I’m excited that tonight is the third and final installment of History Channel’s mini-series “Hatfields and McCoys.” My wife and I decided to watch it simply because we saw the commercials and it looked to be very well-done and worth the time watching it, especially with a star-studded cast including Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton, Tom Berrenger, and Mare Winningham. So far we have enjoyed the first two nights. It is very much a PG-13 movie, with some of the on-screen violence being on par with R-rated films. It is definitely the exception to what normally comes on prime time TV, particularly on a network like the history channel. So I wouldn’t recommend this if you have small children.
As a youth minister by profession, and more importantly as a follower of Christ, I tend to have my “radar” up when I watch movies to see if there is a point, and if there is a lesson to be learned. I have seen a few documentaries about the actual feud between these two historic families, but I have not researched the characters or plot of the recent film to stack it up against the pages of history. So my conclusions are based on the events portrayed in the film which may or may not be real events.
The first talking point I see is that the viewer sees the unbridled fury of unforgiveness. Where one grievance that is forgiven is a small occurrence, a series of unaddressed offenses creates a perfect storm of resentment, anger, and malice. I’m reminded of stories I’ve seen and heard about that play out in church congregations where someone gets their feelings hurt because they were not consulted about the color of the new carpet and before long there is another church of the same denomination sitting right next door to the original one. The book of James puts it this way in the first chapter: “13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own(W) evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin;(X) and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” This scripture is literally brought to life as a war-time injustice followed by an allegedly stolen pig leads to what nearly became a second civil war between two neighboring states. Forgiveness is more for the offended than it is for the offender. When we forgive, we are saying that the person who hurt us no longer has the power of pain and hurt over us.
The second major theme in the film is that of faith. Without giving away too much, the two families are as different as their patriarchal protagonists. One is a very “self-made” man, while the other attributes his successes in life to God and is quick to lean on God when life gets difficult or injustice comes his way. But the interesting thing, is that both parties do some things that are not right. The capacity for sin is not limited to the godless Hatfields. Randall McCoy, while grounded in his faith, is not exempt from letting his humanity get the best of him. At times when grace and forgiveness would have saved him a lot of heartache, he chose to dig in his heels and make some decisions on his own that eventually led to more bloodshed. During all of this, it is his wife, who at one point challenges him and says essentially, “When was the last time you sat down and prayed?” He was eager to give lip-service to trusting God, but was also taking matters into his own hands to fix the situation, rather than truly giving it up to God. I wasn’t listening to a sermon, but I felt my toes get a little tender when she asked that question of her husband.
The third element is more subtle, and that is the role of the Christian “enforcer.” The character of Bad Frank Phillips is introduced early on in the first episode then returns in the second. We learn that Mr. Phillips, who conveniently has a score to settle of his own with the Hatfield family, sees himself as “God’s instrument” of wrath on the earth. He has spiritualized his skills with his firearms and perceives his killing of men as a calling of God on his life. This character idea reminded me of the militaristic attitude often seen in modern Christianity. This idea borders on nationalism where we believe that God’s call on us as a nation, particularly in military action, is connected to a “collective faith in God” by the individuals who live in our country. Some would say that a “Christian” nation like ours taking up arms against a “Muslim” country is somehow indignant as a holy war, much the way armies fought for control of the Holy Land in the Middle Ages. Do I believe military action is a necessary part of national defense? Yes. But where I draw the line is where people believe that taking up arms against a people is somehow a spiritual practice. The last time I checked, Moses, Joshua, David, and the other military leaders of “Israel” have gone to their eternal home. We must be careful how our faith impacts our views on violence, both on a personal, and a national level.
I’m looking forward to the third installment tonight. Have you been watching it? What themes or talking points have you found in the film? I’d love to hear your thoughts.