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Can There Be Such a Thing as a Family Civil War Movie?

Created on 24 February 2013

family night 1Can you believe that there are actually people out there in this world who watch movies together as a family, and then sit and discuss them? I personally know of a few who do, and some who don’t, but probably would if there was something worth discussing. Just last spring, when I was teaching a course on World War II, I sent out notice that we would be watching parts of Schindler’s List after school. A few days later, a parent called me asking, “Could you please tell me what scenes you will be showing so I can discuss the film with my son when he gets home? It was such a powerful movie when I first saw it.” This actually made me very happy, to find out that there are people who watch films and talk about their meaning, or the effect they leave on the viewer. The Civil War is a surprisingly family-oriented subject, not just with the actual history of soldiers going off to war, and sometimes finding themselves on the battlefield fighting against good friends and even family members on occasion, but because of what the modern tradition of reenacting has done for “living” history. We see with many re-enactors, how it was the father who first got involved as a soldier, and then after a few years, the wife joined as a soldier’s companion or battlefield nurse, and later still, the small children getting involved with dressing up and becoming a drummer boy, or something along those lines. It must be assumed that these families watch Civil War movies together because they are all into the subject so much, but sometimes, that can be a difficult task.

Copperhead is a film that is going to change that, because it does not have to appeal to a very specific audience like Gettysburg and Gods and Generals did (and even smaller with the comparable 2004 film The Alamo, if you want to talk about historical epics) despite their overwhelming success after being released on home video. Whether you think they are good or bad, sitting through a four hour movie is a daunting task to some, especially children with a developing attention span, which is unfortunate given their value as battle studies and historical dramas. The Civil War is the most important event in our nation’s history, yet it seems it is a very unappealing subject in Hollywood, because not many films are made on it, and those that are, with few exceptions, are in and out of theaters in a hurry, without much time to succeed. Thankfully, the 150th anniversary of the war is helping to bring the topic’s stature to where it was in the late 80′s/early 90′s, when Glory, Ken Burns’s The Civil War, and Maxwell’s Gettysburg were released within four years of each other, and interest and reenacting numbers were at their height.

Even still, the Civil War in movies has become a tough topic for families to watch as a whole. The political complexity and dialogue of Lincoln limits it to more mature viewers, the violence and language in Glory and Ride with the Devil also make it difficult for younger viewers, while Cold Mountain was so deplorable and revoltingly bad that I would not even show it to the family dog. When talking to Ron Maxwell before the private screening of his latest film back in December, he told me, “I do not have cinematic ownership of the Civil War”, which is true, but it is his films that people of all ages, for the most part, can sit down to watch. There is nothing questionable in Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, except a necessary level of battle violence, which was watered down to retain a PG-13 or lower rating, thus allowing younger viewers to come to the theater, or making it possible for these movies to be shown in classrooms (something I have done, oh, six times now). Copperhead will fall in line with that, because it also will not be rated-R. While the MPAA’s assessment will not come for a while, the director is anticipating a PG or PG-13 rating. There is hardly any violence and only mild language, though I will wager that the film industry’s wonderful rating system will throw in some jargon along the lines of “and some thematic elements”. No doubt this rating was the intention of the director, because he wanted a film about families to be able to be watched together by families.

I know this firsthand, because when I was invited to the screening in December, I asked if my dad could come with me, which Ron allowed. When I got home that night and had to email him about something, he asked if my dad enjoyed the father/son scenes presented on screen. This let me know that he was truly curious about what the only father/son combination in the audience that afternoon had to say about the many family relationships, conflicts, etc, that made their way into this story.

Copperhead is a movie staged far away from the battlefields, and even as the characters are saying how the war has nothing to do with them, since they are located so far in the north, it takes them a while to realize that the war has indeed come to their community, by way of political disputes and infighting. The relationships between father and son, father and daughter, brothers, and neighbors will be easily relatable to everyone who has a pulse. Families will actually be able to watch this less-than two-hour movie as a whole, and maybe even talk about what they saw when it is over. For this reason, Copperhead has the potential to be the most far-reaching, encompassing people of all ages and backgrounds, who can find common ground with characters who lived over 150 years ago.