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Playing the Feud

3 Aug, 2012 By: John Latchem

Kevin Costner in 'Hatfields & McCoys'

The Hatfield and McCoy families will forever be associated in American folklore with one of history’s greatest feuds, even if the circumstances of their bitter conflict are not as well known.

The History Channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys has done a lot to change that, setting ratings records for ad-supported cable when it aired in three parts in May. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released it on DVD and Blu-ray July 31.

Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton star as family patriarchs “Devil” Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy, respectively, with Tom Berenger, Powers Booth, Jena Malone, Matt Barr, Sarah Parish, Lindsay Pulsipher and Mare Winningham. Hatfields & McCoys recently earned 16 Emmy Award nominations, including for Outstanding Miniseries or Movie, and acting noms for Costner and Paxton for their lead roles, and Berenger (as Anse’s uncle Jim Vance) and Winningham (as Randall’s wife) in the supporting categories.

Costner said he relished the chance to revisit the feud, which took place in the 1870s and 1880s in the Tug River Valley between Kentucky and West Virginia.

“Sometimes when we look at this period we start to think of these as people with funny hats and funny beards, and they had a feud that lasted into the next century over a pig,” Costner said. “And we know that clearly people fight over views. Somebody raises a fence, raises a hedge, takes a tree down, and suddenly we’re in litigation with them for the next 15 years.”

Costner said he was somewhat familiar with the feud before reading the script, but learned a lot as he prepared for the role.

“I probably knew more than the average person, simply because I do kind of look at history a lot, and that particular era is something I’m familiar with,” Costner said. “And I liked the script so much I basically started to involve myself in the socio-economic questions of the day, which really inform you why things were happening.”

Costner said he thinks the miniseries does a good job of putting the feud into the perspective of what life was like for these people following the Civil War.
“I’d like to think that this feud continued as a result of people not reading the tea leaves of the economics,” Costner said. “McCoy had 13 children; Hatfield had 13 children. You realize they’re going to grow up, get married. They’re going to have kids. Suddenly these little valleys that could barely sustain one family could not sustain a family of 70 or 80 people.”

The lack of an economic upside for many young men in that situation, Costner said, caused them to turn to booze.

“You’ve got drinking; you’ve got guns; you have this old Civil War mentality that you can concoct a feud that you had no part in,” Costner said. “And suddenly you have shootouts, and then you have those killings that have to be revenged. So, there was a cycle of violence that occurred not only in Tug Valley, going back and forth between Kentucky and West Virginia but, all up and down the East Coast, I’m sure.”

Another contributing factor, Costner said, was the inability of a still-evolving legal system to effectively rein in the families.

“Imagine if you didn’t have a lawyer or an agent or a PR person to arbitrate your problems,” Costner said. “They didn’t have that. So, you had bounty hunters crossing the river hunting down your family and it’s like, ‘If I defend myself does that mean I’m going to be on the wrong side of the law?’ And often it did. So, there were absolute dilemmas that we simply can’t get our arms around, and I hope that, because I think we were authentic, that you kind of see that dilemma that the McCoy clan and [the Hatfield clan] had.”

Another contributing factor, Costner said, was the inability of a still-evolving legal system to effectively rein in the families.

Costner said that, as with any fictionalized depiction of actual events, the script had to rely on creative license, but that the overall narrative remains true to the spirit of what really happened.

“We’ve had to compress history,” Costner said. “A lot of the discrepancies exist between somebody saying that’s what they thought happened and somebody else saying, ‘This is what I thought happened,’ and somebody saying, ‘Well, this is how I’m writing it.’ We did our best to be faithful to both stories, both families and try to go down the rabbit holes of other subplots.”

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