After directing two epic Civil War films in Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, Ron Maxwell with Copperhead narrows his focus to a small community in upstate New York but delivers a film as tense and combustible as any of his battle films.
Abner Beech (Billy Campbell, The Rocketeer) loves his town, loves the Union, hates slavery, but is dead set against going to war with his Southern brothers. That sets him at odds with almost everyone in this close-knit community, some of whom, to put it mildly, passionately despise the Southern states.
Take, for instance, the unfortunate son of Mr. Beech, who sets his romantic sights on a local schoolteacher who won’t allow him to court her unless he starts going by Tom instead of Jeff because, well, Jefferson Davis is the president of the Confederacy and that association would just be too much for her. And she is the temperate one in the family.
Her father Jee, as portrayed by Angus Macfayden, abhors slavery and its practitioners with such rabidity that he comes across as more of an exaggerated abolitionist archetype than a fleshed-out human being. Several other supporting characters, notably Avery (Peter Fonda), serve as not much more than mouthpieces for historical arguments or other one-dimensional functions.
Playing the titular copperhead, though, Campbell delivers a masterfully affecting performance, conveying as much with his eyes in introspective moments as he does with his voice when he finds himself compelled to challenge his neighbors.
Maxwell offers up an illuminating piece of PG-13 historical fiction that will appeal to history buffs and those curious to learn more about a relatively unknown dynamic in American history but that falls short of realizing its dramatic potential.
In his first two civil war films (Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, based on the first two books of the Jeff and Michael Shaara Civil War trilogy), Ron Maxwell focused on why good, ethical men choose to go to war. With Copperhead, based on an 1893 novel by Harold Frederic, he wanted to ask, “Why do good, ethical, moral men choose not to go to war?”
According to Maxwell, “this book is an exploration of dissent in the North.” People who disliked Northern dissenters “gave them this name, copperhead, which was the name of a Southern snake that will definitely kill you if it gives you a good bite. This anti-war movement, they called themselves Peace Democrats, and then later on in the war, some of them accepted the name [copperhead] as a badge of honor. The copperhead in the movie is just a farmer who happens to be a Constitutionalist and a Democrat. He doesn’t believe in slavery. He thinks it should be abolished. He believes in the Union, but he doesn’t think war is the answer.”
Considering how righteous dissent is so respected in our culture, Maxwell says he thought it would be fascinating to examine a case where “the dissenter is not justified by history. He stood up against the Republican party, which was waging war against the South to save the Union and to emancipate the slaves. How much do you really believe in dissent when the dissenter has not been vindicated by history? It’s a more provocative kind of question, and it also raises the question of how universally and not just in 1862 in upstate New York but how easily we dehumanize people with whom we disagree.”
If Copperhead proves successful enough at the box office, Maxwell believes he may finally be able to direct The Last Full Measure, the last story in the Shaara Civil War trilogy. “So much time has gone by that now we’ll have to do a completely different cast, regrettably. The actors are so wonderful, but now they’re just too old. I can get away with being too old,” he muses, “but they can’t.” —M.L.