Thursday, May 31, 2012

'Hatfields & McCoys' drew record ratings, but was rife with inaccuracies; feud hurt region's image

McCoy brothers await execution by Hatfields. (Chris Large photo)
The History Channel's miniseries about the most famous of Appalachian family feuds garnered millions of viewers in showings of the first two of three episodes. "Hatfields & McCoys" premiered as the most viewed show ever on advertising-supported cable TV, with 13.9 million viewers, excluding sports, reports TV Week. The second episode drew 13.1 million viewers and the third 14.3 million.

Though the numbers are impressive, the inaccuracies in the six-hour miniseries cannot be overlooked, writes Gloria Goodale of The Christian Science Monitor. "This is the History Channel debuting its first scripted series, coming out of the gate with the somewhat lofty goal of illuminating some of history’s lesser-known corners," she writes. "While most Americans may know the reference to the 19th-century Appalachian blood feud, few know more than the gun-toting, cartoon cowboy characters who shoot at each other and miss."

Historian Thomas Flagel told Goodale that it's hard to separate fact from fiction because people were not keeping accurate track of their own stories during the feud. Goodale writes that the show's producers "were at pains to point out in press materials that while not actually filmed in Appalachia," but in Romania, they tried "to capture accurately details of the family fight that eventually involved the U.S. Supreme Court, made international headlines, and nearly pushed Kentucky and West Virginia to the brink of war.'"

Cheryl Truman of the Lexington Herald-Leader compared the miniseries to the facts in the Lisa Alther book Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance and found some glaring inaccuracies. There is no evidence that the patriarchs, Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield and Randolph "Randall" McCoy, were Confederate war buddies, as the series depicts. The series also skews the facts of who survived one of the largest fights in the feud, the New Year's massacre, and omits the Kentucky state government's involvement in ending the feud.

Alther cited several inaccuracies in an email interview with Christopher John Farley of The Wall Street Journal, but said, "This is how historical fiction works, and the miniseries is a fiction, not a documentary." This was her key point: "During my research I was most surprised to discover the devastating long-term impact this feud has had on Appalachian people. Almost single-handedly it shaped the unfortunate stereotype of the ignorant, drunken, violent, lazy hillbilly, which was used by industrialists after the feud ended to justify their invasion of the southern Appalachians to extract the timber and coal, keeping most of the profits for themselves and leaving behind poverty, diseased and maimed workers, and environmental destruction, including 500 mountains that have been destroyed so far." Alther was referring to mountaintop-removal mining, which began about 40 years ago. The Journal's headline writer missed the mark, saying the feud "ruined the image of rural America," not just Appalachia. But the short interview is worth your time; it is here.

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