History-based films always work the best when we can watch a particular story and relate to the characters, and then in our minds, just change a few things around, and all of a sudden, a movie set during a particular time period becomes very relevant to almost any era. This is what happens with Ron Maxwell’s Copperhead, a film so incredibly distanced from Gettysburg and Gods and Generals (both in content and style), in a sense that it takes the both-sides-are-right mentality and completely smashes it, instead, choosing to come right out and say that war is wrong, because no matter what side you are on, or what the result is, good people acting as mere pawns in a chess game for generals and politicians, will be killed and wounded regardless. The families and conflicts present in this movie could quite literally be anybody. Yes, they are dressed in 1860’s clothing and talk about far-gone politics, but switch a few items around, and the Beeches and Hagadorns (the two main families of this film) could be any, everyday people dealing with their children being sent off to fight in Vietnam, or perhaps more recent actions in the Middle East. It is a film that can reach out and touch us, bringing us into the history in a more intimate, down-to-earth way.
Copperhead does leave some to be desired, by way of certain actors needing more screen-time, and some characters who are not developed well-enough, but overall, this is a movie that people will be able to relate to and discuss, which is definitely very important for something so laden with politics. As has been said ad nauseum, this is nothing like Maxwell’s other Civil War movies, because the battleground is not of open fields and cannons, but of vitriolic politics, families divided, and homesteads being threatened by fire and rope. The civilian is an oft forgotten facet of all wars and their history, but thankfully this movie begins to show us that the men, women, and children far away from the battlefields were just as much warriors as the soldiers doing the fighting. All of this is helped along by the outstanding soundtrack by Laurent Eyquem, which contributes much to the feeling of the movie.
Billy Campbell (Abner Beech)
Being the last addition to the cast after filming already begun, as the main character, you go into the film not exactly knowing what to expect from Billy Campbell, but very quickly that thought will vanish from your mind as you witness this great performance, as the subdued, peaceful farmer Abner Beech, who wants the Civil War to end as quickly as possible, no matter what the end result. He is not as pro-Confederate as he is just anti-war. Should the north win and the Union be saved, fine. Should the south win and the Union gets destroyed, also fine. He just wants to be left alone and could care less about what is going on down south, because quite simply, he lives in upstate New York. This opinion will get him into trouble with his pro-war, Republican neighbors, as well as his indifferent view of slavery. He is not a supporter, but he does not condemn it either, citing a citizen’s “constitutional right” to own slaves. He says, “I’m no slaver, and I’ve never seen a slave”, when trying to explain why his views are the way they are. However, by the end of the film, he does experience a transformation, agreeing with his son that, “slaves are human too”, and should be treated equally. When you think about it, in this politically correct world, it would be very difficult for an actor to be able to get into this character because of his early views, but he does with sincerity. Fathers and sons will definitely be drawn to the scenes he has with his son, who is in love with his arch rival’s daughter, and wants to enlist in the Union army. Even with the few changes of heart he experiences, he still does not back down from being against the war, noting, “Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease”.
Angus Macfadyen (Jee Hagadorn)
I’m reticent to call Macfadyen’s character a villain, because that would be a term used in a typical Hollywood movie, and this story is anything but typical. He is the antagonist, though, despite the fact that his views are against slavery and for the saving of the Union. His opinions are never maniacal in themselves, it is just how he goes about pushing them on other people is where he becomes the film’s chief troublemaker. He is the complete opposite of his rival Abner Beech, and it is his daughter who Beech’s son wants to marry. His is a religious zealot who goes to extremes with all of his views, and does not seem to care one bit about the thousands of young soldiers dying in the war, so long as the Union is triumphant in the end. Macfadyen plays the character to perfection, and we can see the passion and fire in his eyes when he is speaking. He even provides a little bit of comic relief in the scenes with him rehearsing and singing hymns, as he wants so badly to sound good, but cannot find a way to hit the notes properly. By the end of the film, the viewer will find themselves wanting to see more of the character, because he scenes are so engrossing.
Peter Fonda (Avery)
In the few minutes that Fonda is on screen in his cameo as the village blacksmith, you can feel the legend emanating from the screen. His performance is not spectacular, and some may even see it as being completely pointless, but I think he does serve a purpose for being in the film. I was under the impression that his character was a sort of “wise man”, the one-of-a-kind person who has been there, done that, and always seems to know what is going on. The same could be said for his acting career, and while his father Henry appeared in a film as Abraham Lincoln in the 1930’s, Peter brings the family lineage full circle, with this appearance in a film that involves Lincoln’s politics. The Fonda clan also has a strong history with war and politics in modern times, which could be good or bad depending how you look at it.
The Love Story
I am no fan of love stories, and I have an even greater aversion to them when used in a historical film, but the one in Copperhead never goes over the top, nor does it detract from storyline. It sets the stage for the ultimate conflict and all the little ones in between, and then backs off, never prompting the audience to yell what I often do, “Okay, enough!” Lucy Boynton and Casey Brown play the love interests, Esther and Jeff, and cause stress for their fathers who hate each other and cannot fathom their children marrying one another. In their scenes together, the characters really look into it, and are very believable. What we have here is tasteful and gentle, and I only hope that more period dramas will follow the lead set here when wanting to include romance.
As I have said many times, there are many complex relationships in this film. The main conflict is between the Hagadorn’s and Beech’s, whose patriarchs despise one another. However, their children do not feel the same way towards each other, which obviously includes Esther and Jeff, but also Jimmy, played by Josh Cruddas who bursts onto the scene in a rather large role as Abner’s “adopted” son, and Augustus Prew as Esther’s goofy but caring brother Ni. The children from both families are friendly with one another and almost find it comical that their fathers hate each other so much. The other conflicts are located within the actual families, and people of all different ages will relate to the parent/child scenes and find common ground with at least one of the characters. Playing the strong-willed wife of Abner is the tender and loving Genevieve Steele, while Hugh Thompson is a close friend and farmhand named Hurley, who will never back down from a fight.
Use of Religion
Unlike Gods and Generals, the preaching in this movie is at the characters, not the audience (which is a bit refreshing), the church being an integral part of 19th century life, especially for a small farming community. Also unlike the previous film is a somewhat cynical view of religion, with a couple of biblical verses being used in a sarcastic way, such as when Abner Beech walks out on a provocative sermon delivered by Preacher Taggart, played by Brian Downey, saying to the priest very gloomily, “Blessed are the peacemakers. Is that still in the bible?” We get the same vibe at the end, when at a eulogy for the death of a central character, August Prew passionately goes into an anti-violence speech, asking several times, “What happened to ‘Love thy neighbor’?” To say the film is against religion would be untrue, but the characters causing the trouble and being un-Christianlike are the same people who you could refer to as religious extremists. Downey does a great job as the village preacher, inciting an anti-Confederate sentiment while delivering a sermon in which he names a different pro-south, antebellum politician for each of the seven heads of a demon. The final speech in the end, which condemns violence, is so effective, though, and people of all faiths, or lack of, will be able to relate and find inspiration in the suggestion that being neighborly and loving one another is more important that anything else.
This is not a “war movie”, and the characters are fictitious, but there is still plenty of valuable content here. I once referred to this as a “behind the scenes of the Civil War” movie, because it is a great compliment to films that do have battle scenes. This is an accurate depiction of what rural life was like during the war, where a community is split between political views in a very contentious time in our history. There are plenty of politics and references to constitutional law, the New York State governor’s election of 1862, and even the poor command and leadership of Union General George B. McClellan (pro-Union Hagadorn even calls him a “traitor”) and the army’s struggles. However, it never becomes too much to handle, and the pre-credits opening scene displays a map of the nation at war and explains who the Copperheads were. Plainly said, you do not have to be an expert or history buff to understand this movie. The complexity lies within the characters and their relationships, not the history at hand.
Copperhead is not a perfect movie, but it is definitely worthwhile for anyone who loves politics, debating, or history, because it is sure to spark lively discussion. Also, much like Gods and Generals, I do find it hard to see anyone besides history buffs thoroughly enjoying this movie. Although I mentioned earlier how you don’t have to love history to understand the movie, that is much different than getting enjoyment out of it. That is not necessarily a bad thing, though, because as an independent production, this becomes a niche movie, in that it will appeal to the people it aims to appeal, and anyone jumping on the bandwagon along the way is gravy. Still, I very much liked Copperhead and am very happy that the director had the guts to tackle a very unpopular if not ignored subject. My final rating will be an 8.5 out of 10.
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