By Colin Woodward
The other night, I watched the first part of the historical drama Hatfields & McCoys on the History Channel (called by some wags the “Hitler Channel” for its at times seemingly incessant programming about the Third Reich). The episode was pretty good. From a dramatic perspective, the show delivered. Kevin Costner was surprisingly commanding as the head of the shrewd Hatfield clan, with help from an almost unrecognizable Tom Berenger, who plays Jim Vance with the type of psychotic glee he’s given to other characters in his career.
Bill Paxton was not as impressive as Bible-quote-spewing rival Randall McCoy. But, maybe Paxton’s character will get more badass as the show unfolds. For now, Randall McCoy seemed like a warmed over version of Paxton’s Bill Henrickson character from Big Love.
The opening scene depicting a Civil War fight was well done, with authentic-looking uniforms and fittingly bloody violence. I was completely clueless, however, about the battles that were taking place on screen in West Virginia. It’s a theater of war I am utterly ignorant about other than the numerous raids that occurred at Harpers Ferry (which was part of Virginia until the western part of the state broke away in 1863). I know no major battles took place on the scale of combat in Virginia or Tennessee.
As I wondered out loud about the Battle of Devil’s Backbone, my wife teased me about not knowing anything about the Civil War. She might be right. I googled the battle name and haven’t learned much, though it appears the fight at Devil’s Backbone was, by Civil War standards, more of a skirmish than a battle.
As far as authenticity goes, the show is convincing, though HBO’s Deadwood was probably just as historical (minus the constant four and twelve letter words). Speaking of that late, great show, Hatfields & McCoys even decided to used the frightening, hissing Deadwood staple Powers Boothe in the role of a tired local judge who is trying to keep order between the families.
I could tell Hatfields & McCoys wasn’t shot in West Virginia, and I only later learned it was filmed in Eastern Europe (just like, oddly, another Civil War era drama, Cold Mountain). However, one thing that annoys me about historical dramas are the fake beards. Since almost every adult male can grow at least a decent beard in a few weeks, I don’t understand why movies feel the need to paste a badger under an actor’s chin. They are particularly awful when they are made to look gray or white.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the first episode and am looking forward to the other two in the series, Hungarian fake beards and all.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.