By Peter Hummers on November 21, 2019
When writers have room to stretch, as on current TV, they can examine historical events as closely as they like. This week we’ll look at two timeless stories that surfaced as miniseries, one told in six hours, and one told in five.
WOLF HALL (Prime Video)
Many are the stories that have arisen from the court of Henry VIII (father of Queen Elizabeth, who sent Sir Walter Raleigh here to Roanoke Island in the 16th century), from the overview The Tudors to an in-depth tale of one of his wives, e.g. the film The Other Boleyn Girl.
Taken from two historical novels by Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2016) is a fictionalized biography documenting the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance, The Other Boleyn Girl, Ready Player One), chief minister to Henry VIII (Damian Lewis, Homeland, Band of Brothers).
It opens as Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, and now Henry VIII’s minister and advisor, reminisces about first meeting Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce, Brazil) when he learns of the latter’s dismissal as Lord Chancellor. Wolsey had failed to secure the Pope’s annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his brother Arthur’s widow. Henry now wished to marry Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy, The Crown), a cheeky beauty who had swum into his ken (and disliked Cromwell, calling him “Monsieur Cremuel”). Before the end of the season (another season was confirmed this year), Wolsey and his successor Thomas More would meet unpleasant ends, the result of the extraordinary take-no-prisoners politics of the day.
HATFIELDS & McCOYS (Netflix)
Fun question: What two families that went into business together selling handcrafted “moonshine” underwrote this dream project of Kevin Costner about a famous 19-century feud? The answer is the same as the title of the 2012 miniseries. (One of the joys of seeing this in its original run on the History Channel was the commercials.)
That’s where the fun of this miniseries ends, although there are a couple of laughs in this grim but poignant exercise as Costner extends his streak of producing and starring in excellent horse operas (this isn’t strictly a western, taking place in Kentucky and West Virginia).
Costner (Dances with Wolves, Wyatt Earp, Open Range) plays “Devil Anse” Hatfield, of West Virginia, who found himself and his family embroiled in a blood feud with their neighbors, the McCoys of Kentucky, whose patriarch was Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton, Twister).
In 1862 a company of Pike County Guards including Harmon McCoy attacked and shot Mose Christian Cline, a friend of Devil Anse Hatfield. Although Cline survived his wounds, Anse Hatfield vowed to retaliate against the responsible parties. Some time in 1863, a group of Confederate Home Guards ambushed and killed Pike County Guard William Francis as he was leaving his house, and Anse Hatfield took credit for the deed. This exploit faded into the lore of both families until 13 years later when Anse’s cousin Floyd and Randall McCoy disagreed over the ownership of a hog. They took it to the local Justice of the Peace, Anderson “Preacher Anse” Hatfield, who ruled for the Hatfields by the testimony of Bill Staton, a relative of both families. In June 1880, Staton was killed by two McCoy brothers, Sam and Paris, who were later acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
When Roseanna McCoy (Lindsay Pulsipher, Justified) took up with Devil Anse’s son Johnse (Matt Barr, Sleepy Hollow) it was like pouring gasoline onto a fire, and the slaughter commenced: attacks and retribution, including executions, complicated by hired mercenaries, officers of the court who were family members (Powers Boothe, Deadwood) and jurisdictional problems across two states. A simple-minded cohort of the Hatfields, Cottontop Mounts, inadvertantly brought about a cease-fire in 1888 (five solid hours of drama, in TV years).