Brother against brother is a frequent theme of Civil War literature, be it fiction, nonfiction, or in film. But that oft over used theme is a little too simplistic. The hard hand of war touched in some way everyone who lived through its fiery trial, whether in uniform or not; civilian or soldier, North or South, east or west. No one was left untouched. Not only did brother turn against brother, but also children against their parents, and neighbor against neighbor.
Neither is the theme of North vs. South, entirely correct. The battle lines of the war were not drawn strictly on a map. Within each warring section of the country were its dissenters. There were Southern Unionists in the Confederacy, and in the North, those who did not support the war were derisively labeled “Copperheads.”
There have been tens of thousands of books written about the Civil War, most are about the battles, many are biographies about the military and political leaders of the opposing sides, some have been memoirs, a few have taken on the epic task of condensing the war into a single volume, and still fewer cover the war on the home front and when they do most often they focus attention on the South. The war at home in the North is largely forgotten.
When it comes to film, nearly all films set during those cataclysmic years between 1861 and 1865 have at least one battle scene in them. The battlefield is often the scene of the dramatic conflict, and those back at home are briefly seen in montages clutching photographs of, or letters from, their men in uniform. Seldom is there a motion picture that focuses its subject solely on the Northern home front during the war. “Copperhead,” produced and directed by Ron Maxwell and written by Bill Kauffman does just that.
Adapted by Kauffman from Harold Frederic’s 1893 novel “The Copperhead,” the film is set in upstate New York in 1862. Its protagonist, Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), opposes the war, but is neither a Yankee nor a Rebel. He is a strict Constitutional constructionists and believes the Constitution does not empower the President with the ability to emancipate the slaves by proclamation. Things get infinitely more complicated for Abner when his son, Jeff, falls in love with Esther, the daughter of Abner’s abolitionist, scripture quoting antagonist, Jee Hagadorn (Angus MacFadyen).
The story takes an unexpected turn when Jeff (Casey Brown), against his father’s wishes, enlists in the Union army, while Hagadorn’s own son, Ni (August Prew), chooses not to enlist. The sins of their fathers are soon laid upon the children. Jeff is captured at the Battle of Antietam, and his fate is unknown to those at home. Seeing, but not believing, Abner’s ambivalence to his son’s fate, Ni sets off on his own journey South to find Jeff.
Tensions in the community mount as Hagadorn spreads a rumor that Abner is watering his milk and prompts local store owners to boycott of dairy products from the Beech’s farm. Adding tender upon the smoldering embers of distrust in the community, rumors also circulate of a conspiracy by the Copperheads to spread small pox. The Democrats sweeping victory in the State elections adds the spark to set the community aflame.
Esther (Lucy Boynton), no longer able to hold the warring factions apart, rushes to the Beech home to warn Abner and his family that a torch bearing mob lead by her father is on their way with intentions of burning them out. The fiery clash that follows deeply transforms those who survive it.
“Copperhead” is a cautionary tale warning us of the evils of demonizing those who hold views that differ from our own. Through the lens of this intimate story can be seen the consequences of our intolerance of political dissent, and hatred of those who believe differently than the community at large.
Through cinematic story telling Ron Maxwell shows us the validity of Abraham Lincoln famous quote “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” But the film, much like the Civil War itself, ends with a note of redemption and forgiveness as the community attempts to rebuild what has been destroyed.
Maxwell’s subtle direction allows the story to slowly build, as the tensions between Abner and the town’s residents slowly rise. The fact that never once does he cut away to a gratuitous battle scene is testament to his belief in the strength of the human story he presents.
Kauffman’s screenplay is as much about what remains unsaid as it is about what is said, the themes or tolerance, rebellion, forgiveness and rebirth run subtly from the beginning of his script to its end.
As the film’s composer, Laurent Eyquem, has given his gentle score an understated air of quietness and contemplativeness. It is intimate and pastoral and contrasts nicely with the escalating drama of the film.
The strength of “Copperhead” however lies in its performances. Billy Campbell’s portrayal of Abner’s steely resolve and smoldering resistance to the government’s prosecution of the war is a tour de force performance. Angus MacFadyen’s villainous performance as Hagadorn, however, is slightly over-the top and veers toward the melodramatic. Casey Brown gives an air of youthful innocence to Jeff before leaving for the war, and is transformed not only physically but also emotionally by his experience in the war. As Esther, Lucy Boynton, with both fragility and strength, is the emotional center of the film, as she is pulled back and forth between the ideologies of her own father and that of the man she hopes to be her future father-in-law. Augustus Prew’s transformation as Ni Hagadorn from a youthful innocent to the condemner provides the film’s moral authority. And two time Academy Award nominee, Peter Fonda, rounds out the cast as Avery, the Beech’s soft spoken neighbor who through rational debate with Abner articulates the Union counter point to Abner’s anti-war views.
Copperhead opens in theaters nationwide on June 28th, 2013.