The Artistic Angle of Ron Maxwell’s “Copperhead”

I would just like to start off this post with an announcement, to tell you all that the official website for Copperhead: The War at Home will be experiencing a complete redesign and upgrade in the coming days. This post below was going to be my latest write-up, and since I don’t know if I will be able to post it immediately, I wanted to share it here, and also because I have not written anything on the film for this blog in quite some time, after moving official coverage over there. Please enjoy!

When you think of directors paying tribute to past artists in their films, what immediately comes to mind? For me, it would be an instance in a horror movie, where, when someone is getting killed, or if something frightening is happening, you hear music that is eerily similar to what Alfred Hitchcock used in Psycho, during the infamous shower scene. How about paying tribute to an older actor or actress, who experienced some greatness earlier in their career, but is now getting on in years? In The Night of the Hunter (1955), director Charles Laughton, an ardent admirer of D.W Griffith and his many castings of actress Lillian Gish, led him to multiple close-ups of the elder actress’s face in the only film he ever directed, to reflect some of her past glory as a superstar of the silent era and also his admiration, though she was not as familiar with what was the present-day audience. As yet another example, in 1957, for the filming of his epic meditation on man, fate, life, and death, Ingmar Bergman used medieval religious paintings and ballads as the basis for his setting and haunting cinematography of The Seventh Seal.

While today, the popular term for items hidden in plain sight in certain scenes is “Easter Eggs”, for true enthusiasts of film, these can be considered an homage, and many regard paying such tribute as the highest honor a director can bestow on someone, because they are using valuable screen time in their vision of something. For Ron Maxwell’s Copperhead: The War at Home, several instances of homage can be seen if you look very closely. One recognized by film fans will be of Peter Fonda, in the role of Avery, striking an identical pose to one his father Henry gave in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), as he played our sixteenth president in his younger days. 73 years later, his son is playing a character in a small New York town in the middle of the American Civil War, with Lincoln as president, in a story of a community tearing at the core as young men are being pulled off to fight in a war on battlefields that could just as well be on the other side of the world.

 The other influence that the film will reflect is in the scenery and depiction of human life. Co-producer John Houston has already told us, in one of the earlier production videos, that the artist Pieter Brueghal came to mind when staging the various scenes involving townspeople and farmers, because he was famous for his depictions of peasant and civilian life. However, the most direct homage here will be to the famous Dutch painter Jan Vermeer, whose gentle paintings of normal people in everyday scenes have long captured the eye of onlookers. As you can see below, a shot of Esther (Lucy Boynton) pouring milk in the kitchen is nearly identical to Vermeer’s “The Maidservant Pouring Milk”.

 The reason why this latter tribute is so important is because it must be known that this is really not a film about war; its primary focus is on the people, and how they bear the brunt of the effects that war brings, though hundreds of miles from the battlefields. Very rarely do movies choose to focus on this angle, because it is not black-and-white like war is–it is much more complex than simply fighting and dying, because these people are doing the living. Sometimes we forget what was actually going on back home, and this film will serve as that reminder.

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