Hatfields & McCoys & scapegoats & baptisms

(UPDATE — 8-31-2014: I mentioned while writing this series of posts that I was revising my Civil War novel at the time and was watching this miniseries for atmosphere. That novel I was revising is Hagridden, and it’s out now from Columbus Press. If you like this miniseries, you might like that novel. Click here for more information!)

So, the series is over. The feud is ended. The results are…. okay.

Let me just start this by warning you that there be spoilers below. It’s hard to have a spoiler in a historical drama, I know, but I’m going to give away not only what happens but also how director Kevin Reynolds handles the events. Because he makes some interesting and, to my mind, troubling choices in the end.

But before all that, let me say once again how awesome Tom Berenger is in this series. Up until the final moments of his (SPOILER?) death scene, he rocks this film, and if his acting weren’t so brilliantly underplayed, he’d have stolen this whole series. (How unfair it is that the best acting is the acting you don’t notice?)

His character’s death, actually, is a good example of how, in some ways, the story is best paced in this last episode. The violence and the motives for violence are explored in their most even balance here. This isn’t to say it’s perfect — the series gets a little heavy-handed in the last half hour — but it’s the best they’ve done.

But it’s that heavy-handedness throughout the series that has bothered me the most. I know that all history is in the eyes of the beholder (and the words of the victors), but even considering that, I was a bit surprised by how much editorializing this series did considering it was a History Channel production.

I pointed out in the last post that the series had been playing on types rather than deep characterizations when it generally portrayed all McCoys as pious and indignant and the Hatfields as basically the mob. I’ve been aware, too, that one Hatfield hanger-on in particular, a young man called “Cotton Top,” had been written and was being played as mentally retarded. What I didn’t realize until last night was that “Cotton Top” was the nickname — not often recorded in the blander histories of the feud — for Ellison Mounts, the man whose trial and hanging for murder effectively ended the bloody warfare.

Ellison Mounts (click the photo to visit an excellent account of the trial and hanging at the blog Appalachian Lifestyles, which borrowed this photo from the Pike County Tourism, Convention and Visitors Bureau).

It seems to me a conscious decision to focus on Mounts’s nickname rather than his given name in order to disguise his famous role in ending the feud and so give even the (casually) informed viewer a bit of a surprise at the end. As a narrative device, it works. But what bothers me is the extent to which they focus on the character’s mental disability. The historical records I’ve seen, if they mention a disability at all, mostly refer to Mounts as “dimwitted” or easily manipulated. The term “dimwitted” is, of course, more appropriate in context, considering that mental retardation wasn’t really an accepted term back then (and is problematic today). But “dimwitted” is still a far cry from the derisive “mushhead” most characters in the series use when referring to Cotton Top.

And the series doesn’t stop with simply playing on (or exaggerating) Mounts’s mental disability. They also work in moments like Mounts whistling a jolly tune to content himself in the midst of the siege on the McCoys’ home, or shooing rabbits away from a battlefield. In the historical record, Mounts’s last words on the gallows turn the blame on his kinsmen (and indeed, there is a general consensus that the murder he hanged for was committed by someone else); but in the series, the filmmakers take pains to emphasize his line “They hornswoggled me with love,” the last word all but cut off by the snap of his neck in the noose. These are blatant attempts to rouse our sympathy and make us weep at the senselessness of all that violence. It’s a storyteller’s device (and a fairly broad one at that), but it feels out a place in a historical account.

Even more heavy handed is the treatment of Randall McCoy and Anse Hatfield: for all the careful, stock-character emphasis on McCoy’s righteousness and Hatfield’s mob-bossery (I just invented that word), I should have seen the sudden role-reversal coming. Because sure enough, at the end of the series, McCoy is a bitter, hateful drunkard out for blood even as he regrets the conviction and hanging of “the one person who doesn’t deserve it.” And Hatfield takes his family into a cool, quiet copse in the hills to read what is essentially a sermon on the importance of peace.

Actually, I would have been perfectly happy with this ending, because the two scenes were well written and very well acted: in the jail cell just before the hanging, McCoy drunkenly tries to get Cotton Top released, but you can see in Bill Paxton’s face all the confusion of the moment, feeling sorry for Cotton Top and regretting his role in the arrest and conviction but hating the Hatfields all the more for making him doubt his revenge. It’s a beautiful piece of acting. And in the woods, Kevin Costner does a fantastic job of expressing the utter exhaustion of all the years of hate and warfare. Combined, the two scenes serve as a terrific reminder of the early Civil War scene from the first episode in which Hatfield, tired of war and the cost in human life, decides to desert the army and go home while McCoy, honor-bound to fulfill his duty to God and country, twists and frets over whether to bring Hatfield to justice or let his friend go home.

Talk about redemption — or self-aggrandizement! (This photo is of “Devil Anse” Hatfield’s grave, complete with life-sized monument to Anse Hatfield. It’s credited as being in Sarah Ann, West Virginia, Sept. 22, 1944. (Thanks to Bob in the comments for clarifying that!) Click the link to visit The Civil War Album’s page on the Hatfield-McCoy feud.)

If it had stopped there, it would have been terrific. But it doesn’t. For one thing, we need all those loose ends if not exactly tied up then at least burned off, so we get various bits and pieces about who wound up marrying whom or dying alone or living out bitter days trying to forget the feud. And then, in case we’d forgotten that excellent role-reversal from earlier, the filmmakers beat us over the head with a reminder: literally the last two scenes in the series are of McCoy, white-bearded and alone in his cabin, mad with grief and a bitter heart, accidentally setting himself on fire and hallucinating one final show-down with his nemesis Hatfield; and then Hatfield, long-bearded and hung with a clean white shirt, being baptized in the river and thereby redeemed. It even ends on a freeze-frame.

Why? It feels so forced, so manipulated. A good half-hour after Cotton Top gets scapegoated (and by the way, I love the period/regional term in the film, “Judas goat,” even if it does seem a bit inaccurate — a Judas goat gets spared, not slaughtered), we ourselves get manipulated into viewing the events through one lens alone. It’s part of the filmmaker’s job to present us with a perspective, of course, but it’s a part of an artist’s job to offer us more than one perspective, more than one possibility. Even Powers Booth, who narrates the obligatory text-over-screen afterward about the feud’s place in history, seems strong-armed into so flat a presentation, delivering the last words of the film in a deadpan monotone, as if bored and ready to get the film over with.

Still, I got what I wanted out of the miniseries: a lot of wonderful historical details, especially in the language (I’m a sucker for dialect), a lot of violence and heartbreak, and some damn fine acting. If they ever decide to re-edit this into a directors cut (and right now I’m unsure whether a shorter or a longer version would be better), I might even decide to buy it. I’m glad I watched it. But I’m also glad it’s over, because I want now more than ever to get back to revising my own violent historical narrative!

Writing desk, here I come.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

12 thoughts on “Hatfields & McCoys & scapegoats & baptisms

  1. Thanks for your commentary! I stumbled upon it in a Google search because I was skeptical about whether or not Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts was actually mentally challenged in real life. I’m also a sucker for historical accuracy if I’m going to sit in front of the tv for that long! Do you, by chance, have any historical reading recommendations for the Hatfield v McCoys (or others) that you can pass on? Thank you!

    1. If you click on the photo of Mounts in this post, the link will take you to a decent short article on him. It’s worth visiting just to see a comment from a Mounts descendant! I’ve always thought the coolest history is living history. 🙂

      I’m no expert on the feud — I’ve just been reading what I can where I can find it — but the degree to which Mounts was mentally challenged still seems unclear. Most sources I’ve seen so far just describe him as “dimwitted” (it’s a popular descriptor! turns up in a lot of sources!). Of course, it’s difficult to retroactively diagnose people, especially after so long a period, but it’d be even more difficult in Mounts’s case because most of the literature seems to treat him as just the scapegoat he was — not a human being with a past but merely the excuse the families and the law needed to end the violence. So he seems to get short shrift in the historical record.

      One thing I did find interesting was a description of Mounts as a large man, well over six feet in an era when 5’8″ or 5’9″ was the average. He seems a kind of Lenny character (from Of Mice and Men). That doesn’t have any bearing on his mental abilities, really, but someone thought it was worth mentioning. I bring it up because the actor playing Mounts in the miniseries was quite small, playing on the image of Mounts as child-like.

      There’s a novel about the feud by Ann Rinaldi, if you’re interested, but it seems like the best brief historical account that gives good detail on Mounts is probably The Hatfields and the McCoys, by Otis K. Rice. Looks like a good place to start!

      And thanks for the comment, Julie! (I had to do a double-take when I saw the comment — my mother’s name is Julie!)


  2. You mentioned in the second photo that it was credited to Sarah Ann…actually, Sarah Ann is the location of the Hatfield family cemetery. Just to clarify!

    1. Indeed. Of course, history has always been open to interpretation. The Civil War is good case in point: I know people down south who still refer to it as the War Between the States, the War of Northern Agression, or the War of Secession. Anything but the Civil War, which implies a war within one Union rather than a war between sovereign nations. Which is right? The victors, I suppose.

      But yeah, we tend to take a lot of license these days, not just with history but also with current events, which is dangerous indeed.

  3. I was born a Hatfield. My ffather died in 1950,,s His father was Carrol youungest son of Smith Hatfield son of Joseph. Smith was born in Douglas County, Mssouri I have documentation on all .I would like to be a part of my real family .Kay Lucy, Blytheville, Arkansas 72315 1_870 763 6257 klucy@bscn.com

    1. Thanks, Levi! I keep thinking lately that I need to revisit this series. I’m working on a new novel now set closer to the timeframe of this story. Appreciate the reminder to rewatch this!

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