It is hard to imagine that pipe smokers and collectors are so hungry to attach celebrity to pipe-smoking that they would draw inspiration from the likes of Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, the infamous patriarch of West Virginia’s Hatfield clan. Nevertheless, the History Channel’s superb mini-series chronicling the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys has prompted not only broad critical acclaim for the series, itself, but also considerable interest in the pipe smoked by Kevin Costner in what, for him, is a particularly memorable performance.
Costner is not only convincing in his portrayal of Hatfield, but he also manages to smoke his character’s stubby cutty like a long-time pipe smoker. By way of contrast, other pipe-smoking characters in film and television handle their pipes like foreign objects. It’s not hard for an experienced pipe man to spot a novice; Costner is no novice. At least he appears experienced.
Like most of my pipe smoking friends, I found myself doing a lot of research into the Hatfield-McCoy war, principally to discover how accurate the show was in depicting the bellicose yarn about a feud that nearly prompted an armed conflict between the states of Kentucky and what would become West Virginia.
The more I read, the more impressed I was with the accuracy of the story, at least on a writ-large basis. The facts about who was killed by whom in what order conformed with historical accounts. Of course, the art of the story cannot be found in the facts. It is found in how the characters are conceived by the actors and the director.
Some romancing of the character cannot help but creep in. It is an actor’s job to seduce his or her audience into relating with and understanding the character, if not actually liking him or her. We understand a person’s character in paradoxes and in tensions between aspects of a person. These aspects are often internally inconsistent and seemingly unexplainable.
How, for example, could a father who cherished his children fail to understand how killing another father’s children would prompt an insatiable bloodlust? That question lies at the heart of the conflict between the Hatfields and the McCoys. Finding them dead, their corpses tethered to paw paw bushes, conjured what can only be described as Ranel McCoy’s desire for Old Testament vengeance.
Likewise, how could either family not understand the desire for love and marriage between Roseanna McCoy and Johnsie Hatfield? The two families’ absolute rejection of their desire to be together made the story one of mountain Montagues and country Capulets. Theirs was a bloodier and longer conflict than even Shakespeare might have imagined.
Kevin Costner’s pipe-smoking Devil Anse Hatfield was clearly at the center of the story. Bellicose and belligerent as he was, Costner made the character sympathetic at times, even in the context of a relentless, hard-boiled, unforgiving narrative – one of which he not only was a part, but also an author. Nowhere, by the way, did I find any hard evidence that Devil Anse actually smoked a pipe, but I assume that the writers uncovered it, and that he did, in fact, smoke a pipe.
I found myself liking Devil Anse in spite of myself. I even found myself understanding him. Every time he lit his pipe, or gestured with it, I found myself trying to see it better as if understanding its shape might help me better understand him.
Maybe this is where the new pipe-smoking mythology arises from. Costner’s portrayal is far from the thoughtful C.S. Lewis who so many of us admire. He is likewise universes different from J.R.R. Tolkein and so many other pipe-icons of days past.
But, he is no less compelling. Maybe this is why we see pipemaker Rad Davis already making and marketing his Devil Anse shape.
The mythology of the pipe smoker grows. And this time, the character is far more complex and not nearly so sympathetic.