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Back in the saddle Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds reunite for an epic retelling of the Hatfield-McCoy feud

Kevin Costner started ?out as a corpse. That was his first major movie role.

It's amazing how often since then people wished it had been for real.

Costner began as the unseen member of the group of college friends in Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill." He was the one whose early, unforeseen death brought the others together for his funeral.

As I recall, all you saw were a pair of his boots.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. Costner had a few flashback scenes that would have interspersed him with everyone else, now sitting around mourning their youthful promise, idealism and vim. But they all wound up on the cutting room floor.

Kasdan admitted that's why he was in such a hurry to put Costner into his first Western, "Silverado." Nothing like a little old-fashioned guilt.

Three decades later, Kevin Costner is the most impressive figure we have who is keeping the American Western alive and vital. The newest evidence is the exceptional "Hatfields and McCoys," which begins its three-day run at 9 p.m. Monday on the History Channel – yes, the History Channel (in the words of the ancient burlesque joke, "everyone's gotta be someplace").

What happened to Costner after "Silverado" is one of the most curious major stardoms in American movies. The hits rolled. But it's extraordinary how naked and ugly has been the hostility inspired by a man who has made so many extraordinary movies.

People seem to go out of their way to get mean stories about him on the record – how when John Huston met with him and a film exec about possibly directing Costner in "Revenge," Huston reportedly said, "You've got to be effing kidding," rose from the table and walked out; how Madonna at the mere mention of his name in "Truth or Dare" pointedly stuck two fingers down her throat and pretended to gag.

And yet look at what he's done: starred in "Bull Durham," perhaps THE great American baseball movie; starred in and directed the Oscar winner "Dances With Wolves," starred in and been a prime mover for cable TV's "Open Range."

Believe me, I'll hold no brief for Kasdan's "Wyatt Earp" starring Costner or, certainly, for the rightfully reviled "Waterworld." (Though as with so many monstrously expensive film calamities, it's not quite as bad as its money-burning reputation. But then neither were Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "Cleopatra" with Liz Taylor, or Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" or Elaine May's "Ishtar." The ratio of money wasted to onscreen vileness endured by trapped audience members is usually about 10 to 1.)

But what no one can really forgive in Costner is what America is going to see glorious evidence of next week: his unswerving loyalty to the Western, as well as his insistence on keeping his Westerns epic-sized. Nor does it seem to make people happy that his ability to carry off something so extraordinary is so large. To some people, he's Mel Gibson without the psych ward politics and piety.

Well, heaven bless Kevin Costner, I say. On this Memorial Day, he and his old director pal and antagonist Kevin Reynolds ("Waterworld," "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves") have given us TV's best Western since David Milch's out-of-nowhere "Deadwood." And if "Hatfields and McCoys" reminds you a little of "Deadwood" in some of its writing and roots music soundtrack, it's not coincidental. Its chief writer was Ted Mann, an integral part of "Deadwood's" success as both writer and producer.

Obviously, the X-rated, Twain-cum-Shakespeare-and-Sesame Street syntax that Milch invented for "Deadwood" – as well as for other projects – isn't nearly as evident in "Hatfields and McCoys," but there are times when you'll detect a few of "Deadwood's" eloquent flavor in passing bits of dialogue.

What the series does, unquestionably, is put flesh and blood to American legends about the hillbillies whose names have come to symbolize all extreme feuds in America. There also is actual history mixed in with the long-form Western filmmaking.

No one is pretending that "Hatfields and McCoys" is unfailingly gripping throughout all six hours spread out over three nights. It has its longeurs.

But it's a hugely impressive achievement and one oddly creative way for TV to commemorate Memorial Day. What it does unmistakably is grow from hour to hour, night to night. It begins with the feud in almost semi-comic absurdity. Early on, it may stun you by paying serious, protracted attention to the drama and tragedy of one simple death in 19th century Appalachia.

As their tale of the epic feud rolls on, though, the body count rises sharply and the appalling degeneracy of it all progressively takes over. Human life, in fact, becomes very cheap. Bullets riddle bodies, ever-so-carefully entering them at the viciously slowed-down velocities of 19th century bullets rather than 20th or 21st century speeds.

By the third and final night, the horrors include the senseless murders of beautiful and thoroughly innocent children.

The depravity of the small-scale war between the Hatfields and the McCoys has sunk, by then, to an almost subhuman level.

It began – of course – with the Civil War. There was a dispute between two Confederate soldiers – "Devil Anse" Hatfield (Costner) and Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton) over what constitutes desertion and what may just be common-sense love of family.

Not long after, a McCoy who'd joined the Union cause is in the Hatfield precincts of West Virginia wearing his blue jacket in a bar. It's the only jacket he owns. When the most gun happy of the Hatfields (Tom Berenger as "Uncle Jim" Vance) gives him grief, he comes back with an overly pointed obscene crack about Vance's predilection for fornicating with his dog.

The fate of the two families is thus sealed for decades. From raillery comes wholesale atrocity.

There is enormously powerful Western film-making along the way here. On the second night, the three stupidest of the McCoy boys are put to death in the Hatfield precincts of West Virginia because they ruthlessly and pointlessly stabbed and shot one of the elder Hatfields. The whole sequence has some of the flavor of the classic Dana Andrews-Henry Fonda Western "The Ox-Bow Incident."

No blood feud, of course, can be explored without beautiful, blond, horny teens of both sex itching to mate somewhere and confront their elders with the most basic question, "All right, now what are you going to do about it?"

Before it's over, the states of Kentucky and West Virginia have gotten involved in the feud; it has traveled to the floor of the U.S. Senate and eventually all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

You've just going to have to forgive Costner his affection for the Epic, as well for making "Waterworld" the last time he and Kevin Reynolds hung out together.

What they've done on The History Channel is to give American television as powerful an indictment of nonsensical feuding violence as it's ever had – a rich and full TV epic whose stunning moments more than justify everything else.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

> Television Preview

"The Hatfields & McCoys"

Starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on The History Channel.