, every available piece of fertile flat land would have been utilized to grow crops.
The first large scale economic opportunity for the region was marketing the vast stores of timber and both families took advantage of this by starting up timber operations.
While Devil Anse Hatfield became the first successful timber entrepreneur in the region, Randall McCoy’s company failed dismally. The film totally ignores the economic roots of Randall McCoy’s animosity toward Devil Anse Hatfield. Some historians argue this is why Randall’s hate toward the Hatfields seemed so obsessive and irrational at times, and had little to do with a pig or an Appalachian version of Romeo and Juliet.
Yet the film chose to focus on the Shakespearean twist of Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy’s love affair to further escalate the feud. I’ll admit it was much more alluring to watch their story unfold than the development of the timber industry, so I can understand why the filmmaker might take this path in telling the story. Nonetheless, the two lovers’ role in escalating the feud is over-blown and inaccurate.
What Was the Feud Really About?
During my research, what surprised me most was how few versions of the story even mention the underlying jealousy and greed between the two clans. Almost without exception, the start of the feud is credited to the residual animosity of the Civil War. So prevalent is this opinion, I took it as the truth and reported it as so.
After a lot more research, I have to recant that opinion. The Civil War had little, if anything to do with the conflict, after all. With very few exceptions, everyone in this part of Appalachia were Southern supporters.
What it all boils down to is as old as time itself. Greed and envy are at the root of this feud. Fortunately for filmmakers, past, present, and future, no matter how many times they tell a story with this theme, there will always be an audience eager to listen.
The History Channel set viewer records with this historical drama, so don’t be surprised if another variation on this timeless theme is already in the works. After all, history is full of them.
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