Created on 27 June 2013
After a map shows the relative positions of Virginia and New York, and the voice of a lad we'll come to know as Jimmy suggests what the Civil War, already a year old, will do to his home, we see six boys strolling down a green country lane. It's so idyllic, their exuberance, their all-so-different hats that each thinks makes him an individual, that you can't help thinking of Huck and Tom in Hannibal, though these boys are a shade older. Their discussion of the war is fanciful and childish. And yet they are the very age – and some will be the very boys – who will cause, and be victims of, the carnage that ravaged America in the War Between the States.
If you, like I, are a fan of writer-director Ron Maxwell's two Civil War epics, GETTYSBURG and GODS AND GENERALS, then COPPERHEAD is decidedly not the movie you would expect to conclude his war-between-the-states trilogy. And while Maxwell intends indeed to make it a trilogy – read my accompanying interview with Maxwell – this is not that film. Those films are about military officers, professional soldiers. This is a film about privates; at worst, about cannon fodder, the world and the homes and families that produced them. The war, in fact, is never seen, though it is a perpetual off-screen presence whose effects upon a remote community in upstate New York are the core of the story. Harold Frederic wrote the novel in 1893, basing it on the memories of his youth in Utica, New York, during the Civil War.
Because it is the parents who produce these lads, it is also the story of the title character, Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), a dairyman and lumberman who sides neither with the Union nor the Confederacy. While he has no love of slavery, he is more concerned that President Lincoln is ordering Americans to fight Americans, a demand he believes to be unconstitutional. For this, Abner Beech is labeled a 'copperhead,' the pejorative the anti-slavery Republicans used to describe Democrats who would rather negotiate a quick peace with seceding southern states than end slavery and preserve the Union. It is also the story of Jee Hagadom (Angus McFayden), a barrel-maker, crushed after the death of his wife, his life taking on new meaning with his abolitionist obsession.
But mostly it is the story of the callow youth, and most of us can see ourselves, to our chagrin, in either the ones who blindly parrot their parents' political beliefs without understanding them, or those who arbitrarily reject those beliefs as a sign of their independence. And some of us can see ourselves in both. Abner has a son, Jeff (Casey Brown) a bright and likable fellow, smitten with Hagadom's daughter, schoolmarm Esther (Lucy Boynton), and he maddens his father by spouting Hagadom's opinions. Abner suspects Hagadom is directly responsible for the growing hostility the community is showing to him, sabotaging his ability to make a living, so he's not open to his son's often sensible comments.
Esther is having things no easier – her father has told her it would kill him if she married Jeff. Her brother Ni (Augustus Prew), who has no wish to be a soldier, is crushed to be a disappointment to his father. Jeff's parents have raised an orphan, Jimmy (Josh Cruddas), nearly as a son, and he, too, is torn between loyalty to his adopted family, and his desire to think for himself.
Some looking for adventure, some to impress a girl, some in a fit of pique, the boys go off to war, and Abner and his family are not only minus a son, but soon become the stand-in victims of a populace that wants to get their hands on their Southern enemies, but cannot. The rising level of abuse and cruelty, inevitably reaching its brutal, destructive crescendo, is as upsetting as it is familiar, because times may change, but human nature does not.
All of the international cast is strong, but worthy of particular note is Peter Fonda, in a low-key performance as the blacksmith, sounding board for Abner and others, who has strong opinions, but a rarely encountered open mind as well. COPPERHEAD is about the effects of war, and the people who fight wars, but it is not about war itself. You won't get that rush of thrill and terror, because the battles never reach the screen, since they don't reach the town, though the often shattered remnants of the war do come back. COPPERHEAD is a thoughtful, well-made, involving film that raises difficult issues without presenting facile conclusions. There is much food for discussion here. My one criticism is that the tone is at times overbearingly solemn, in a way that, combined with a sometimes perfect but sometimes somber score, grinds all action to a halt. A house-fire that promises some excitement is drawn into slow-motion at a time when you desperately want things speeded up. But for all the darkness, it is a hopeful, inspiring story that will transport you to a world you've only read or dreamed about, populated by people you know all too well.