The titular family names will probably mean little to anyone either not American or even American and below pensionable age, but in the late 1800s, these two clans began a feud that escalated into all-out war, left many of their number dead and even altered US law. Kevins Costner and Reynolds have ended their own Waterworld feud to make this doughty, (mostly) factual mini-series, which won Costner an acting Emmy.
In terms of plot, this is essentially Dallas in shabbier hats. There are skirmishes over land rights, people being (frequently literally) shot in the back for minor slurs, two attractive young sorts from opposing sides beginning a romance that can only possibly be doomed, apparently benign matriarchs being terribly cruel when the world’s cheek is turned, and scores typically being settled in a public place where there is drink readily to hand, to either be thrown back aggressively or just thrown.
As with any story that stretches close to five hours, there are surges and lulls in the pacing. The young lovers (Matt Barr and Lindsay Pulsipher), while terribly good-looking and able, are given a lot of the run time for what is quite a wishy-washy arc, full of tears and pleading and being earnest in the rain. What keeps it interesting is that the family war, which ran for several decades, has been largely boiled down to a series of confrontations, richly scripted by Bill Kerby, Ted Mann and Ronald Parker, and hotly staged by Reynolds, though the ‘ye olde worlde’ tone to the photography feels an uninteresting choice.
Of course, if you’re going to rely heavily on people glowering at each other then it helps to have a cast who can be larger than life without resorting to gnawing at the scenery. Costner is marvellously evil as Devil Anse Hatfield, with Bill Paxton quieter but no less impressive as his opposite equal, Randall McCoy. Tom Berenger, Mare Winningham, Jena Malone and Sarah Parish all swell notably in their supporting roles. There’s real talent in the unknown names too, while the smattering of ex-EastEnders stars (Beppe di Marco!) should amuse British viewers and provide grist for an excellent drinking game.
It wears the clothes of historical drama but this is soap opera to its bones. And when the technical skills and acting are this strong, there’s no shame in that.
Hatfields & McCoys
Released: 26 November 2012
A 30-minute ‘making of’ is the standard collection of talking heads, though it doesn’t really go into any depth. There’s also a music video, with Costner and his band belting out maudlin country song I Know These Hills.