MINNEAPOLIS -- Next time you think about storming over to your neighbors' house to complain about their loud music, take a break -- a six-hour break -- to watch History Channel's "Hatfields & McCoys," an exhaustive re-creation of one of the most famous feuds in American history.
The battle, which began in the aftermath of the Civil War in West Virginia and Kentucky, has been referenced in everything from Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" to Waylon Jennings' "Luckenbach, Texas," but it's largely been dismissed as a squabble over a stolen pig between two clans of hillbillies.
Executive producer Kevin Costner, who plays Devil Anse Hatfield, believed there was so much more to the story, he insisted on a three-night miniseries (beginnning Monday) and even recorded an album of songs inspired by the film. He was determined to take a deeper look at a tale that shows us it can take decades, if not a century, for a country to recover from fighting with itself.
"I could have cut it down or just told one side of the story, but we decided to paint the whole canvas," said Costner, who hired his "Waterworld" collaborator Kevin Reynolds to direct.
Costner, whose only previous TV experience was a 1985 episode of "Amazing Stories," said it wasn't hard adjusting to a medium that usually allows fewer shooting days and smaller budgets.
"It's always the same. You're going as fast as you can go," he said. The production scrimped by shooting in Romania, where the Civil War film "Cold Mountain" was shot a decade ago. "The only thing that made things tough is that we didn't get time to rehearse. You can always say you want more money, but what you really want is more time."
The film opens in 1862, with Hatfield and Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton), who hailed from neighboring towns, fighting side by side for the Confederate Army and even saving each other's lives in a bloody battle. (Costner insists the friendship is historically accurate; Paxton isn't so sure.)
Soon after the battle, Hatfield breaks camp and heads back to the family business in West Virginia, a move that angers the deeply religious and patriotic McCoy.
"God hates deserters," he growls as he contemplates shooting his fellow soldier.
Hatfield is warmly welcomed by his wife and his timber business takes off, making him a rich and powerful force. McCoy isn't so lucky. After spending the rest of the war in an Ohio prison, he returns home to find his family struggling to make ends meet and mourning his brother, killed in a bar fight by Hatfield's quick-tempered uncle (Tom Berenger).
Revenge becomes a daily sport. By the time the dust settles decades later, no one can really remember what they were fighting about in the first place.
"There's a real moral lesson here," said Paxton, best known for playing a different kind of religious patriarch in HBO's "Big Love." "You have to be careful about obsession and hatred and letting your pride get the best of you. It's very Old Testament stuff. An eye for an eye, I kill your brother, you kill my father. You forget what started it."
Rifts from the Civil War continue to this day, Paxton said, noting that the country remains divided into red and blue states.
"I hate seeing the media and politicians use common fears and superstitions to whip up some kind of weird animosity," he said.
It's just the kind of story History Channel was looking for to make its first scripted program. That distinction was supposed to go to "The Kennedys" last year, but the network balked after seeing the final product. It went to be an Emmy-winning success for ReelzChannel.
History Channel's president, Nancy Dubuc, declined to comment on that decision, but did say the network will continue to develop scripted programming. (Last week, she announced that Gabriel Byrne will star in the network's first scripted series, "Vikings.")
Dubuc said her favorite scene in "Hatfields" comes near the end, when both patriarchs recognize that they've lost sight of what they're doing.
"They look at each other and ask questions," she said. "If you have the courage to do that, there's hope for mankind."
Famous feud a grim history lesson
Like most great Westerns, it features men who put honor above all else -- and pay the price for their vengeful ways. As the deaths rack up and become more and more meaningless, I kept hearing Clint Eastwood's immortal words from "Unforgiven": "We've all got it coming."
Costner, who looks like he was born to smoke a corn pipe, sets aside his good-ol'-boy charm to play Devil Anse Hatfield, one of the grimmest and most unlikable characters in his long career.
If only he were equally impressive as a producer.
This story could have just as easily been told in four hours rather than six. Despite director Kevin Reynolds' best efforts, the story eventually runs out of steam. Just because the feud never seemed like it would end doesn't mean the film should have you feeling the same way.