No heroes, no winners: History Channel's "Hatfields & McCoys" tells the story of the most deadly family feud in the US - VIDEO
Exclusive interview on Kevin Costner's mini-series and the Irish roots of America's deadliest family fight
Big things often have small beginnings. Just a little bit of resentment, if it's foolishly nourished, can balloon out of all proportion until it devastates your life.
All that's needed for a tragedy to take root is one sharp word or look, or even a simple misunderstanding, to ignite whatever passions are lurking beneath our daily lives.
Devil Anse Hatfield, a real man with a nickname that served as a warning, knew all about it. In the 19th century he fought alongside his friend Randall McCoy in the Civil War.
The pair returned to their neighboring homes, Hatfield to West Virginia and McCoy just across the Tug River border in Kentucky.
Their story might have ended there if a series of misunderstandings hadn't driven a wedge between them, one that eventually exploded into all-out warfare with shocking speed.
Like a snowball rolling downhill, their feud soon pulled in their friends and neighbors and from there it kept on growing until it brought their two states to the brink of another Civil War.
In Hatfields & McCoys, the new miniseries showing on the History Channel this week, producer Leslie Grief tells the shocking true-life story he has been working on for three decades.
The big budget three-part, six-hour show features an all-star cast led by Academy Award winner Kevin Costner and Golden Globe nominee Bill Paxton as Devil Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy, respectively.
"People believe that they know this story, but the truth is it's far grander and more dangerous than they ever thought," Greif tells the Irish Voice.
"It's really a Shakespearean tragedy, it shows how otherwise good people can be wrongheaded, how they give in to people whispering in their ears, how they can get swept up by events and lose track of their own judgment, how they can even lose sight of who they are and what they stand for."
There's a Romeo and Juliet element to this tragic story too. Despite all the bad blood between the two feuding families, Randall’s beautiful daughter Roseanna fell madly in love with Johnse Hatfield, Devil Anse Hatfield’s handsome oldest son.
In the beginning the young man wooed her until she finally gave in to his advances. After that he wanted nothing to do with her, which led to her emotional breakdown. The consequences for the long festering feud were enormous too, pouring gasoline on the flames.
This story of the Hatfields and the McCoys is part of the fabric of our country now. “When I first made an attempt to tell it 30 years ago epic miniseries like The Winds of War were changing the way people thought about televised series,” says Greif.
“With the two men coming out of the Civil War and all the drama of the new union trying to be formed, I thought it would be a great story to tell. It was a very familiar expression, yet it's also an unfamiliar story.
“Once I got into it I found there were classic Shakespearean elements to the story that involved family and love and revenge and murder, jealousies and betrayals. I felt I had to strike for a great telling of the tale. It took me almost as long as the feud itself lasted to bring it to television.”
Since it's a story about a dreadful cycle of tit for tat violence, it has an Irish dimension.
"I feel like human nature doesn't really change and mankind keeps going through similar cycles of violence. We watch two men, two former friends, go on a journey that takes an unfortunate turn. The bad blood between them just snowballs and in the end they don't even know themselves what started it,” Greif says.
Too much loss of life and the pain that springs it can harden your heart and make you lose sight of what caused the conflict. It can also prevent you from concluding when the time has come to end it, too.
“We wanted to tell an organic story about how once it started the friends and family kept this feud alive, making it escalate,” says Greif.
“That meant that the two men who started it soon had to deal with the consequences of their extended families actions. At some point you would think they would have wanted to conclude it but instead it kept going on and on until no one could control it and it became bigger than them all.”
Stirring the pot was the country's newly emerging tabloid press. Just as newspapers started to command widespread national followings the country had discovered a story that transfixed them all.
Journalists couldn't get enough exclusives about the warring neighbors and the nation couldn't get enough of all the gory details. Soon the Hatfields and the McCoys were famous. The public read about their feud with real delight.
"Journalists started writing sensational and slanted stories to sell newspapers," says Greif. "Before you knew it the whole country was hypnotized by this feuding hillbillies.
“Journalists helped to create and perpetuate the myth about them. People came from all over the country just to have a look at them, journalists arrived from Europe to write about them, everyone was entertained by them. This was the 19th century’s version of Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood.”
Soon the Hatfields and the McCoys got wise and started playing the media against their feuding neighbors. Each of the two families wanted to win sympathy and influence wider public opinion. That raised the stakes higher than they had ever been.
"It was like a 19th century Hunger Games. The big discovery for me as we created this series was that their feud almost led to a second civil war,” Greif said.
“Both states ordered their militias up and the U.S. Supreme Court set a U.S. precedent ruling on their feud. It was also a shock to me to learn how many people died. It got so brutal and bloody.”
Modern audiences might shiver at the ease with which gun violence takes place, but Greif makes no apologies.
"We look at things today with an evolved 21st century perspective. But our lives today are different. These were people who lived in a world where all they had was their family,” said Greif.
“A kid couldn't leave the house and say I'm moving out to get a job. There were no jobs. They were caught in poverty and the struggle to survive and put food on the table. Violence was a part of that world.
“You fought the elements, you fought marauders. We don't live that way now. You can't place our perspective on top of theirs, what they had to face to survive.”
Both families had their clan, their honor and their faith. They didn't have anything else. So an attack on one was an attack on them all. There were no policemen.
One of the first events that led to the bitter feud was the theft of a pig. We can laugh now, but in those days one pig could feed a family for months. To lose one was a very serious development.
"It's your food. It could last through the winter. When you have 10 or 12 kids to feed you understand what a thing the theft of it was,” says Grief.
Irish and Scottish heritages were a big part of this feud too, says Greif.
"Those were the roots of the two clans. These were very stoic and very proud people. The Irish tribal system believed in an eye for an eye.”
What making the show has taught Greif is that cycles of violence never resolve themselves.
“I think the most important thing I want people to take away from this is to look back and say that the path of violence leads to a dead end. Whether you're dealing with the IRA or the PLO or Servo-Croatia.
The pursuit of vengeance never solves the problem.”
In the end Hatfield had to make the ultimate sacrifice. He wasn't a hero, he just understood the only way to stop the cycle of violence is to not avenge a death.
Sometimes, he discovers, you just have to say stop.
The Hatfield's & The McCoy's broadcasts on the History Channel in a three part miniseries this week.
Here's the trailer for the show:
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