Hatfields and McCoys square off again — but on unfamiliar terrain

May 26, 2012

The feuding has commenced again, complete with shootin’, spittin’ and cussin’ (not to mention corncob pipes and moonshine).

But the hills where the latest Hatfields vs. McCoys skirmish has flared up are not in the Appalachians, where the battle dragged out over decades near the West Virginia/Kentucky border.

They’re in Romania.

The six-hour History Channel miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys,” premiering this week, was shot in a region better known for its association with Count Dracula.

“I think we all would have preferred to be close to home, and on the Appalachian mountains, but we weren’t,” says Kevin Costner, who plays the grizzled patriarch, William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, in the saga.

“I think that added a je ne sais quoi quality to the whole proceedings,” says Bill Paxton, who plays Randall McCoy. “There’s something very gothic about that country. . . . And seeing peasants still pulling oxcarts of wood they’ve gathered from the forest, I think it added a nice vibe to the thing.”

Paxton took a side trip to Kentucky on the way to work in Eastern Europe. “I thought, ‘Gee, if I’m going over to Romania to shoot this thing, I better go take a look to see what it looks like for real.’ And I was kind of amazed there were so many similarities.”

The hills made the region somewhat claustrophobic, leading Paxton to observe: “You can see how that part geographically was just so isolated so long. And how something like a feud like this could go on for a long time.”

Although the Civil War was somewhat responsible for the feud, the whole calamity was built on a misunderstanding, Costner says. “The Union soldier who was killed early was killed by a guy that didn’t even participate in the war.”

The two heads of the families, friends during the war, were forced into this long feud, in part, because of their children.

“In researching the story, I guess I gathered as much as I possibly could, so I didn’t come to it thinking it was a fairy tale,” Costner says. “I knew it was a real story with real participants, set against an era, a time, coming out of the Civil War, so I knew how deep the feelings were running just over that war.”

And yet, Costner continues, the offspring of the feuding heads of family “didn’t know what the Civil War was about, and they didn’t know what some of these old scars were about, and a combination of drinking and unemployment and all this stuff just led to these kind of murders, and then, of course, the patriarchs had to stand up.”

Costner says he sees Hatfield as an honorable man, an entrepreneur who hired McCoys in his lumberyard.

For his part, Paxton says, he had a hard time relating to McCoy. “But my job’s not to relate to him, but to try to give conviction of character.”

What helped the actor most was a privately published book of letters from a Civil War soldier. “Those were an amazing account because this man really truly lived by his Christian convictions and his sense of honor, and he ended up being an officer of the Confederate Army,” Paxton says. “. . . But he talked about the profiteering going on back home, he talked about the war, he talked about their Christian duty.”

The conflict between the Hatfields and the McCoys didn’t settle down until the turn of the 20th century and a formal truce wasn’t signed until 2003. Now, the two sides are trying to cooperate. Having squared off good-naturedly with Richard Dawson on a 1979 episode of “Family Feud,” they are now helping to turn the remote battlegrounds of their forebears into tourist destinations.

For all of its history, there is something resonant in the Hatfield-McCoy feud that continues today, the actors say.

“There has certainly been revenge killing happening in this century. Based on what’s happening in Libya and Serbia-Croatia and Afghanistan and Iraq, there’s going to be honor killings for the next 50 to 60 years there,” Costner says. “So what’s really changed?”

“The theme is timeless,” Paxton says. “Revenge and obsession and reprisals — these things are going on all over the place, all over the world. A lot of the conflicts we’re in, we’re dealing with people who have been killing each other for hundreds of years, and it’s not going to stop: I kill your mother, and you kill my brother. And somebody comes along, it’s just violence begets violence. It’s a Biblical theme. It’s been around since the beginning of man.”

Catlin is a freelance writer.

Hatfields & McCoys

Monday through Wednesday at 8 p.m. on
the History Channel.

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